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Hundreds join Black Lives Matter protest in Boone

BOONE — Hundreds marched in a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Boone May 31, holding signs and chanting to protest racism and injustice in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Boone event is one of many protests that have erupted across the country after a video circulated of Floyd being held on the ground by police officers, with Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes while Floyd repeatedly told officers that he couldn’t breathe, according to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. The 46-year-old Floyd, whose underlying health conditions included coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease, became unresponsive and was later pronounced dead at a hospital, according to the office. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

The march began at College Street on the Appalachian State University campus and proceeded along King Street to the Watauga County Courthouse.

“We’re all here today because we have witnessed the wrong killing of too many black people. We need to stand up, no matter who you are, against injustice,” said Kyndavee Bichara, one of the events’ organizers, before the march. “So today we’re going to walk King Street in solidarity with all of the African-Americans across the country who are protesting against the killing — the murdering — of black people.”

The organizers, who are students at App State, had a moment before the protest to talk with law enforcement officers, who assured them that the protest had their full support.

“We’re with you on this,” said Andy Le Beau, interim police chief of Boone Police Department, who then asked if it would be alright if “some of us walk with you.”

BPD also closed a stretch of King Street, from the courthouse to the intersection at Water Street, for protesters to gather in front of the courthouse for speeches.

Markell Clark, one of the leaders of the march, said, “There were so many people that played a role in organizing this. Some of them weren’t able to be present or were more involved with the crowd.”

Mary Lyons — a BLM activist who organized a protest in 2014 in Boone as a student at App State because of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — was a prominent voice at the courthouse. Lyons also founded the Solidarity and Appalachian Social Justice Educators group at App State.

“What are we going to do to make Boone a safer, more sustainable place for brown and black people to live? That’s not a rhetorical question — what are you going to do?” she said. “This battle goes back 400 years. Our people are hurting. Black people are hurting and tired. This is not all our responsibility. Every white person, every non-black person of color — I’m talking to the Latinx folks, I’m talking to the Hispanic folks, I’m talking to the indigenous folks — what are you going to do to make your communities safer for everyone?

“This is just the first of a long line of steps. This is not easy, but we can do more. More of Boone than what’s out here cares about this fight,” Lyons said, noting that “we’re still in a global pandemic” and not everyone who wanted to attend was able to.

Bichara told the gathered protesters that she has younger siblings — two of which are young black men.

“This country has dealt with this for too long. Black people have dealt with racism for too long. We’re saying right now that it is done. We are done. We are done taking what everyone does to us. Black people are done. We’re standing up today, we are standing up tomorrow and everyday after that,” she said.

Also at the courthouse, Lyons read the names of black Americans who have been killed by law enforcement, including Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Breona Taylor and Tony McDade, along with others. The crowd chanted the names back to her three times before moving on to the next one.

The group then kneeled, some on King Street, others on the adjacent sidewalks, to observe eight minutes of silence, a reference to the amount of time Floyd struggled to breathe due to the knee on his neck.

Following the march to the courthouse and upon the completion of speeches, protesters marched back to the App State library traffic circle, where the group continued to gather even after the organized protest was over. Some activists held their signs on the various levels of the library’s parking deck while more names of killed black Americans were once more read and echoed.

“It went amazing, a lot of people showed out, a lot of people showed support. We kept it a peaceful protest as we planned, and we didn’t have any hecklers or anything like that happen. I think we got our point across,” said Bichara at about 6:30 p.m., when the protest was winding down. “The work still goes on; we still need to continue. It doesn’t stop here — it doesn’t stop with the protest. We’re going to continue to be out here, we’re going to be continuing to do what we need to do in order to make this country more equal. Until we have equity, we can’t have equality, so we’re going to work on equity right now.”

Lucinda Bowers, 57, has lived in Boone for 30 years. She attended the May 31 protest, saying she believed history was being made.

She said she was angry for many years about racist actions against her family and other injustices she had witnessed and experienced, but her faith in God changed her heart.

“My grandmother told us that you never see color in anyone,” Bowers said. “It’s time for us to come together because God loves us all no matter what color our skin is or who we are.”

