In former Klan country, one Black woman decides she’s had enough

Now, in an overwhelmingly White part of Maryland, Christine Givens is pushing to hold officers accountable for the way they treated a Black motorist.
Christine Givens leads a rally outside the Cecil County Sheriff’s Department in Elkton, Md., in February to protest the excessive use of force against Black motorist Tyreke Collier. (André Chung for The Washington Post)

ELKTON, Md. — The windows to the sheriff’s department were shuttered. But as Christine Givens paced back and forth outside, a mic in her hand, she knew there were deputies inside who could hear her.

“For weeks now, you’ve ignored us,” she said, her voice clear and steady, cutting through the high winds lashing Cecil County. “We did the right thing by sending you a nice letter and an email and asking you to take a stance.”

“But you chose,” she said and stopped, turning to squint at the 347-year-old law enforcement agency behind her.

“You chose to be a coward.”

On this frigid day in February, about five-dozen people — about half White, half people of color — had gathered outside the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office. Residents coming in and out of the building ducked their heads and pretended not to see the crowd. Passing drivers slowed to gawk.

Like Givens, the protesters had seen the video of a Black motorist and three White sheriff’s deputies near Elkton’s only CVS Pharmacy. They had watched a corporal named Bryan Shockey, red and blue flashing lights behind him, tell the motorist he looked suspicious but refuse to say why. They had heard the screaming as he and two other officers pulled the driver, 30-year-old Tyreke Collier, out of his car and slammed him to the ground. And they had listened, with recognition, to what Collier cried as he let his arms go slack: “I’m not resisting! I’m not resisting!”

Later, in an arrest report, Shockey would claim it was Collier, using his hands, fist and feet, who had assaulted him. He would say that he had acted appropriately to deal with an “aggressive and hostile” motorist — and the state’s attorney would agree. Not a single elected official in Cecil, a mostly rural county that borders both Pennsylvania and Delaware, would publicly address the incident. And only one would respond when contacted by The Washington Post.

As Givens spoke that afternoon, some in the crowd clapped and murmured in agreement. Others quelled small knots of fear. As far as they knew, no one in this overwhelmingly White, conservative part of Maryland — a place once notorious as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold — had ever cussed out the sheriff on the steps of his headquarters before. No one, it seemed, had ever demanded the punishment of White officers who had hurt Black men.

It was a surprise to some that this voice would come from Christine Givens, a 36-year-old mother of three who works in corporate communications. But those who know her best say it’s hard to imagine it being anyone else. She’s a descendant of people once enslaved not far from Elkton; a college-educated Cecil native who earned the nickname “Texas Tornado” in the eighth grade after pummeling an older, male student for calling her the n-word.

When the killing of George Floyd sparked a wave of racial-justice protests that reached even the most rural outposts, Givens joined in. She marched and helped to form an activist group called Cecil Solidarity — the first civil rights organization in the county since an NAACP chapter was created in the 1960s. The group wants tangible police reform, but in a county where President Donald Trump won 62 percent of the vote in 2020, opposition is vigorous.

Beth An Griffin and other members of Cecil Solidarity march to the sheriff’s office. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post)
Keiana Giersch, 12, is embraced by her mother, Evelyn Giersch, after reading a poem that she wrote in support of Black lives.
Griffin and other members of Cecil Solidarity plant signs around the sheriff’s office.
TOP: Beth An Griffin and other members of Cecil Solidarity march to the sheriff’s office. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Keiana Giersch, 12, is embraced by her mother, Evelyn Giersch, after reading a poem that she wrote in support of Black lives. BOTTOM RIGHT: Griffin and other members of Cecil Solidarity plant signs around the sheriff’s office.

Some see Givens and her comrades as unwanted agitators, seeking attention for problems they don’t believe exist in Cecil; others worry that their brash methods might make race relations worse, not better. Many have opted simply to ignore them — even as the group finds more ways to make that difficult.

