As we approach the (4th of July) holiday weekend, a time of thankfulness of freedoms for all citizens of this country, I am concerned that freedom does not mean the same thing for everyone.
On Friday, June 26, we had a conflict in our Rogersville community that I would like to address.
A local historian and other devoted citizens, planned a small, peaceful gathering (expecting no more than 15 people), in Swift Park for a conversation. They planned it for Swift Park to keep everyone at a safe distance; because of COVID-19. The organizers notified Mayor Sells, Police Chief Nelson, and some Commissioners that this was NOT a demonstration, NOT a march, it was a peaceful gathering. Everything was positively received. The group believed it was the right time for our Black and White citizens to find ways to strengthen our community.
Jess and I were going to go, and let the boys run around during it. The purpose was to hear the stories of African Americans who grew up in Rogersville, some of whose families had been here for generations. Jess is a huge history buff, and she and this historian had talked often since we moved here about Rogersville history, so were we invited.
Somehow a rumor got started, driven by the My_Rogersville Facebook group, that this was a Black Lives Matter protest and people were being bussed in from Johnson City, to march downtown and around the eternal flame at the War Veterans Memorial. Rather than seek facts, members of the Rogersville community began threatening violence, including statements like
“I’ll be there, locked and loaded”, “We can shoot them, right?”, and, “We should just go down there and get the police to push them back on the bus”.
After seeing these comments, we decided that I would go and Jess would stay home with the boys, because of the threats of violence of people sitting down for a conversation about race.
This was not a protest. This was a conversation. Because of the COVID-19 regulations about gathering in groups and that most who were to attend are in the high risk group due to their age, it was going to be held outside. The group sought a permit just to make sure they acting within the rules. These folks are not outsiders, they were not bused in, they are members of our community.
Due to the threats of violence, the police asked that the event be postponed, and it was. Rogersville Police confirmed that the rumors were a hoax. Yet, knowing the truth, hundreds of people still gathered downtown, protecting the memorial and flame and protesting against a nonexistent threat.
I walked downtown that evening, and heard people bragging about driving people out of town. One person in particular, that I have on video, bragged about seeing a car with out of state license plates park and the people walked towards the Hale Springs Inn. The man was bragging about harassing the people until they got in their car and left, even indicating that the police turned their backs. I did not see the interaction, so I can only attest to what I overheard. People on Facebook were making claims of having done the same thing. The people with out of state tags were tourists, coming to spend money at our local businesses, businesses that need the revenue.
On the My_Rogersville Facebook page, there were many comments about “don’t bring this to our peaceful community”, but followed the statement with the threats of violence! How can we claim this is a peaceful community? If you were one of the people threatening to shoot up this event, know that the people you were threatening were me, my wife, and my two young children.
I am sorry folks. This is not about being a conservative nor a liberal. This is not about supporting one group and not another. This is simply about naming reality. I cannot call myself a United Methodist Minister … not a United Methodist … not a Christian … and not call this for what it is. It is simply wrong! If we proclaim to be a place of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, we must live out that calling. If we proclaim that this country is the land of the free and the home of the brave, should it not apply to all citizens?
So I ask you, if you heard about this event, what did you believe and why did you believe it? There was a comment that those gathering should have let the whole county know what they were doing. Why? Why must a small time of sharing the stories of our African Americans neighbors be broadcast and approved by the whole community?
Our hearts are with the organizers of this event and especially with those who were going to tell their stories, but were silenced with threats of violence. That is the definition of racism. It is time for this country and this community to have real conversations with diverse people. Time to listen more than we talk. Please, have those conversations. Talk to your friends and neighbors and everyone else and ask why this happened? Why is it so easy to create a race-based threat? Why are we so afraid to allow the stories of our African American brothers and sisters be told? Why must we continue to drive apart our community rather than bring it together?
I was born and raised in Celina, Tennessee. I am a southern boy. I love my biscuits and gravy. I hunt deer and elk with a bow. I graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in agriculture and cheer for the Vols in good times and bad. I am saddened and I am angered by the continued harm that we in a mob are doing to our brothers and sisters in Christ because of fear; threatening violence because we are afraid; and silencing stories that deserve to be told.
Rev. Loren A. Boyce
Rev. Jessica Boyce