Organizer Colbie Lofton said, “In the midst of other protests going on and a lot of confusion, I think a lot of people were here for the right reasons. I’m happy there were no counter protests going on, which is one thing we were kind of worried about before we came out … We want people to acknowledge their privilege and use it for the better to assist the community. It’s not just about today, and it’s not just about showing up to these events. It’s about creating change, changing the mindsets of people and, also if we can, voting in numbers to change legislative rule.”

At the end of the protest, Le Beau said, “I was happy that so many people turned out, determined to have a peaceful event but get their points across that events like what happened in Minneapolis are unacceptable. I always tell people that I can’t necessarily control what happens in the rest of the country, but I can have a big influence on what happens in Boone.

“We do training for racial bias, and we work on issues so that what happened in Minneapolis never happens in Boone,” he said. “We have a long history of working with groups like the Watauga County NAACP chapter … and in the wake of this, we’re committed to working with all people groups because it’s our job to serve everybody, no matter what their color, religion or sexual orientation. That’s what Boone Police Department is all about.”

To assist in the effort of continual change and achieving true equality, Lyons has created a Facebook page titled “Black in Boone,” which is a “Black-led advocacy group for racial justice and black flourishing in our communities.”

There are also goals set up for the page, including “developing a black-led community advocacy group for racial justice and black flourishing,” “implementing anti-racism training and strategic structures in every church, school, agency and business in our local communities,” and “launching a black barber/beauty shop and support other black cultural expression in Boone.”

The page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/BlackInBoone.

Moss Brennan contributed reporting to this article.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

From left, Dray Petree, Jay Edwards, Kyndavee Bichara, Markell Clark and Colbie Lofton lead the march on May 31.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Kyndavee Bichara (left) speaks at the Watauga County Courthouse.

photo by Abby Whitt 

Protesters begin the BLM march.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Gallery photo/Flag pole One protester at the May 31 march hoisted their sign on the flag pole beside of the Watauga County Courthouse. The sign reads, ‘Nobody should be above the law.’

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Upon the return to the App State Library Circle, protesters took to the parking deck to show their signs and support.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Sarah Hoffert marches with a sign that reads ‘End white silence’ during the May 31 BLM protest in Boone.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

An App State Police Officer distributes water to protesters before the march begins.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Protesters meet at the App State Library Circle to march down King Street to the Watauga County Courthouse.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

A group of protesters met at Boone Mall on May 31 to talk and then travel to the App State Library Circle together.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Interim Andy Le Beau talks to Kyndavee Bichara before the march begins on May 31.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Bailey Witherspoon and Rachel Weaver participate in the BLM march.

Photo by Abby Whitt 

Several drivers on King Street during the march, including this motorcycle, showed their support through signs, honking or chanting along from their vehicles.

Boone budget proposal would dip into savings

BOONE — The Boone Town Council will hold a web conference meeting beginning at 9 a.m. June 4 to consider items carried over from a May 21 meeting agenda and to discuss Town Manager John Ward’s proposed 2020-2021 budget.

The total proposed budget, including the General Fund, Water and Sewer Fund and other funds, is proposed at $27,173,333, which would be about $1.57 million less than the approved 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.

Amid revenue shortfalls as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related closures, Ward proposes that the town allocate $1,190,000 from its fund balance to help balance the budget and maintain current service levels without a proposed property tax increase.

No staff pay raises are recommended, and the budget proposal delays the majority of capital outlay involving vehicle and equipment replacement, according to Ward’s budget message.

The property tax rate would remain the same under the proposal, at 41 cents per $100 valuation, and no water and sewer rate increases are recommended.

“While the most recent water and sewer rate study called for increases in water and sewer rates both last year and this year in order to provide funding for capital improvements in our aging system, there are no proposed increases at this time,” the budget message stated. “Staff were successful in working with the High Country Council of Governments in securing a $2 million grant for the Deck Hill water tank. This grant allows water and sewer rate increases to be delayed.”

In addition to helping make up for revenue shortfalls, the $1.19 million from the fund balance would be used to provide $115,000 to outside agencies, spend $25,000 for masks for public distribution and $50,000 for the Grove Street Connector project.

A public hearing will be scheduled at a later date prior to the budget’s consideration and approval by the council.

State, local leaders react to nationwide protests

NORTH CAROLINA — As protests around the nation against racism and injustice continue, local and state officials are weighing in on the topic and the event that sparked the recent unrest — the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.

