By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Senior Staff Writer
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
The quote has been attributed, correctly or not, to Benjamin Franklin of late, more so in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman. It is both a corollary to realizing the dream of all men being created equal and a cautionary tale of life in an impermeable bubble – a bubble Claire Shearburn wants to challenge, if ever so gently.
Shearburn is a senior majoring in sociology at Tulane. She, along with boyfriend Russell Burton, left the New Orleans area in early
March, taking refuge from COVID-19 in the Kiawah Island home her parents bought in 2014.
Room to roam a secluded beach and watch pelicans dare wave crests seemed the perfect way to avoid the plague until Floyd’s death made them pine for the college scene. They decided to do what they could, where they were, with what they had, instead of making the 12-hour drive back to New Orleans.
“We were debating whether to travel home to New Orleans or go into Charleston, but we thought, ‘why don’t we do something here instead?’ The golf courses, pools, beaches are packed – business as usual. It seemed like we were living in a bubble,” Burton said.
The all caps subject line of the email Shearburn sent at 12:53 p.m. on June 1 made their intentions clear enough: “PEACEFUL PROTEST IN FRESHFIELDS.” The invitation read, in part, “As a college student from New Orleans, I feel completely helpless while watching thousands protest the unlawful killing of George Floyd, one of the MANY black people murdered by police every year. … I write this SOLELY to invite anyone who would like to join (us) for a peaceful protest in the center of Freshfields around 4 p.m. I believe that we, as an extremely privileged/majority white community, can at the very least physically stand up for people of color who are oppressed on a daily basis. …”
Despite the last-minute invitation, at least 18 people showed up on a bright sunny afternoon, while socially distancing and wearing face masks. Three sheriff’s deputies watched from the wings, while most passersby, whether in cars or on foot, honked or waved to voice their support. The rally ended promptly at 5 p.m., as Shearburn quickly herded attendees to anywhere else but the Freshfields’ green, pausing briefly to exchange flowers with the deputies.
Shearburn’s use of a private email group to organize the event drew mixed reactions. There seemed little salve for those who might catch wind of the rally and use it as an excuse to pillage Freshfields. Media outlets nationwide have certainly reported plenty of property damage as peaceful daytime marches drift into dark-of-night riots. The private email group provided some protection, and the short time frame between announcement and execution probably took care of the rest.
Shearburn’s parents – John Shearburn and Annette Allen – stepped in to address any concerns their daughter co-opted access to the private email list, saying, “Thank you … all for your range of comments on the difficult subjects of George Floyd and racial inequality and social justice. We understand your concern about this gathering. … due to protests that have crossed the line into violent destruction of property. These
actions should be condemned, but one of the most treasured principles of our country is that everyone who has a view should be able to express it.
“[We] want to make one thing clear. Claire Shearburn is our daughter and is staying in our home. … on Kiawah Island … she is currently in online summer school. She is not an agitator, infiltrator or hacker. She is a wonderful person who cares deeply about this country and wants to exercise her right to peacefully protest. … We are proud of her and support her decision,” read parts of their emailed response to the kerfuffle.
Kiawah resident Mark Sinsky had an equally poignant response. “… I was one of the ‘Kiawah 18’ that stood up with my sign ‘Be Nice.’ We received probably 100 honking, smiling and thumbs up returns. Only one ‘F— y–.’”
“Our building in Asheville was the most damaged during the protests there. … tagged walls and broken windows. … But I will only speak or listen to the injustice of the damage brought on me after first acknowledging the greater injustice of the murder of George Floyd. … Where should the outrage be?
“I would say I wish I had a daughter like (Claire), but, in fact, I already have three. Lovely, successful, kindhearted women who ARE making the world a better place. It seems like we all need to listen (in this case) to our children.”
The protests continue.
There’s been someone at the Seabrook/Kiawah traffic circle, rain or shine, every single day since.
The national media quotes protest organizers claiming the peaceful portion of their rallies will continue into the fall.
Violence tends to take center stage, but it doesn’t have to, as the event at Freshfields suggests. Race won’t ever stop being an issue until those who aren’t affected stand with those who are.