The year of activism and the opposite of apathy
Photography by Cassie Conklin
“This is no time for apathy,” announced Dr. Artie Lee Travis, Vice President for Student Affairs at Frostburg State University, to the crowd at the NAACP’s Safe Not Silent Juneteenth celebration, held on what felt like the hottest day of the year as the sun beat down on us in downtown Cumberland. He is right; the year 2020 is no time for apathy. Indeed, between a pandemic, a contentious Presidential election, and ever accelerating climate change, 2020 is a year of reckoning that has forced us to look in the mirror like never before. In order to address our problems, apathy won’t do.
What is the opposite of apathy? Action.
Indeed, what unfolded before us was a summer and autumn of activism. By my estimate, there were at least 19 protests in Frostburg, Cumberland, and elsewhere in Allegany County between May 31 and October 3, 2020. Some were solemn, like the vigil held in memory of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Others rang with pain, like FSU student Jahlil Scott’s Black Lives Matter protest held within days of George Floyd’s murder. Some were topical, like those which sprang up in support of the United States Postal Service.Most were organized within days, like the She Matters March held in memory of Breonna Taylor. All reached across identity differences, like the March for Black Lives organized by the Cumberland Pride Festival, an organization that traditionally advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community. There were Blue Lives Matter pro-police rallies and protests against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. All in all, I’d wager to say that 3,000 or more people attended these events which ranged in size from two people on a street corner near City Hall in Cumberland, to several hundred in Delaney Plaza at FSU.
There were folks, like West Side resident Stephen Heath Gates, who avoided the crowds and marched alone through the streets of downtown Cumberland in protest. One group in Frostburg held a nightly “group scream” which took the form of honking horns meant to deliver a simple message; no justice, no peace. Local faith leaders held weekly silent vigils. Plenty traveled from Appalachia to the March on Washington in late August, convened by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, on the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Locals who had never been all that civically engaged found themselves signing petitions and learning to organize events. New organizations formed to enact change, like the NAACP Community Relations Committee chaired by Dr. Tom Bowling, and fundraising dinners offered opportunities to raise money in order to continue this important work. Fresh voices emerged, like those of social worker Jade Washington and student Savannah Kent, who spoke alongside our longtime trusted advisors like Allegany County NAACP President Carmen Jackson and Cumberland City Councilor Eugene Frazier.
Will our renewed interest in resistance, community action, and personal responsibility in 2020 continue, imitating the demonstrations that began in April 1968 following King’s assassination in Memphis that stretched well into 1973 as Americans protested the Vietnam War? It’s hard to say. Tifani Fisher, Vice President of the Allegany County NAACP chapter hopes that some changes come faster than that; she told the Juneteenth crowd in Cumberland that, “we will stand together on Juneteenth 2021 and say ‘we are free, not free-ish.’”
As we look to 2021, we have plenty of unfinished business to attend to. Our country still has an original sin to address, an environmental catastrophe to act upon, and an infectious disease to mitigate. No matter where you’re reading this from, there is a bridge you have left to mend, a call you still need to make, and a challenge you ought to tackle. We can no longer kick the can down the road. The time is now. History is watching us.
Luckily, 2020 taught us that we are powerful, that we can change, and that the future is ours