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Opinion I was arrested for defending a cemetery in Montgomery County

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo holds a protest sign at meeting of Montgomery County Planning Board meeting in Silver Spring in 2017. (Bill Turque/The Washington Post)

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is chair of the Macedonia Baptist Church’s social justice ministry and a member of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coaltion. She and six other members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coaltion were arrested for civil disobedience at a Housing Opportunities Commission meeting.

Over the years, I have seen many people arrested for a moral cause. I grew up in Detroit, and union struggles were a rich part of my cultural heritage. I have marched and occupied and participated in sit-ins hundreds of times, but I had never been arrested until December’s monthly board meeting of Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission.

My fellow protesters and I brought a wooden block to symbolize the auction block where many of my kidnapped African ancestors had stood and were sold — chained and naked for all to see, inspect, mock and gawk at. We placed the wooden block behind the microphone so that we would face the Housing Opportunities Commission’s board members.

I was first to mount the block.

I have never shied from public speaking. I can intellectualize just about anything to present my case without emotion. I gave an oral defense of my dissertation, testified before Congress about racism in the Environmental Protection Agency and had countless radio and television appearances and book readings. Nothing prepared me for this.

As I stood on that auction block, my prepared statement fluttered in my hands, my voice cracked and tears streamed down my face. I felt naked. I wanted to run. Yet I possessed a strength that was not my own, a strength that looked beyond the board’s expressionless faces, beyond the walls even. The inklings of a peace were within my soul.

I have had the honor of serving as the chair of Macedonia Baptist Church’s social justice ministry for the past three years. My first week, I attended the last of three required hearings on the Westbard Sector Plan that I had learned about only that day. I sat stunned as I observed the casual ease of a developer describing the parking garage and housing units he was going to build where Moses African Cemetery is known to lie beneath a parking lot that had been installed in the mid-20th century.

“But there is an African cemetery where you want to build,” I objected.

“We own the land; it’s going to happen,” said Equity One’s honcho dismissively.

“Do you own the bodies, too?”

There was a long silence as the so-called stakeholders made eye contact with me for the first time.

I have found this pattern through the intervening three years. Those who consider themselves to be the real stakeholders listen politely while they tolerate statements from the public — required by law — and then implement whatever they were going to do anyway.

Montgomery County’s agencies of Parks and Planning, the County Council, the Planning Board, former county executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett (D), developers and the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission all have variously talked out of both sides of their mouths, covered up what should have been public information, concealed information from each other and distributed disinformation about their efforts and about Macedonia Baptist Church, the sole surviving black institution representing the displaced River Road African community.

We know the formula: Write letters and then meet with representatives, appealing for their help; testify before committees; hold marches to the cemetery; hold prayer vigils above the graves; talk to the media for the evening news; attend mediation sessions; hold candidate forums and get public statements of support; attend Housing Opportunities Commission board meetings and testify. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

There is so much money for the Housing Opportunities Commission to make and so little time for the souls of our ancestors to rest. The commission issues many lawyerly statements to sound reassuring but that say nothing.

So many strikes of a wooden gavel have tried to silence our protests, and yet there is so little time for our ancestors to rest that there comes a time when two years is too long. After so many appeals to the commission’s better angels came back bruised and beaten, there was only one course of action — what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called peaceful disruption. Refusing to go away. Refusing their feigned decency. Chanting even after the first warning from police. Chanting after the second warning from police. Chanting after the third and final warning by police. “The prosperity we now know as Bethesda was built on the backs of these Africans,” said Jeffrey Slavin, a member of the Democratic Central Committee of Montgomery County, as he was being arrested.

The souls of our ancestors who for generations were enslaved, tortured, murdered, raped are speaking now. They have been silenced for too long. The voices of our ancestors are singing now. They have been weeping for too long. Their voices, through us, will set us free.

We will not be moved. We will not be ignored. We did not give our ancestors to the Housing Opportunities Commission. We will not give them to Parks and Planning.

Read more:

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