Walking to be on 'the right side of history'

Stephen Heath Gates is shown with a Black Lives Matter flag on Sept. 9 in downtown Cumberland. Gates says he’s not affiliated with the official movement but is “picketing for the existence of Black lives.”

CUMBERLAND — Stephen Heath Gates, a warehouse manager who lives on the West Side, has been spotted over the last several weeks walking through Cumberland waving a Black Lives Matter flag.

The unexpected sight has been the topic of several social media posts by community members, with some videos of Gates reaching over 5,000 views. Gates makes the trek six days a week, “as soon as I get off work,” he said.

Gates is an unlikely and unusual protester. In fact, he’s never attended a local Black Lives Matter protest and did not coordinate with others in this effort. “I’m an introvert. I don’t drink or go to the bars. I stay at home and spend time with my family,” he said, “but with everything going on in the world, this is just such an important time to act.”

And though Gates, 31, has not been active in protests or civic action historically, he does hail from a prestigious family with a spirit of perseverance.

“My great-grandmother was born into slavery, was emancipated during the Civil War, and bought a house in Cumberland in 1871,” said Gates. From this matriarch came one of Gates’ best recognized relatives, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the well-known historian and genealogist whose show on PBS, “Finding Your Roots” has been on air since 2012.

Gates now has a family of his own, too. As a father of a 6-year-old son and toddler daughter, he said that they motivate him to hit the streets. “I don’t want them to live in a world like this. I want them to know I was on the right side of history,” said Gates, “for me, this protest is 400 years in the making and the time is now.”

In that effort, Gates takes to the streets walking five or more miles each day. “My initial plan was to walk 100 miles total, but I’ve already eclipsed that and am just going to keep going,” he said.

Gates starts his route on the West Side and marches on the bricks of downtown before crossing the railroad tracks and heading toward the Rolling Mill area. “I usually walk through the Fort Cumberland homes and then head back. Sometimes I kick it in front of the police station for a minute, and then I start towards home,” he said.

Gates’ daily picket has received mixed responses.

“People will yell at me from their cars, ‘go back to your town,’ but this is my town,” Gates said. “I went to West Side Elementary, I went to Allegany. This is my home.”

Gates reports having been the target of threats on social media. “But what people don’t realize is that I’m not part of the Black Lives Matter organization, or any organization for that matter,” Gates said. “I’m not here for violence, either. I’m just here picketing for the existence of Black lives.”

Much like Gates’ protesting, data compiled by Civis Analytics, a science consultancy, indicates that 95% of all Black Lives Matter protests are non-violent. “I’m not rioting,” Gates said. “Yes, all lives do matter, but Black lives are the ones that need help right now. I see what is going on in the world and we need to do better.”

Gates sees his picketing as an outreach effort and often carries extra Black Lives Matter flags. “I buy them in bulk and hand them out,” he said. Other local activists have expressed interest in joining Gates on his march and he welcomes the company, “I just want people to know that we’re here, and yes, we are a predominantly White county, but don’t forget about your Black brothers and sisters.”

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