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Chester County Press

A young catalyst for change

06/08/2020 02:39PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

In the immediate aftermath of the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Naomi Simonson, a 20-year-old Kennett Square resident and 2017 graduate of Kennett High School, witnessed the world’s powerful and immediate response, seen and heard in protests in American cities and across the globe.

Simonson then wrote a message on Twitter, saying that she would love to see a similar protest in Kennett Square under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter. Nearly from the time the note was sent, the tweet blew up. She engaged her friends – among them Anna Brunke, Charlotte Schmitt, Ben Skross and Maria Zavala -- who pounded their keyboards to advertise the event, which was set for Monday, June 1 at 8 a.m. in Kennett Square Borough. They posted notices on social media. They created signage to be used for the march. They connected with area organizations. In between, Simonson made all of the necessary phone calls, and reached out to a few of her fellow graduates at Kennett High School who were now forming protests in their college towns.

The entire event took only three days to create, and Simonson had no idea what to expect.

“I was telling people that the best-case scenario would be 50 to 100 people, but it would be embarrassing if only 20 people showed up,” she said. “I was in constant communication with the Kennett Police Department, and they asked me to provide and estimate. I told them, ‘I don’t think that many people are going to show up…maybe 100 or so.’”

The evening before the event, Simonson wrote the following on her social media page:

“I have every hope that this will be a successful protest. Our voices will be heard. What’s happening in this country to black people every single day is a despicable atrocity. Police officers are committing murder fueled by racism and our justice system enables them. George Floyd is a name on a long list of unresisting black people blatantly murdered by the police and that list isn’t even comprehensive. We live in a world where we had to start a movement to advocate for the fact that our lives matter as much as anyone else’s.

“We live in a world where white people can wave armed rifles in the faces of cops capable of committing mass murder at any time and remained unharmed, yet when black people peacefully kneel to protest yet another senseless murder, we are hit with tear gas and abused. It’s undeniable that racism is ingrained into the justice system. Remember, cops are sworn in to protect ALL people, not just the ones who look like them.

“On Monday, the people of Kennett are coming together to say, ENOUGH.”

On June 1, Simonson arrived in the borough at 7 a.m., and as the start of the protest drew near, a member of the police department contacted her. ‘You may want to get here quickly,” the message read. ‘There are a lot of people here.’

Wearing a plastic see-through face shield and a mask and carrying a small megaphone, Simonson ran up the alleyway steps near Lily’s Asian Cuisine and emerged onto State Street. Up and down both sides of the street, she couldn’t comprehend what she saw in front of her: an estimated 500 people of many hues and nationalities crowded the sidewalks, many of whom carried signs of protest and support.

“I was seeing all of these protestors come together in big cities and small towns, and I felt that I wanted to be a part of this movement,” she said. “Then it clicked. I could do this march here. We can do this together. I realized that I don’t need to go somewhere else to protest. There are so many people in this community who are affected by this issue. There’s no better place to address this issue than in the place where I live.”

For the next hour, Simonson’s amplified voice was often drowned out by her fellow protestors, who, after a nine-minute moment of silence in honor of Floyd, began a peaceful march of solidarity that looped around parts of the borough, traversing Meredith Street, West Cypress Street, Union Street, the steps of Kennett High School, and back to the corner of State and Union by way of Broad Street.

“I was trying to figure out what the goal of this march would be, but at the end of the day, it was about the people of Kennett echoing this movement, and that we’re trying to build up our power and see things for the better,” Simonson said. “The Black Lives Matter has existed for a long time before June 1, but now we’re a part of that movement.”

There was special significance for Simonson to see the march take up most of the outdoor steps of her alma mater. When she was a student at Kennett High School, she experienced various forms of racism of negative stereotyping, a feeling she said extended not only to African American students, but to Hispanic students.

“I saw many of my peers struggle, simply because they were perceived to be troublemaker and problematic -- a weapon in our town and our community,” said Simonson, who will enter her senior year at West Chester University in the fall. “Our skin color is not a weapon, but often times, we are weaponized. A person’s high school years are incredibly transformative. These are the years that can build you up, but these are also the years that can also tear you down.

“It was a time when a lot of our lives intersected, and where they changed, and sometimes it wasn’t for the best.”

With the power, outreach and momentum of the June 1 Black Lives Matter event still resonating, Simonson is already at work to carry the movement further. She is organizing a future online video conference with Chief Holdsworth, and has created an email address for those who wish to become more involved in the movement – ksqblm@gmail.com. Members of the community can send Simonson messages, ideas and questions, some of which will be discussed during the online meeting.

While the Black Lives Matter march served as an hour-long megaphone for 500 voices, the tenor and rise of that sound was stilled for a period of nine minutes when Simonson urge the protestors to kneel on one knee for a moment of silence to Floyd. Soon, they were joined by Kennett Square Police Chief William T. Holdsworth, Patrol Officer J.D. Boyer, Corporal Kenneth Rongaus and Chaplain Annalie Korengel.  

“I was incredibly overwhelmed,” Simonson said of the moment.  “Their kneeling was symbolic of the goal of what we were trying to do. It’s one thing for the people of the African American community to come together and take a stand, but we can’t do it alone. Kneeling is not the end of this, but it’s a first step, the first statement. It establishes a dialogue between the police and our community, and we’re starting to have that dialogue.

“It will take a lot of work, not only from the people but from lawmakers alike,” she added. “This will not end until the racism that is a part of the current police system of justice ends. It demands not just a reform, but a complete and total restructuring.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@hestecounty.com.