In a move aligned with ongoing efforts to preserve an African burial ground, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) recently organized a rally, in solidarity with George Floyd and other victims of police-involved shootings, on the steps of Macedonia Baptist Church, a remnant of Black history sitting atop a hill on River Road.
The gathering of Black and white protesters not only elicited honks from passing cars but emboldened Black women and men of the community to again highlight instances of their friends and family dying at the hands of Montgomery County police officers.
“The worst thing a mother can go through is burying her child, and [it’s] because of their skin,” Comfort Oludipe told protesters on the evening of June 8 as she reflected on her son’s death and her efforts to bring the officer involved to justice.
In 2011, Oludipe’s son, Emmanuel Okutuga, was fatally shot by Montgomery County Police Officer Christopher Jordan at City Place Mall in Silver Spring — just months before his graduation from Bowie State University. In her remarks, she recounted learning that Jordan received a transfer to Rockville, and the Maryland State Attorney’s Office accidentally deleted footage from the night of the Feb. 19 incident.
Oludipe later likened the lessons she learned from her struggles in Montgomery County to what elders told her about colonialism in her native country of Nigeria.
“During colonialism, they put the pressure on people [of different tribes] to fight against each other, like one side is better than the other,” Olduipe said. “They put us against each other [and] I didn’t think that [a police-involved shooting] could happen to me [and my family].”
Oludipe counted among a bevy of speakers — including Macedonia’s own Rev. Segun Adebayo and Harvey Matthews Sr., Dr. Yvette Butler-Yeboah of American Africans United, the Rev. George Gilbert Jr. of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church, and Tebabu Assefa, a social entrepreneur and activist who lives in Takoma Park, Md. — who often mentioned Scripture in their testimonies of trial and triumph.
The rally was scheduled to precede a march across River Road to Moses African Cemetery where protesters would decorate a fence near the African burial ground, said to have initially been desecrated during development projects of the 1950s. The BACC-organized event came on the cusp of an excavation project carried out on the grounds of Moses African Cemetery, currently under the purview of the Housing Opportunities Commission.
Along with direct control of Moses African Cemetery, BACC has demanded the arrest and charging of officers that have killed Black people in Montgomery County, the defunding of the 3rd District police department, a diversion of those resources to community programs, and the elimination of armed police officers in schools.
Zakiya Sankara Jawara, a mother of two Montgomery County public school students, said young people often suffer the consequences of police engagement, and the disciplinary records from those encounters affect their chances of entering college.
“This is going to be an uphill battle but everyone needs to help, including parents of Montgomery County Public School students,” said Jawara of Racial Justice NOW, who said she has taken this cause to Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando (D-At large).
“Black and brown students are referred to police at disproportionate rates compared to other students,” she said. “That has to end. There are so many different ways to deal with childhood behavior than getting a cop that will harm the child.”
Over the last couple of years, BACC and other social justice organizations have rallied in remembrance of those shot and killed by Montgomery County police officers, including Robert White of Silver Spring, and more recently Finan Berhe, who lost his life on the night of May 7 in White Oak.
In the days after his death, reports surfaced from the Montgomery County Police Department that Berhe, 30, was wielding a knife.
Berhe’s friends painted a different picture on Monday as they stood before protestors and held enlarged photos of Berhe smiling and sporting a suit and graduation gown.
“I’m here to talk about the goodness of my brother and remove that evil image the press put on him,” said Zegai Teckle, Berhe’s friend of more than two decades. “[Finan] graduated from high school with a high GPA, graduated college on time, and worked at a bank.
“I’m tired. This has to end,” Teckle said. “We have to fight for Finan, George Floyd, Ahmaud [Arbery], and all those gunned down in the streets by unlawful, criminal officers.”