Who Are the People Leading the Protests in Stark County?
CANTON (News Talk 1480 WHBC) – For the past three weeks, the streets of Canton, along with numerous other areas in Stark County have seen their share of foot traffic. Following the brutal death of George Floyd, millions of people throughout the world have gathered together to protest police brutality, racial injustices and inequality.
While in some areas, things have died down, the drive to create change is still going strong locally. Numerous groups continue to march, chant, rally and meet with city leaders, hoping to use the tragic event as a turning point.
WHBC has done its best to cover as many demonstrations, group discussions and developments as possible. However, some might still wonder the following: Just who are the leaders of these groups? What are their actual goals? What is being done to create this change? And finally, has any progress been made?
Below is an outline on the groups that are continuing to strive for a better tomorrow in Stark County.
The Ohio Community Coalition
Leaders: Sierra Mason (President), Curstynn Marks, Abigail Henry, Kenneth Freeda, Jeremiah Covert, Nathaniel Moran, Edward Dodson, Ashley Marie Green, Jamar Flemming.
Mission: “Community Advancement, Policy Change, Radical Inclusion”
Formerly known as the original Unity Coalition of Canton, the Ohio Community Coalition has since re-branded itself after going through a few changes in leadership. Led primarily by three young women from Stark County, the group has successfully raised funding for events, supplies and bail for if any protesters are arrested during demonstrations.
Formed during the first weekend of the protests, the group has been the most active in Stark County. Their demonstrations and marches were viewed by millions through live coverage on WHBC’s Facebook page.
Some of their most notable moments include officers joining them in a march down Tuscarawas Street (Monday, June 1), Just a few days later, Canton Police Captain John Gabbard had his men kneel with the group to pray in unity (Wednesday, June 3).
Canton Mayor Tom Bernabei has also been seen marching with the group on multiple occasions.
Our Mayor,Thomas Bernabei of Canton Ohio came out to protest with us!!🖤🖤🖤 #cantonohio #BlackLivesMatter #blacklifematters #Peacefulprotest #GeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/ORH8dfx0ju
— Shae 🧡 (@Shaee_babyy) June 3, 2020
However, all of these moments took place when the group was under the past leadership, which included Levi Hunter. Current leadership of the Ohio Community Coalition tells WHBC News that Hunter was removed from his role on Friday, June 12 due to numerous disagreements on decision making and overall direction.
They claim Hunter allegedly failed to show up to numerous events and made multiple decisions without the full group’s consent. Upon removal from his position, Hunter was still welcomed to be a part of the group, but declined.
While Hunter often served as one of the vocal leaders of the demonstrations, it was Mason, Abby Henry and Curstynn Marks who did a bulk of the “behind the scenes work” which included raising money, establishing the group as a non-profit and creating a presence on social media, where they have eclipsed over 1,900 followers on their platforms in less than a month.
Since Hunter’s departure, the group has shifted its efforts to spread a county-wide message. After weeks of demonstrations taking place downtown, Ohio Community Coalition has led peaceful protests in other parts of the area, including the Belden Village Mall, Hartville, Massillon and in front of Perry High School.
“We want to help everyone, not just the people we know personally,” said group President Sierra Mason. “That is why we are going all over Stark County. We need everyone in the area, and even the state to understand that we want things to change, and for the better.”
Three Biggest Goals
- Protecting Children’s Fifth Amendment Rights: Current Ohio law allows authorities to question minors without a parent or guardian present. While minors do have the right to exercise their fifth amendment, sometimes, they are unaware of this right. The Ohio Community Coalition tells WHBC News that it plans to start a petition that will require a guardian to be present in order for a minor to be questioned in the state of Ohio.
- Body Cameras for Undercover Police Officers: The group tells WHBC News that it believes a big answer to the police brutality problem in America is a heavier presence of body cameras. In 2015, the state of Ohio put a law into place that makes police body camera footage subject to open record laws. However, not all law enforcement officers wear body cameras while on the job. The Ohio Community Coalition aims to change that, starting with officers who are in plain clothes or undercover.
- Police Disciplinary Database: The third and final major goal of the Ohio Community Coalition is to help the public know who is enforcing the law in their area. The group is lobbying for Stark County to create a database that will present information on all area police officers who are reprimanded due to their conduct while on the job.
“If an officer in one city is forced to resign due to police brutality and then is hired by the department in the next town over, the public should know about it,” said Mason. “We have seen the news report stories on local officers being reprimanded but that is not enough. This needs to be public information.”
The group is currently working with and being guided by the NAACP. Additionally, local faith leader and business owner Jamar Fleming has recently re-affiliated himself with the group, assisting with political outreach.
Fleming had stepped away from the group after Hunter asked him to do so for reasons unknown. Following Hunter’s departure, Fleming is now back in the mix.
The Unity Coalition of Canton
Leaders: Levi Hunter (Founder), Eric Osborne, Elijah Lamar, Cierra Johnson
Mission: “To build community enrichment centers/programs. This will include but not limited to developing educational programs to reduce recidivism, teach mannerisms, history, mental & physical health and provide recreational activities. Also assist with bills, the homeless, voter registration and education.”