In a press conference on May 31, Gov. Roy Cooper said that recent events had “broken open new wounds.”

“These scars mark generations of trauma that black people and other communities of color continue to suffer. Trauma that has too often gone unrecognized in our country,” Cooper said. “We’ve made some progress, but when you see George Floyd on the ground begging for air, you realize that we have so much more work to do.”

Amid protests in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Fayetteville over the May 30-31 weekend were incidents of fires, looting and property damage, according to media reports. The News and Observer reported that a few hours into the event in Raleigh, police had dispersed tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Cooper said the mayors of each city were granted state support in the form of personnel from the N.C. State Highway Patrol and State Bureau of Investigation, and some were given access to U.S. National Guard soldiers.

The Rev. William J. Barber II — an activist, pastor and author — said that protestors are right to decry such brutal and inhumane treatment of Floyd as racism.

“Thank God people are in the streets refusing to accept what has been seen as normal for far too long,” Barber said in a May 31 statement. “All that is needed to understand why black people are crying out is to ask what the response of our justice system would have been if a video had emerged of four black men doing that to a white man.”

As an officer of the law for more than 24 years, Appalachian State University Police Chief Andy Stephenson made a statement on May 30 that he was angered, sickened and ashamed by the actions of the police officers that reportedly resulted in the death of Floyd.

“I have felt compelled to apologize for those members of my profession who have yet to understand, or are not capable of understanding, what policing is meant to be,” Stephenson said in his statement. “Policing is much more than simply the enforcement of laws. Police officers must be actively engaged in building stronger communities, together with every member of the communities they serve.”

The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association issued a statement on May 29 which stated that while they were not privy to the full investigation of Floyd’s death, what officials have seen in the video recording of the event was “unacceptable.”

“The video clearly shows unprofessional and egregious conduct by law enforcement officers,” stated the NCSA. “This type of law enforcement conduct cannot be tolerated and must be swiftly addressed by the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system.”

Stephenson added that he understands he has to go beyond apologizing, and take action. Both the NCSA statement and Stephenson made comments about education and training of law enforcement personnel. NCSA stated that the conduct displayed in the video is contrary to training provided to North Carolina officers, which includes reserving the use of force — especially deadly force — for those times when its use is “absolutely necessary and lawful.”

Stephenson said that he views the App State Police academy program as a means for introducing reform into the communities of North Carolina and elsewhere. Policing is often controversial, and Stephenson said university leadership has supported the work he wants to do to enact change.

“Our young police officers need education and training that goes well beyond the minimum state training standards, both in the number of training hours and the topics of mandated instruction,” Stephenson stated. “Unless we engage and employ innovative new strategies, policing will continue to be destined for failure. This change begins with education.”

Watauga Sheriff Len Hagaman said all 100 NC sheriffs contributed to the NCSA official statement. NCSA stated that sheriffs strive to build relationships with everyone in their communities built on mutual respect between officers and their community.

App State head football coach Shawn Clark stated in a May 30 tweet that racism and hatred has no place in society. He stated that he stood with his colleagues, friends and players of color.

“I hope that we can all listen to each other and not ignore the pain and fear that people of color live with on a regular basis,” Clark said. “We must do better. I stand against any form of racism in my community, workplace and locker room.”

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx made a June 2 statement and mentioned the peaceful protestors exercising their right to assemble and speak freely across the country. She also acknowledged the riots and looting taking place, and said those actions are “purely antithetical” to peacefully protesting.

“Sadly, mob rule — perpetrated by anarchists and bad actors — has taken hold in some places,” Foxx stated. “There is no excuse for this reckless behavior, and those responsible for committing these heinous acts must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This is no way to honor Mr. Floyd’s memory, and it creates further discord within our communities.”

Foxx sent her condolences to Floyd’s family, and endorsed her support for the full inquiry into his death. She added that the country needs to heal, and the best way to do so would be through unity.

During his May 31 comments, Cooper said people must constructively channel anger, frustration and sadness to force accountability and action. He added that more attention was being paid across the nation to the riots, tear gas, broken windows and stolen property, rather than the protestors’ calls for change.

