'This fight continues': Black organizers reflect on a year of progress and pain in Frederick

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Jun. 15—It's been a little more than a year since Amiyah Spencer stood in the Baker Park bandshell, crying as she watched the rain-soaked marchers pour in.

She was a sophomore in high school then, and — along with a handful of other young Black activists — she'd thrown the first Frederick March for Justice together in a matter of days. Consumed with grief and rage after the murder of George Floyd, she'd expected a decent turnout.

But Spencer didn't realize just how many thousands of people had shown up to follow her through the streets of downtown until she reached the end of the route. And it was overwhelming.

"It showed that we weren't alone," she recalled.

For Black organizers across the county, the 12 months since that gray June afternoon have been a turbulent swirl of emotion, swinging from hope to anguish and back again. They can identify nuggets of positive change — talking about racism at work or in school is a little easier than it once was, some said, and more people and businesses are taking first steps toward addressing their biases.

Yet despite the progress, a common refrain permeated their reflections: The work is far from finished.

"I still see — clear as day — systematic racism. I still see economic disparity," said Aje Hill, founder of the local youth development nonprofit I Believe in Me. "I'm not letting anyone off the hook."

From Black business collectives to food distribution programs to trauma support for kids of color, the activists' efforts continue, even as the general public's presence at rallies has dwindled since last summer's boom. Their efforts are exhausting, many activists said, and often painful.

But they're refusing to stop.

"This fight continues," Spencer said. "This isn't something that's resolved overnight."

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Across Frederick County — largely rural, historically conservative and more than 80 percent white — "there's been a lot more dialogue" this year about the issues of race and equity than Shana Knight can ever remember.

In the wake of Floyd's murder, Knight rallied together a handful of Black community leaders and entrepreneurs. Together, they started Soul Street, a collective aimed at empowering Black-owned businesses.

Knight — who has lived in Frederick since she was a middle-schooler — wanted the county's Black children to see people who looked like them "be bosses," she said. And with the spotlight on racism in America, she figured the community would be receptive to the efforts.

But she didn't quite anticipate the depth of the support they'd receive. For the first pop-up market Soul Street hosted on July 4, 2020, featuring Black-owned vendors and small businesses, scores of people lined up around Sky Stage. They braved 100-degree heat, and they were patient with stringent coronavirus restrictions.

Subsequent Soul Street markets have seen equally impressive turnout, Knight added.

"It makes us feel better about the situation," she said. "It's one of the things that has given me a lot of hope over this last year that we're somewhat moving in the right direction."

The events of the past year have brought about difficult, honest conversations about racism, Knight said — and they're becoming more common at work, at school and among friends.

For Spencer, the difference is evident in her classes at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School. She's long been seen as a "loud-mouth, only-wants-to-talk-politics kind of girl," she said, and since grade school she's been learning from a Black grandmother who grew up in South Carolina in the early 1960s.

Now, Spencer feels like her classmates and community are starting to catch up.

"Over the last year, people have been forced to see exactly what I've always been talking about," she said. "I've had people — even a lot of my white peers — confront a lot of biases that their families and their parents and uncles and aunts have had."

Still, Hill, of I Believe in Me, characterized what he's seen as "small changes" — subtle shifts in behavior and perception and an increased willingness to participate in inherently uncomfortable discussions.

And "understanding and listening is just the beginning of the race," he said.

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Frederick March for Justice was hastily formed last year, born out of a group chat filled with equal parts anger and energy. Organizers planned the demonstration in five frenzied days. When it was over, they took a week to relax and reflect.

Then, they started planning for the next one.

A year later, they've morphed from a spur-of-the-moment coalition into an organized group with regular meetings and specialized commissions. They've met with city and county officials and law enforcement officers, and they're pursuing a host of changes, from education to police reform to diversifying hiring in county government.

"There's definitely more that needs to be done, and that can be done," said March for Justice leader Akiyyah Billups. "We need elected officials, people in positions of power and leadership, to definitely take the reins to make sure that impact continues, that the momentum continues."

The list of changes Frederick's Black organizers want to see is long and wide in scope. Among other efforts, Billups said, she's working on improving the community's relationship with the police and hoping to collaborate with the Frederick Police Department's newly formed Multicultural Liaison Unit.

For Hill, a lack of youth support centers is one of the county's biggest unmet needs. Growing up, he said, he had access to such places, and they served as a valuable haven for struggling kids.

"If you ride around Frederick County on a Friday night at 9 o'clock, tell me a building that's open where these kids can go and feel safe, and feel loved, and have nutrition and laughter," he said. "Nowhere."

He's also fighting for more affordable housing in the area, which he said would make the city more accessible to people of color.

Knight, meanwhile, said she focuses on businesses' day-to-day treatment of Black employees.

"If you go to any website for a company or an organization, you'll see a [diversity] statement," she said. "But you want to look beyond that — what are they doing beyond just posting the statement? ... Are they practicing what they're preaching?"

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Kristen Lundy was heartened by the droves of demonstrators who turned up at marches across Frederick last summer. But the memory makes it all the more frustrating to see less than 30 show up for similar events now.

As the intensity of public outrage over Floyd's death slowly faded — and as graphic videos of Black people dying gradually disappeared from social media timelines — Lundy, co-founder of the advocacy group Frederick United, said attendance at events she planned dwindled, too.

"When we weren't watching the killings happening on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, all over the news — and it wasn't a fad to support Black Lives Matter — allies kind of fell back a little bit," she said.

But there's a dedicated group of community members whose engagement never wavered, Lundy said. And while she takes solace in the relationships she's formed with them, she said, they're all suffering the effects of exhaustion.

That's something Billups sees first-hand. She's become something of a shepherd for the middle school, high school and college students she oversees.

"We're a family now," she said.

When the kids are having a tough time, she said, they come to her house. She's become the de-facto college recommendation writer. And she tries to protect their mental health, even as she encourages them to recount painful experiences of racism and bias in their fight for change.

"We live these experiences daily," she said. "And then fighting for justice daily, standing up, being a voice — it's very emotionally and psychologically taxing."

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On a recent sunny Saturday, Spencer stood in front of a crowd gathered at Mullinix Park, once again holding back tears after finishing a March for Justice.

The group was much smaller at this year's event. But this time, Spencer was watching Mayor Michael O'Connor read a proclamation honoring her work and establishing an annual March for Justice Day in Frederick. Michael Hughes — the county's equity and inclusion officer — did the same for the county.

A transplant from upstate New York, Spencer recalls her first impression of Frederick County. It seemed like a quiet, country place, she said — the kind of place where people avoided uncomfortable conversations at all costs.

Until last year, she said, that perception largely stayed intact.

"I hadn't really believed that this was something that a town like Frederick could get involved in," she said. "I had always felt like it was a long shot."

Two Saturdays ago, though, she grinned proudly from beneath a pavilion, standing arm-in-arm with Billups and other March for Justice volunteers. She looked out at her mayor and at her neighbors.

"What we're doing won't be forgotten," she said.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

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