Photo credit: Tim Preston, Carter County Post
Other than a few years away for college, I’ve lived all of my 50+ years in Grayson, KY. Grew up riding bicycles and skateboards on its streets and sidewalks. Played basketball in every gym and baseball on every patch of dirt that passed as a baseball field. Raised four kids here. Coached more basketball games than I can count. Spent 30+ years dealing with the public at my family’s business.
I’m well aware of Grayson’s warts, problems, and shortcomings. Every town, large or small, has their share. But I’m so thankful that this is the place that I grew up and still call home And I’m thankful that this is the place where my wife and I have raised our kids.
This is my town. I know my town. These are my people. I know my people. And I love my people. And that’s why I plan to be here until the day I die.
Our little almost exclusively white town just endured an eventful weekend. I guess you’d call it a Black Lives Matter protest/march. The organizer, that we’ll call Dee (because that really is his name) posted a number of excessively long videos in the days leading up to the march. I can’t say that I was able to make it very far into any of the videos, but I couldn’t really get any kind of feel for what he was hoping to achieve with his planned protest. “Because racism” would seem to be the reason on the surface.
But I can tell you why I think it escalated from street corner protests into a full-fledged one day total disruption of small town life. Maybe it was a bit of male ego and bravado? Yes, Dee does seem to enjoy calling attention to himself. But sometimes the attention we demand doesn’t turn out to be the kind of attention that we crave.
In the days after George Floyd’s death, I noticed Dee leading a protest/rally on a street corner at Grayson’s busiest intersection. He seemed to have a fair amount of support and a decent amount of people standing alongside him. But then something changed abruptly. The crowds and the support dwindled. Why? Because his criminal past became public knowledge. The online comments and exchanged became harsh. The passers by in cars no longer honked and waved, but instead taunted him about his past and added racial insults that may have been withheld before.
At this point, any message of racial reconciliation become lost in the now muddied water. The message had simply become self defense. He was no longer the right messenger for whatever message he was trying to get across. And the crazy thing to me, the thing that sabotaged his efforts was that he wasn’t asking for grace. He was publicly demanding it (by his actions, not by his words).
God’s grace is freely given to those who repent of their sins and accept Jesus as their savior, acknowledging his death on the cross to pay the price for our sins and his resurrection giving us victory over death.
But human grace doesn’t work that way. We can’t simply demand grace of others. We can show remorse and humbly ask for it. But we can’t stand on a street corner and basically demand that others forget about our past.
People weren’t willing to ignore or forget the things that Dee really wanted them to overlook. The opposition grew. The taunts. The veil threats going in all directions. The wild rumors. The planned march/protest was swirling with talk of who all was going to show up heavily armed, in both support of, and in opposition to the planned “peaceful protest”.
But here’s the thing about peaceful protests. The organizers of a protest don’t have the power to determine whether or not a protest remains peaceful. Every peaceful protest doesn’t become a riot. But most riots actually do begin as peaceful protests.
I’ve seen citizens and business owners of our town mocked for what was called an overreaction to the upcoming protest. Car dealers relocated their inventory, citizens showed up heavily armed, business owners hid out in their businesses with intentions of protecting their property and life’s work by whatever means necessary. My family? We boarded up our store front before going home Saturday evening.
“Everybody is that scared of a single black man holding a peaceful protest? It might be because you’re racist.”
No. Some of us remember how many people poured into our town during the Kim Davis rally at the Carter County Jail fiasco five years ago (a rally centered around a Rowan County clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages). Thousands of people poured into our little town to show their support or opposition to the events unfolding around her case. Not a violent or heavily armed crowd in that case, but still there was anger in those crowds. It was surreal to witness our town fill up so fast with people from all over the country.
Things are different now. People are pre-angered. Going through their days on edge, with a constant and heightened sense of frustration. Ever present complications and uncertainties surrounding a pandemic. Months of constant bombardment with news propaganda that served no purpose other than stoking racial tensions.
As the days leading up to the protest played out, one thing became clear; it seemed certain that a lot of angry and armed people would fill our town on Sunday. I checked out the Facebook profiles of people Dee had tagged in his organizing posts. Two were preaching type guys but one man’s profile made it clear that he was all about two things only: 1) BLM and 2) F___ the police. Anti-police sentiment doesn’t fly with me and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t sit well with most people of Carter County.
