In an America where police officers have been shot to death in Dallas, killed in Louisiana, and gunned down in Kansas City, something different happened in Rock Hill on Tuesday night. Just when it seemed like America had flipped on its side, tilted on its axis, and the guns and violence from a tiny few had taken over, unity happened.
No bullets. No guns. No hate.
No us and them, no black and white.
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And selfies with cops.
And thank-yous to the people in the tan of the York County Sheriff’s Office, and the blue of the Rock Hill Police Department.
At the ‘Unity in the Community’ meet and greet set up by York County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, people stood together against all that hatred and violence nationally.
Hundreds of people showed up outside Rock Hll’s City Hall. Several hundred. They were black and white and young and old. They wore suits and they wore shorts. They stood together with more than 100 police officers.
Joseph Hayes, a black father, brought his children, Caitlyn and Christian.
“It is important for them to see a positive image of the police,” Hayes said.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was played as an instrumental. But people sang together, because they know the words. This is America.
Christian Hayes, tiny, put his hand over his heart and sang these last words with strangers: “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”
The brave are the cops, as are people who trust them to do the right thing and demand that they should. Trust is a two-way street. Police and the politicians know this now. It is a tense world in uniform, and a tense world for those dealing with cops. There is racial unease and police unease in America.
A group called Concerned Black Men in the city of Rock Hill marched to the police department and made 10 demands for better police accountability and transparency Saturday. There was a Stop the Violence, Black Lives Matter march Sunday in York. Both events were peaceful.
But that is not reality in 2016. People are anxious and nervous over the relationship between residents – especially black people – and police. That is as true in Rock Hill and York County as it is anywhere in America.
Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, who met with the Concerned Black Men leaders Tuesday afternoon said it was productive and positive, spoke briefly at the unity rally outside City Hall later. Echols told the crowd the truth: “These are troubled times in our country.”
But Echols, like Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts and York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, told the crowd that talk and togetherness, a common purpose of safe streets and homes, will prevail. If people work together. Presciently, Watts told the crowd, “It is our responsibility, mine and yours, to build a relationship together.”
It takes both sides.
In the crowd, before, during and after the brief speeches, the little meetings that make a big difference happened over and over. Black and white, mingling, and talking.
Rock Hill Office Austin Bauer, just a year on the job, a white officer, talked and took pictures with Erica Sims who runs a youth group for teenage black girls. The girls all talked to Bauer. He gave them his time, his attention, his focus. They thanked him.
Bauer said these words: “We all are citizens of Rock Hill – we all want the same thing. A great place to live.”
Sims put it this way: ‘When we have unity, when we all want the same things for all people, we can make a difference. These officers, they are here to help all of us.”
The new friends parted ways – and it happened just that way a hundred times. Officers went out of their way to introduce themselves, talk about what they do. People asked questions and listened.
Even the small gestures on a hot summer night made a difference. Cops, the top brass from captains down to patrol, handed out water to people.
Patrolman A.J. Hucko, white, walked through the crowd when he saw a black man named Brian Smith, hot and sweating and thirsty. He handed over a cold water. Smith, wearing a symbolic shackles of a white hand and a black hand connected over his shoulder, in turn handed Hucko a flower in a bottle.
The two men thanked each other. Their eyes met. They met.
“One gesture, one little thing, each of us, if we work together we can change the world,” Smith said.