Josh Bergeron: Will Salisbury, Rowan make this into a transformational moment?

Published 12:15 am Sunday, June 7, 2020

Both were moments no one in Salisbury will soon forget— shots fired into the air in close proximity to dozens of people during a peaceful protest downtown and police using tear gas and riot gear to disperse protesters.

They are images people — advocates and policymakers — in Salisbury will consider as they debate what comes next: gun smoke in the air above the fleeing protesters, people spilling onto Innes Street as protesters tried to confront the man who fired the shots and as others tried to prevent things from escalating as well as a crowd of people marching to the intersection of Innes and Arlington streets while a Highway Patrol helicopter hovered overhead.

But that’s just one scene. A second one followed the next day.

When I stood on the corner of Council and Church streets late Monday night, I watched as police in riot gear marched in formation to the intersection; as a shoving match began down the line of police; as water bottles were hurled at police; as Deputy Police Chief Shon Barnes shouted, “Leave, this is an unlawful assembly;” as a police officer tossed a canister of tear gas toward the crowd, quickly dispersing it; and as police formed a line in front of “Fame” and protesters formed their own in front of police.

Susan Shinn Turner, a frequent contributor to the Post, pointed out to me the photo I captured of the scene — police in riot gear in front of “Fame” — also pictured one of St. John’s Lutheran Church’s stained glass windows lit by a light from inside. That window shows Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“God help us,” she said.

This is a moment when Salisbury and Rowan County can show that it’s more than a collection of people living within a municipal or political boundary. It’s after moments like Sunday and Monday when communities and their leaders show who they truly are. Will we learn from the experiences of others? Will everyday people — those who don’t lead an organization or serve in elected office — truly listen to and read the opinions of those with whom they disagree or their life experiences are vastly different?

The Salisbury City Council will see its fair share of work. There will be more meetings like Tuesday’s in which council members had an emotional, heated discussion.

“We got statements tonight about the preservation of lives and the value of black and brown people in this city,” said Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins. “And I think the least we can do as a council, if we truly represent everybody in this city, is to say ‘We hear you.’ And not just move on like nothing has been said to us tonight.”

The most important task in front of Salisbury and Rowan County, though, is one that extends far outside of City Hall and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners chambers.

And it’s an extraordinarily large challenge. The mediums through which people interact are most often social media, particularly with gathering restrictions in place because of COVID-19. It’s no secret that people have chosen to pay for information with their privacy and increasingly opted for Facebook or social media — where false and misleading information flourish — as their primary sources of news. People create their own echo chambers and stay in them. Often, those chambers amplify political opinions, but issues of race and equality receive the same treatment.

For Salisbury and Rowan County to make this a transformational moment, one where the community unites itself rather than splintering further apart, there must be a common conversation about the much different life experiences of our black and brown neighbors, friends, acquaintances and strangers. People, including me, must be willing to help, willing to apologize when they make mistakes and, most critically, willing to listen and accept new ideas.

On Friday, I returned to the scene where police tossed tear gas into a crowd and used riot gear to disperse protesters.

A small metal pin sat on the sidewalk that I and others on the corner speculated may have been from the tear gas used earlier in the week. A sculpture made by Paris Alexander, of Raleigh, also was being installed as part of this year’s edition of the Salisbury Sculpture Show. On one side, Alexander’s stone sculpture pictures a feather with the word “rise” carved near the bottom. On the rear, the sculpture features the feather, a hand reaching up to the sky and the word “fall” carved into it.

Perhaps that sculpture can prompt the question we should all be asking now: Will Salisbury and Rowan County rise to meet the moment we’re facing or fall further into division and discord?

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.