With the speeches done that Saturday, the activists said it was time to deliver their petition calling for Shockey to be fired. They rattled the locked doors to the nondescript building and pressed a button for assistance, but no one came. The front office appeared empty. Squeezed inside a small holding area, the activists did what they could.

Beth An Griffin, a biracial mother of seven, yelled into a megaphone. Tim Rothermel, a White sales manager, duct-taped a copy of the petition to the glass door. Givens squared her shoulders in front of a security camera and chanted. Staring at the glass lens, she hoped there were officers on the other side, listening.

‘They’re afraid’

Right before the bang, there was a single piercing whistle.

It broke the quiet of a 1968 summer night in the town of North East, waking the two Black families who lived about a hundred yards apart. The explosion shattered seven windows in the gray cinder block house of McKinley Scott, the president of Cecil County’s first NAACP chapter, sending glass cascading down venetian blinds. It sounded like 10 chandeliers had broken at once, or like a tank was rolling down the street at 2:30 a.m.

Decades later, Givens would hear her father, Neal Thompson, 8 at the time of the bombing, recount that night and the fear it was intended to inspire. The Thompsons lived near the Scotts, and her grandfather, James Thompson Sr., was the NAACP chapter’s vice president.

As his wife and children cowered inside their home, Thompson Sr. stood beside Scott, examining a six-inch-deep hole in his driveway. It looked like the bomb had been lit and thrown at the house but rolled down an embankment before exploding in the driveway. A foul smell — a mix of burned plastic and chemicals, police said — hung in the air.

Police eventually arrested a White man. He was an active Klan member who lived in North East, authorities said, not far from the two Black families.

An Imperial Wizard of the Confederate White Knights speaks at a 2013 meeting at the Cecil County Administration Building in Elkton, Md. (William Bretzger/USA Today Network)

Cecil had long been a hotbed for white supremacists. The town of Rising Sun, a 20-minute drive from North East, was particularly notorious for its cross burnings and Confederate flags. In 1965, more than 2,000 people had gathered on a cow farm in the town to honor two Klansmen who had died.

Givens was 7 when she first encountered the Klan. It was 1991, and her father was taking her to a small shed in North East where children could post their letters to Santa. Christmas was the second-grader’s favorite holiday, and she was jabbering excitedly until she saw the hooded men in white.

She thought they were ghosts. But her father said they were people, made of flesh and bone. He kept his voice low, telling her that they had to leave immediately and that Santa would have to wait. Later he explained that there were some people, not very good people, who didn’t want Black folks in Cecil. If they appeared again, he told his daughter, she should run away as quickly as possible.

The next year, the girl was called the n-word for the first time on the school bus. From then on, she saw the word repeatedly, scribbled in bathrooms and on sidewalks. Once, as a teenager, she and a handful of other Black students wore Army fatigues to school on the same day — a mini-protest, she remembered, to say, “We’re tired of this.”

Over decades Maryland changed, its population surging and growing more diverse. But Cecil, a county of 100,000, remained almost 90 percent White.

Recruitment fliers for the Klan still occasionally appeared in people’s letterboxes. In 2013, when an arm of the KKK asked local officials for permission to hold a public meeting in a county building, they complied.

A man walks across Main Street in downtown Elkton. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post)
A Trump flag sits in a window beside American flags at Aspen Property Management in North East, Md.
Police patrol downtown Elkton.
TOP: A man walks across Main Street in downtown Elkton. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: A Trump flag sits in a window beside American flags at Aspen Property Management in North East, Md. BOTTOM RIGHT: Police patrol downtown Elkton.

Today, Black residents say they’re still subject to racial profiling, often by law enforcement. In the past five decades, Cecil County’s sheriff’s department has grown from a force of five sworn officers to 180, 25 of whom are Black. Scott Adams, a Republican from Rising Sun, has led the department since 2014.

Records provided by Adams show that officers gave about a fifth of traffic citations in the past three years to Black drivers, even though Black people make up just 7 percent of the county’s population.