“I want to remind everyone of something vitally important. We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets,” Cooper said. “Racism, excessive use of police force, health disparities, poverty, white supremacy — these are wrong. They are ugly, but they are present. We must deal with them. We will deal with them.”

Class of distinction: 2020 WHS graduates experience drive-thru commencement

BOONE — In a ceremony that was certainly different than years past, Watauga High School and Watauga Innovation Academy officials conferred diplomas to 335 seniors of the Class of 2020 during a drive-thru graduation on May 30.

“I know this is a ceremony that none of us will ever forget. It was a beautiful day filled for celebration and time to honor each individual student and family,” said Superintendent Scott Elliott. “It was a very appropriate ending for a class of special students we will never forget.”

School officials created a unique graduation experience for seniors in order to follow guidelines set forth by the state to remain socially distant due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene and Watauga County Director of Emergency Services Will Holt reviewed the WHS graduation plans and offered advice on how to ensure that the event was as safe and healthy as possible, according to Elliott.

Graduates and their families were lined up in vehicles and were guided through a route around the school’s parking lot. Once they arrived at the side of the school closest to the football field, families were able to exit their vehicles and watch their graduates cross an outdoor stage to receive their diploma.

Students would line up behind the stage with space between them to remain socially distant. One at a time, the seniors entered onto the stage and received their diploma with the help of Superintendent Scott Elliott, Watauga County Board of Education Chair Ron Henries and Watauga High School Principal Chris Blanton.

Numerous staff members assisted with traffic, greeted and directed the families to the stage as well as cheered seniors on as they left the stage, Elliott said. He mentioned that he, Blanton and WHS Assistant Principal and CTE Director Tierra Stark — who read the names aloud of each graduate — stood on the stage for eight consecutive hours to ensure each senior received their diploma. Once seniors exited the stage, they were given bags of items by Assistant Principal Rachel Shephard and Laura Turner.

Planning for this year’s graduation was a combination of efforts from WHS staff. Stark had the vision for creating an elevated stage where students would be able to walk across the top of the spirit rock located outside of the school as they received their diplomas. Elliott said construction teachers built the scaffolding and structure for the stage. Art teachers then created the mural on the rock.

Photographers and videographers were lined around the outside of the stage to capture the day. The Watauga Education Foundation helped to fund a live stream of the event — which was viewed around the world, Elliott said. A commemorative video with student speeches, music and the diploma ceremony will be available later in the week.

“We knew that for many people it would be difficult to attend graduation in person, so we wanted to be open to every option,” Elliott said.

The school system also had support from the community, local businesses and the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, he added. Elliott said the response from families and seniors who attended the graduation was very positive.

“Since the start of the pandemic, grace and flexibility has been our constant refrain, and our graduation ceremony really showed that our community has a great deal of both,” Elliott said. “While we wished nothing more than to be able to give our seniors the commencement they expected, it was an honor to be able to work with so many people to develop a creative solution to ensure that families could watch their senior cross the stage and receive a diploma.”

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Lauren Cottom’s family attends her graduation ceremony on May 30. Julia Parsons, Jamie Burlew-Cottom, Kaylee Cottom, Denise Cottom, Jordan Burlew-Cottom, Lauren Cottom, Lisa Cottom and Lenny Cottom.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Watauga High School Principal Chris Blanton hands McKenzie Bean his diploma alongside Watauga County Board of Education Chair Ron Henries.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Lena Combs shows support for her granddaughter, Haley Combs, while she accepts her high school diploma.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Christopher Adrion Cassidy prepares to accept his high school diploma during a graduation ceremony on May 30.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Marley Forrester is handed her diploma by Watauga High School Principal Chris Blanton.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

A line of vehicles — some adorned with balloons and posters — prepare to watch their graduates accept diplomas during a drive-thru graduation ceremony on May 30.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Andrew Freeman and Mitchell Greene smile after both accepting their diplomas on May 30.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Taniaya ‘Alexia’ Danner smiles after receiving her diploma during a drive-thru graduation.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

School officials and photographers stand at the ready during the May 30 drive-thru graduation.

Photo by Kayla Lasure 

Superintendent Scott Elliott, Watauga County Board of Education Chair Ron Henries and Watauga High School Principal Chris Blanton help to confer diplomas to seniors on May 30.

WHS/WIA drive-thru graduation