Dee posted a lot of videos that were basically too long for any human to sit through. But there were mentions of the possibility of the NFAC showing up (a black militia group). In response, there was talk of other militia groups showing up in opposition. There was even talk of someone in our community reaching out to the Klan.
So after hearing the hate-filled angry and threatening words of an NFAC member at a protest in Louisville on Saturday, I went to bed that night praying that no one would die in Grayson’s streets on Sunday. Outside agitators and mob mentality create dangerous situations and those situations have been playing out across our country lately.
I don’t do hysteria. But there were enough wildcards at play that a lot of our town was genuinely concerned about the potential for violence and property damage. There has been a fair amount of silent anger toward Dee by people who simply want to be left alone and not have risk dumped on their lives and their town.
So why did this recipe need to be cooked up for Grayson, KY? It didn’t. Dee may have had good intentions, but those intentions reached a point where they stood zero chance of bringing about favorable results. He didn’t change the hearts or expose the nature of a racist town. He bulled forward with words and actions that ensured racist actors would show up from surrounding counties to provide opposition to him. And the way it played out, it wasn’t an indictment on the character of the town of Grayson. Instead, it was just a sad series of events that would have played out the same way in any city in Kentucky, and possibly the whole country. It was simply an open invitation for agitated people to show up and become even more agitated.
I stayed home on Sunday. I could stay home because I have a lot of trust in the first responders of our city, county, and state. I’m thankful for them. And I could stay home because I know that a lot of good citizens showed up to protect what is ours. I’ve been told that “rioting is the voice of the oppressed”, but that’s usually spoken by people who have never earned anything worth protecting. I’m thankful for those who showed up to protect our town from potential harm.
Sunday afternoon, I watched some of the events unfold on a Facebook Live feed. It was about what I expected. Thankfully it didn’t turn violent and property wasn’t destroyed. But it was terribly sad to witness. The anger in the air. A man trying to convey a message who didn’t really have any kind of clear message. There were constant taunts. There were racial slurs. And there seemed to be a whole lot of Dee and others left defending his criminal past. Knowing the people of Grayson pretty well, I got the impression that our locals showed up to grill him about his criminal record and argue with him over black lives matter vs all lives matter. And the majority of the racial slurs were hurled from out of town agitators……..that’s the very thing they showed up to do.
It was just sad. Hard to watch. As I went to bed Sunday night, I had this twinge of regret as the scenes of the day played over in my head. As Dee had stood in our streets being taunted, I found myself just wanting to see someone from our town with some level of respect or authority simply stand alongside Dee and say, “I may disagree with what you’re doing and saying, but I want people to treat you with human decency”. Dee dug the hole that he was standing in. But it hurt me to see people piling the dirt on top of him. I could have (maybe should have) been that person to turn the tone of an angry mob.
There were over 7,000 people watching that same Facebook feed that I was watching. And I can guarantee that a good portion of those were Carter Countians that felt the same sadness and concern that I felt. And that is the true character of our town.
To judge Grayson as some sort of backwards racist town to be ashamed of because of Sunday’s events might be about the same thing as basing your opinion on what you might have read on the Grayson Topix page a few years back. That’s not who we are. So if you haven’t lived here for a while you might want to sit this one out. And if you’re young and outraged and feel ashamed, I can appreciate your passionate stance against racism. But at the same time, you might want to consider seeking a little better understanding of the people who truly make Grayson what it is and extending a little grace to your hometown.
And Dee, you’ve brought a fight to Grayson in a manner that has zero chance of producing any positive outcomes. It’s a fight that we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. It serves no purpose other than directing attention to Dee. It’s brought division to our people. If you dislike this place, then don’t stick around. If you want to stick around and raise a family here, just cool it. You’re doing nothing to combat racism. You’re mostly just losing any chance of making allies out of the people who stand the greatest chance of extending you the most grace. Dragging a whole town into an empty pursuit only serves to wear out your welcome here really fast. So please stop digging holes.
You want grace? Humbly ask for it. You want to change racist hearts? Don’t do it with protest signs and bullhorns. Do it with relationships and by patiently earning the respect of others just like others before you have done in this town. You want attention? There are better ways of doing it than by disrupting the lives and livelihoods of people just trying to earn a living and navigate difficult times. Want to be heard? Then start listening……to wise council. Otherwise, you might be on your own. And on your own isn’t a good place to be.
Stop with the protests. Grayson isn’t your enemy. But you’re making it awfully tough to be your ally. As Governor Beshear says, “Stay home”.