The current chair of the county’s NAACP chapter said that in the days immediately following Trump’s 2016 election, her husband was pulled over four times by the same officer. In 2018, a disabled Black woman sued the sheriff’s department, alleging that during a traffic stop, deputies “forcibly removed [her] from her vehicle and violently threw her face down on the concrete.” A district judge later ruled that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

From 2012 to 2019, at least seven people were fatally shot by law enforcement in Cecil. Two of them were Black, including Terry Garnett Jr., 37, who in 2015 was shot by a sheriff’s deputy 12 times after refusing to comply with a traffic stop. He was unarmed. The deputy was cleared of all charges and promoted to corporal two years later.

“There are not indications of police misconduct or excessive force being pervasive at the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office,” Adams said in a statement. “All of our deputies have attended implicit bias training.”

Walking through North East one recent afternoon, Givens paused outside the shed where she first saw the Klan. Many of the Black people she grew up with had left the county, but she decided years ago that her two daughters, 16 and 5, and her son, 13, would be fourth-generation Cecil natives.

“My purpose here is to show other little Black girls that you can stay here, you can be from here and still absolutely live your dream,” Givens said.

“But when you grow up in an area like this,” she continued, “you’re always told you’ve got to be quiet, even by your own people, because they’re afraid. They’re afraid for your safety.”

Christine Givens wanted to raise her three kids in Cecil County but also confront its racism. (André Chung for The Washington Post) (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)

‘Cancel culture’

Givens didn’t expect to cry. But when she arrived for her first-ever protest last May, what she saw floored her. More than 80 people of different races and generations in her hometown, waving signs and chanting, “Black lives matter!”

After weeks of pandemic quarantine, she remembered, their voices felt deafening.

At these early protests, Givens met a group of White Cecil residents who over months formed a new kind of family with her. There was Rothermel, the tall, lanky transplant from Connecticut who had volunteered with the American Civil Liberties Union; Heather Ulrich, the psychiatrist who had recently returned to Cecil after three decades away; and Jared Guardipee, the former Trump supporter who had started questioning his politics after reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” Givens also brought along Griffin and Tyrese Harris, Black women who grew up with her in Cecil.

Throughout the summer, they held protest after protest. Givens coaxed her parents, Neal and Sharon Thompson, to attend a few, and like her, they sobbed. Mike Dixon, a public historian based in Cecil, turned up with his camera, eager to chronicle what he believed were the first-ever mass demonstrations in the county. At a June event, the crowd numbered more than 500, the local paper reported.

But as the weekends grew hotter and the pandemic raged on, momentum slowed. Fewer people came.

Eventually in the fall, video footage of the ugly encounter between Collier and White sheriff’s deputies would inject new urgency into the group’s efforts. For months, however, their movement was hobbled by community pushback, internal disagreements and waning interest.

Several hundred people participate in a march for racial justice in Elkton on June 13, 2020. (Mike Dixon)

In July, they asked the Elkton Police Department to ban chokeholds and received only a statement of the department’s policy that “officers may resort to any tactics that are reasonably necessary.” They responded with more-disruptive tactics such as marching through crosswalks to slow traffic, but this offended more than just law enforcement. Diners trying to enjoy their crab pretzels clucked their tongues at the noise. Motorists bumped demonstrators in their way. Before long, counterprotesters appeared, red-faced and hollering, “All lives matter!”

Criticism flourished online, too. From June through October, Vincent Sammons, chairman of the Cecil County Republican Central Committee, posted about the activists more than 30 times on Facebook.

“This group seems to be one of the radical hate groups we see on TV,” Sammons warned in one post.

“I find it interesting that society has come very far on race and people want to continue to relive it again and again,” he wrote in another.

When Sammons shared details about individual protesters, some responded by calling his computer business and giving it poor ratings online. This was classic “cancel culture,” he thought. The activists, he said later in an interview, had targeted him for being White, and in fact they were the racists, not him.

Sammons’s posts drew dozens of comments. On one, two users talked about hitting protesters with their vehicles.

“If I hit it I’m dragging it,” one said.

“Helllllll yes drag the s--- out of them,” another replied.

