By Grace Snell, Viking Fusion Reporter
During a summer of political and social tension, Berry community members joined protests in Rome and beyond to draw attention to racial injustice in America, each drawn by different motivations to unique events across the state.
For sophomore Brenden Smothers, an engineering major, police brutality was a core issue he hoped to address through his protests.
“…[A]t the end of the day I just want things to change,” Smothers said in a message to Viking Fusion. “Police brutality shouldn’t be a thing. You don’t need to load a man full of bullets to subdue him, and you most certainly do not need to put your knee on a man’s neck for 8-9 minutes to subdue him.”
In his message, Smothers references the death of George Floyd, an event that also sparked sophomore Macilah Taylor’s desire to protest in Rome. Taylor is no stranger to addressing issues of race in the Berry and Rome community. She is one of two co-chairs for Solidarity Week, a week-long event held annually at Berry to raise awareness of the college’s diverse student body.
One of the events Taylor attended with other students was hosted by Rome resident and protest organizer Candice Spivey. There, protesters stood with handmade signs in downtown Rome, determined to be there in person despite the need to wear masks and socially distance due to COVID-19.
“It was a healing thing for us to go and be part of the movement physically, rather than just speaking out about it,” Taylor said.
Sophomore Macilah Taylor was one of many Berry students who protested against racial injustice over the summer. In this interview, she discusses what motivated her to protest, what it was like to protest in Rome, some of the concerns she had when protesting, and how she hopes the events of the summer will lead to change on Berry’s campus.
COVID-19 was only one of several risks that came with protesting, however. Berry student Peyton Isbell joined Taylor in expressing concern that white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan might make an appearance at these events, as the KKK and similar groups are active in the area. While protestors did face some negative reactions from onlookers, Smothers said that most community members expressed support.
Students were not the only Berry community members to take part in these events. Dr. Brian Carroll, chair of the communication department at Berry, attended a Black Lives Matter walk along with his wife, Hisayo Carroll. At this event, the Carrolls joined community members in walking from North Rome Church of God down to the Town Green.
“I know walking from a church parking lot across town onto the Town Green isn’t going to change the world,” Carroll said. “But it’s something. And we need a lot of somethings to address the cultivated ignorance of white supremacy and to sustain a reasonable conversation about structural racism and prejudiced systems that treat black bodies as the enemy.”
Events did not only take place in town. Back on campus, Taylor decided to start a candlelight vigil for Berry students and faculty to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She began to host this weekly event alongside her fellow Solidarity Week co-chair, Julia Churchill, shortly after the death of George Floyd in May. These Black Lives Matter vigils took place on Sunday evenings and started as a small gathering, with Taylor and Churchill buying candles with their own money for a group of 20 people.
Other students, such as sophomore Peyton Isbell, protested in even more spontaneous ways. Isbell says she initially planned to protest in Atlanta, but decided against it due to her family’s concerns for her safety. However, when Isbell learned about a protest in Rome on June 2, she knew she could participate but had to act quickly, abandoning her dinner to make it to the event on time.
Although Solidarity Week’s Black Lives Matter vigils began as an unplanned gathering, they have since become a regular occasion on Berry’s campus and have seen increased attendance. Taylor hopes to make the vigils part of an ongoing discussion about race at Berry, and plans to hold the next vigil as the final event for Solidarity Week this September, and to continue the event monthly for the foreseeable future.
Despite the challenges COVID-19 adds to the event-planning process, Taylor said she is still excited for what this year’s Solidarity Week will look like.
“Despite the pandemic, I think I’m even more motivated for what we can do with Solidarity Week, I think I’m even more excited. I think COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed a lot of…people’s hatred or selfishness, for lack of a better word,” Taylor said. “I’m sad all this stuff is going on, but it’s given us a new perspective and a new mission.”
Going forward, Taylor hopes to see more awareness on Berry’s campus and fewer students being fearful of uncomfortable conversations about racial and social issues. Brenden Smothers agreed with her hope for change.
“Why do most people protest?” Smothers said. “They want their voices to be heard and they want change.”
To learn more about groups on campus that participated in protests over the summer, and to see how they will continue to protest in the future, read this week’s issue of the Campus Carrier, available around campus or on our site here.