Tensions over Ferguson shooting spur concerns here

CHARLES TOWN – As hundreds turned out last weekend for Charles Town’s annual African-American Culture and Heritage Festival, many attendees found themselves opening up about the unrest continuing in Ferguson, Mo., after an unarmed black teen’s slaying by a police officer.

“We represent people who fought for their rights and freedom 150 years ago,” explained Robert Ford, who attended the festival in the Union uniform he wears as a Civil War re-enactor. “And unfortunately, a lot of those same battles are still being fought. It’s happening in Missouri.”

Many in the black citizens simply aren’t treated the way their white counterparts are, said his fellow re-enactor Robert Wright. “My parents told me, when I started driving, they’d leave a note [in the car] that had their name on, who owns this car, and all of that stuff – that’s just something you give the cops, that’s just a thing you had to do 40 or 50 years ago.”

Ford said 18-year-old Michael Brown – whose killing Aug. 9 sparked ongoing protests in the suburb of St. Louis – didn’t deserve to die that way.

“They say that he robbed a convenience store or something like that,” Ford said. “But that supposition right now but even if he did steal a carton of cigarettes – that should not be something that his life was taken over. … That is just a simple offense, not a felony. It’s something that you get fined for.”

Someone who steals deserves to be punished, Ford said. “But the punishment is designed in the law –  due process,” he said. “We aren’t supposed to be a vigilante society.”

Kathleen Kerwin also attended the Charles Town festival and said she believes the election of Barak Obama as the nation’s first black president has worsened racial tension across the United States.

“He’s being president while black,” she said. “I was so hopeful [when he was inaugurated in 2009], but these idiots that we have in our Congress, I don’t know why we’re paying them when they aren’t working. They keep bringing up the same thing and then they go on vacation. It’s Congress that’s saying ‘We’re not going to vote for anything you do [President Obama], forget it.’ I don’t know how they’re getting away with it.”

Richard Newman said he isn’t sure Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown six times, acted out of racial prejudice. But, he said, police “used their authority too much before they knew what was going on. They need to try to find out what is going on before using force.”

Frances Moody said she doesn’t like what she’s seeing and hearing from Ferguson. “I don’t like the rioting, but I hope they found out what happened,” she said. “Whatever happened, I hate to see a child’s life taken because a drunk driver took my son [21 years ago]. So, anything like that, I can’t handle.

“I don’t think he should have died. He wasn’t armed, that’s what I’m saying. It’s so sad.”

Like many at the festival, Aaron Robinson said he’s been stopped by police without cause.

“They said [Brown] was robbing somebody and got in trouble for stealing at the store, but I think it’s more racist than anything,” he said. “It kind of brings back Trayvon Martin to be honest with you.”

Trayvon Martin, 17, was unarmed when he was shot to death Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., by George Zimmerman.

The 28-year-old, who said he’d acted in self-defense, cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute and initially wasn’t charged in Martin’s death. Stand-your-ground laws say a person in a public place does not have to retreat from a confrontation before shooting to kill in self-defense.

After a special prosecutor brought charges, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in mid-2013.

– Jocelyn Robinson also took the photographs that accompany this article

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