After splitting up with the original Unity Coalition of Canton for what he deemed “different views and visions for the community,” Hunter decided to once again, start up another protest group. While the Ohio Community Coalition has a county-wide approach, the new version of the Unity Coalition of Canton remains focused on first creating change in the city of Canton.
Over the past few weeks, Hunter and Elijah Lamar, another member of the original group, have worked to build a relationship with multiple city leaders, most notably, Canton Mayor Tom Bernabei. Hunter claims that he and the Mayor have met at least five or six times and the discussions continue to get better as time goes on.
Bernabei has gone on record expressing his appreciation toward Hunter, telling WHBC News the following during an interview about his endorsement of the Eight Can’t Wait campaign:
“In a week of protests, there has been no burning, no looting and very minor property damage,” said Bernabei. “I credit the police but I also want to credit the leadership of the protesters.”
The Mayor specifically gave credit to Levi Hunter, one of the leaders of the Unity Coalition of Canton, who so far has been the main group leading a majority of the protests in the city.
Aside from meetings with the Mayor, Unity Coalition has also met with Canton police Chief Jack Angelo, faith leaders and local business owners.
Earlier this week, Unity Coalition of Canton posted a video on its Facebook page, featuring the four group leaders standing along side Mayor Bernabei and Safety Director Andrea Perry. In the video, Hunter, Perry and Bernabei highlighted the many areas of improvement discussed during the multiple meetings.
“We do have a lot of good programs in place, we need more programs. We have good training in place, we need more training,” said Mayor Bernabei in the video when reflecting on Canton’s law enforcement policies. “We recognize that. I think the state and the nation is recognizing that.”
Perhaps the most notable part of the video is when Mayor Bernabei discussed the issue of economic equity. The Mayor says he and the group have had discussions about creating jobs for the Black community.
Mayor Bernabei was unable to be reached for comment for this story.
Earlier this week, Unity Coalition attempted to join a protest being ran by the Ohio Community Coalition. Unity Coalition arrived to the event in a limousine which was not met with a warm welcome, according to anonymous sources. Both groups have gone on the record saying that they hope to successfully work together in the future.
After this story was published, a social media post was made by the Ohio Community Coalition about one of their members pulling a knife during a confrontation between the two groups. No one was injured during the altercation. You can read more about the entire encounter on the group’s Facebook page.
Three Biggest Goals
- Two Hours Outside of the Car: The first piece of legislation the group is working to create is a policy that would force Canton Police officers to spend two hours of their shift outside of their patrol vehicle, walking the beat and interacting with the community that they work in.
- Better Use of the Northeast Community Center: The group looks at the Northeast community center as a place that has immense potential for developing community enrichment. Hunter tells WHBC News that the group has discussed ideas of using the facility for anything between a youth center to a public school.
- “More than Sports”: The group has been very vocal toward providing area youth with more options than sports leagues. Group leaders spoke about summer camp or after school programs that would teach subjects like science, life skills, everyday economics, Black history and more.
The group is currently receiving assistance and guidance from Willis Gordon of the NAACP. Gordon has reportedly joined Unity Coalition during meetings with local leaders. Hunter also added that Samuel Muhammad, a leader in the community and Hunter’s personal mentor, has also provided guidance for the group’s decision making.
Be the Change Alliance
Leaders: Kylee Cheatwood, Serena Draper-Hendershot, Skyler Parks
Mission: “To become a liaison for resources that can help implement change through pre-existing organizations within the community.”
Unlike the first two groups mentioned, this group of local activists will rarely be scene marching the streets and chanting for change.
“Our method of action is more behind the scenes,” said one of the group’s leaders Kylee Cheatwood. “We respect what the other groups are doing. We just think we can help make a difference by going a different route.”
The Be the Change Alliance has a very heavy focus on policy. Each week, the group welcomes in other community leaders, faith leaders, business owners and more to have an open forum discussion on how the community can come together.
Some of these discussions have been over zoom chats or conference calls while others have been in public settings.
Currently, the group is working on expanding its reach within the community. Through the discussions mentioned above, group leaders say they have gathered an idea of appropriate starting points to direct their efforts. Their plan is to host events and further promote existing organizations that strive to improve education and equal opportunity.
Three Biggest Goals
- Eliminating Qualified Immunity: Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officials performing discretionary functions are immune from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official clearly and knowingly violated a legal right. The group says it aims to hold everyone to the same level of accountability, regardless of status, title, profession, race, family or any other circumstances.
- Improving Police Education: The group believes a large chunk of the issues law enforcement is currently facing stems from a poor education process during their training program. Similar to the other groups, they believe integrating police with the community during their training will help officers gain a better perspective and understanding about the area to which they will be working in.
- Youth Development: The group is currently exploring a wide range of options and avenues to help local youth. They include: resources, initiatives, programs and extra education.
Be the Change Alliance has a large cast of leaders who have given them consultation and advice on how to put their ideas into action. Cheatwood tells WHBC News that the two biggest local influences have been Sarah Schmidt, assistant director for the office of Global Initiatives at KSU Stark and Richard Harper, a recent graduate from the Georgetown University Law Center and co-founder of Connecting Our Youth.