Kaitlyn Gifford, 17, makes a plea for justice, peace and more dialogue between black and white people at a rally and vigil that took place Friday night in Jawbone Park in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

‘Talk to us … recognize us, just like everyone else,’ B-U teen tells attendees at support rally for Black Lives Matter

BUCKHANNON – Seventeen-year-old Kaitlyn Gifford would like to see white people talk a little less about their black sisters and brothers and a little more to them.

A rising senior at Buckhannon-Upshur High School who moved to Buckhannon from Fairmont about two years ago, Gifford, with a firm and steady voice, addressed attendees of a Support Rally for Black Lives Matter and candlelight vigil for the late George Floyd Friday night in Jawbone Park.

She urged white people to help lift black people like herself up, rather than tearing them down.

“What’s going on in our nation is terrible, there’s no denying that,” Gifford said, referencing the widespread protests and racial tensions that have flared in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Black people get killed every day. Instead of talking about us and what is happening, talk to us. Help us. Lift us up, recognize us just like everyone else.”

“We all have to come together to fix a problem that often divides us,” Gifford continued. “Stand with me, stand with all my brothers and sisters. Stand up for what is right and be heard [and show you believe] that all people should be treated with respect. The way to peace is through love.”

Support rally attendees display signs in Jawbone Park Friday.

Gifford referenced a peaceful protest she and several other community members took part in Sunday, May 31.

“Last Sunday, myself and several other members of the community stood outside the courthouse making a peaceful statement to whomever would see or hear,” she said. “That statement is very important, because if you believe in a cause you must be willing to stand up for that cause by yourself or with a million people.”

Gifford also read an iconic line from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

“In Dr. King’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, he states that, ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,’” she said. “We should all live in a world where we lift each other up, lift up our black brothers and sisters, and join hands in breaking down the hatred and lack of love.”

Upshur County native and a speaker at Friday’s event, Jessica Williams, at right, watches another speaker at Friday’s support rally for Black Lives Matter.

Upshur County native Jessica Williams, a B-UHS teacher, mother, educator and community volunteer, shared her deep fear that her ‘favorite human,’ her son Theo, could become another hashtag.

“I’m going to tell you about my favorite human, also born and raised in Buckhannon, and that’s my son, Theo,” Williams said. “I want to take you way back [to when I was pregnant], I was sitting all alone, and he was kicking, and I was just kind of talking to God about how blessed I am.”

“That’s when he was named,” she continued. “The name Theodore just came to me – God-sent, if you will. Later, my mother and I looked up the meaning of the name: God-sent. How perfect. As Theodore, God’s gift, grew, so did his personality, spirit and heart.”

Williams said Theo gives the best hugs and takes excellent care of her, his grandmother and great-grandmother.

“I’m telling you all this because Theodore, God’s gift, is also blessed with beautiful brown skin,” Williams said, tearing up. “But some people see that blessing as more of a sin, and they wish ill upon Theodore because of it. I’m also telling you this because the Black community cannot fight against these injustices by ourselves. We need our white brothers and sisters, and I’m calling on all of you today to speak up, to speak out and speak often before Theodore, God’s gift, becomes another hashtag.”

One of the many signs visible at Friday’s support rally and vigil.

Del. Danielle Walker, R-Monongalia, said she could empathize with Williams’s pain, having raised two black sons of her own, ages 23 and 19.

Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, speaks Friday evening in Jawbone Park.

Walker discussed the pain surrounding the controversiality of the simple statement ‘Black Lives Matter.’

“I’ve never caused trouble. I’m educated. I pay taxes. I’m a homeowner. I stand with the LGBTQIA+ community. I stand with folks facing addiction. I stand with folks facing homelessness … I stand for [people struggling with] health insurance, [youth in the] foster care system,” Walker said, “but it seems very heart-breaking to me, when I say, and let me make this very clear, ‘I stand with Black Lives Matter,’ that it becomes [controversial].”

“’One love’ has been my message since Charlottesville,” she said. “It is not a hashtag. It is a way of living. Everybody is ready to take a stand … everybody should support policy that gives a person like me equity and equality.”

Walker hugs a supporter following her speech.

City officials, including Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory, attended Friday’s rally and vigil in a show of solidarity.

Gregory said he’d spent considerable time pondering what to say because he wanted to represent the viewpoints of all BPD officers. He began by quoting one of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton.

“‘A sacred respect for the Constitutional law is the vital principle, the sustaining energy of a free government’ — that’s Alexander Hamilton,” Gregory said. “As keepers of the peace, we at the Buckhannon Police Department embrace the principles of our United States Constitution. We believe that the freedoms and protections this document affords to all people – I emphasize all people, and not just certain people – are the hallmarks of our society.”

Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory attended Friday’s event in a show of solidarity and discussed the department’s mission statement, values and efforts to attain professional accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

“We believe in fairness, justice and equality, and that the principles of due process applies to everyone – again, very strong emphasis on everyone,” Gregory continued, drawing applause. “Each and every day the officers at the Buckhannon Police Department work to exhibit these ideals, whether it be in our encounters with the community or through our investigations.”

Singer Matasha Weaver performs ‘True Colors’ as attendees display illuminated candles to honor the life of George Floyd at the conclusion of Friday’s event.

Gregory said the BPD’s core values include professionalism, respect, fairness, compassion and being community-oriented.

“As we continue along our journey for full professional accreditation through CALEA (the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), the standards and best practices of this process will be our guiding light, and through it all, we will serve our community with the utmost commitment and dedication,” he said.

Mayor David McCauley, too, spoke at Friday’s vigil saying he, Gregory and city attorney Tom O’Neill are currently developing a program “that will re-emphasize and reiterate our city’s commitment to treating everyone fairly and the same, while employing total professionalism.”

Mayor David McCauley speaks Friday, saying he, city attorney Tom O’Neill and Gregory plan to develop a program that will ‘re-emphasize and reiterate’ the city’s commitment to treating all individuals fairly.

McCauley’s concluding questions – “How can we embrace the ideals that we, as a people, must include everyone in all that we do, while recognizing the obvious reward that we are stronger as a society when we are all-inclusive?” and “How do we come to the collective realization that there are no second-class citizens?” — dangled in the dusk as the crowd dispersed after the more than hour-long event.

Another photo of Weaver singing, ‘True Colors.’

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