“No body left no proof.”

Threats like these made Sharon Thompson call her daughter and beg her to step back.

I’m scared because she’s in their face giving it to them. And I don’t think they can take it.
Sharon Thompson, Christine Givens' mother
Neal and Sharon Thompson, the parents of Christine Givens, attend the February rally, though they've worried about their daughter's safety. (André Chung for The Washington Post)
Christine Givens at 3 years old at her grandmother’s house in North East, Md. (Family photo)
LEFT: Neal and Sharon Thompson, the parents of Christine Givens, attend the February rally, though they've worried about their daughter's safety. (André Chung for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Christine Givens at 3 years old at her grandmother’s house in North East, Md. (Family photo)

Thompson, 54, grew up in a vibrant Black community in Philadelphia. Living in Cecil had always unnerved her. When the protests started, she was proud of Givens for taking a stand, but far, far more afraid of what could happen. She fretted daily with her husband over what to do, at one point dragging Givens to gun registration classes.

It wasn’t that Thompson, who had inched her way up from a public school system custodian to an operations assistant, didn’t agree with the cause.

“I’m scared because she’s in their face giving it to them,” she said about her daughter. “And I don’t think they can take it.”

The Black community was split over Givens and Cecil Solidarity. Some, like her pastor, the Rev. R. Kevin Brown Sr. of Wright’s A.M.E. Church, saw her as a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. Power doesn’t give itself up, he told others. It has to be taken.

But others thought her methods were too confrontational. The skeptics included an Elkton town commissioner who local historians say is the county’s first Black elected official. Charles Givens Sr., 75, was elected in 1994, and to date is one of only two Black people to ever hold office in Cecil. He’s also Christine’s father-in-law.

He said he has advocated for African Americans but doesn’t think racism is still a major issue in Cecil today. He felt his blood pressure rise when he watched the video of Collier’s traffic stop, but such “mishaps,“ he said, were always going to happen. The way to improve things, he believes, is getting those in power to stand with you, not against you.

“I can appreciate Cecil Solidarity’s objectives,” Givens said from his home in Elkton. “But how they do things, how they approach things — I’m not always in favor.”

At protests and in public meetings, Christine Givens brushed off these opinions with a laugh or an eye roll. But when she was at home, curled up with her kids, she thought a lot about the voices telling her to back off. All she wanted was to make life better for them. Safer.

Tyreke Collier moved out of Cecil County after the traffic stop. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Texas Tornado

Cpl. Bryan Shockey flashed his lights on the evening of July 28, 2020, because the black Chevrolet Malibu had been speeding, police records say.

Dash-cam video shows that the officer pulled up behind the car, then got out to speak to the motorist through rolled-down windows. Collier, who had a suspended driver’s license, told the officer he had been driving because his girlfriend had a headache. Their 2-year-old daughter was strapped into the back seat.

“They got a little kid in the car, might be nothing,” Shockey told another deputy while running Collier’s ID. “I don’t smell any weed. But they both look f---ing shady as f---.”

Collier had just moved to Cecil from Philadelphia. He had no criminal record and had managed, until this point, to avoid confrontations with the police. He knew what jail time had done to his friends, neighbors, cousins. And he had spent countless evenings on his deck, smoking cigarettes and watching videos on Facebook of Black people brutalized by police. For this whole situation — rural town, empty road, White cop — to happen this summer of all summers felt to Collier too much like a cliche. He didn’t want to play along.

“I was like, damn,” he said, recounting what happened. “This, in the era of Breonna Taylor,” the Black EMT in Louisville killed during a police raid on her apartment.

So when Shockey told him to exit his car so that a K-9 unit could search it, Collier asked him why.

“You don’t need suspicion,” the officer said. “You can do random — ”

“How do you not need suspicion, bro?” Collier replied, exasperated.

“You want to get out of the car, or you want me to yank you out of the car?” Shockey said. “I’m not playing around no more.”

The rest happened quickly. Collier opened the door, and Shockey lifted his right leg, kicking him back in. Amid the tussle, Shockey fell backward, and two other officers rushed over. Within 12 seconds, the Black man was pinned to the ground, his hands pulled behind his back.

Collier’s girlfriend, Nicole Riner, took out her phone to record as a police dog and two officers searched the Malibu, finding only a stroller and some toys. As she confronted the other officers, Shockey stood off to one side, alone, muttering profanities about Collier.

“Everything’s always got to be about race,” Shockey fumed. “So sick of this s---.”

When Riner, who is White, suggested that Shockey had only asked to search the car because Collier is Black, the officer vigorously denied it. “That’s not true,” he said, later adding, “I go to church every Sunday.”

After a night in jail, Collier was charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and obstructing justice. By the time he bumped into Cecil Solidarity activists giving out fliers in August, he had hired a lawyer to defend him. The state’s attorney eventually placed the charges against Collier on a stet docket, rendering them inactive, which criminal experts say often happens in cases like this.

In September, Rothermel filed a public information request for the dash-cam footage capturing what happened. He received the video two months later and shared it first with Givens. She hesitated for a few hours, then watched it, crying and incensed.

Collier has never been able to watch the footage. He’s had trouble sleeping ever since the incident, he said, and he and his family have since moved to Delaware. He has been too afraid of being arrested again to attend any of Cecil Solidarity’s protests, but he wants them to share his story — and for Shockey to be taken off the streets.

“I know I’m not the only one,” Collier said. “I know they’re tearing up other families out there.”

Becky Fontaine of Elkton, left, and Lisa Nurnberger, of North East, display signs at the demonstration. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post)
Giselle Griffin, daughter of Cecil Solidarity activist Beth An Griffin, at the rally.
Stickers on the back of Cecil Solidarity protester Lisa Nurnberger’s chair.
TOP: Becky Fontaine of Elkton, left, and Lisa Nurnberger, of North East, display signs at the demonstration. (Photos by André Chung for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Giselle Griffin, daughter of Cecil Solidarity activist Beth An Griffin, at the rally. BOTTOM RIGHT: Stickers on the back of Cecil Solidarity protester Lisa Nurnberger’s chair.

Shockey and the other deputies, Adams said, were not disciplined because they “were found to conform to agency policy and state and constitutional laws.” None of the officers involved responded to repeated requests for comment.

At the February demonstration, Rothermel held Collier’s arrest report in one hand and pointed at the sheriff’s office with the other. “If we don’t come together,” he told the protesters, “Black, Brown, White, poor, everybody, to stand up to bulls--- like this, they’re going to keep doing it over and over and over again.”

Givens gnawed at her lip as she listened. Even after all these months, the silence from Adams and Cecil’s other elected leaders grated on her. After thanking people for coming out, she hung back, promising fellow activists that there would be another protest if the sheriff didn’t respond.

She hugged her father, who berated her for dropping the f-bomb — twice — in her speech, and her mother, who was coming around to the idea that drastic methods were necessary for progress in Cecil. Neal and Sharon Thompson had recently agreed that no matter what they did, it wasn’t going to alter their daughter’s determination to provoke change. She was forceful. Relentless. A Texas Tornado.

When nearly everyone had escaped to some warmth, Givens walked with a few stragglers to her car, wrapping her jacket tighter around herself as she pushed against the wind. Suddenly, she heard a rustling behind her and turned — two deputies in uniform had crept out and were removing the yellow signs that protesters had stuck into the ground. The petition taped to the door had been peeled off.

Her eyes widened. Then she shook her head, kept walking and laughed.

They had heard her after all.

Cecil Solidarity planted signs all around the sheriff’s office during the Elkton rally. Within minutes of when the last protesters left, deputies began removing the signs. (André Chung for The Washington Post)

Read more:

There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a bill of rights 47 years ago.

Police were a constant presence in George Floyd’s life, an experience shared by other Black men

A teen led a Black Lives Matter protest in his small town. A cross was burned in his yard.

About this story

Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller and Mark Gail. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Design and development by Betty Chavarria.

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