Peaceful protesters in Bethesda condemn construction on historic African cemetery

UPDATED: Peaceful protesters in Bethesda condemn construction on historic African cemetery

Group has dispute with man who says he supports them, but didn't want them on his property

| Published:

Protesters sing outside of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda on June 8. The group protested construction on the site of the historical Moses African Cemetery, as well as the deaths of three black men shot by police in Montgomery County.

Photos by Briana Adhikusuma

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. June 9, 2020, with more details of a dispute between protesters and a man in an SUV.

A line of protesters on Monday clung to a chain-link fence surrounding a construction site, with brown dirt pushed into piles and scattered construction equipment.

One protester shook his head as he gazed at the dirt that had been dug around and on a portion of a historically black cemetery in Bethesda.

Most of Moses African Cemetery has already been built over — buried bodies underneath the ground that was paved over with asphalt to create a parking lot for the Westwood Tower apartments, adjacent to ongoing construction for Bethesda Self Storage Partners.

A group has battled the county for years in an attempt to keep the land undisturbed.

There was a momentary silence on Monday as protesters looked down at the construction site on Monday evening.

The Montgomery County residents had gathered to protest the construction on the burial ground, as well as police brutality and racial injustice that they say happened in the deaths of three black men in the county: Emmanuel Okutuga, Robert White and Finan Berhe.

Okutuga was shot by police officer Christopher Jordan in February 2011 after he allegedly assaulted a security guard at City Place Mall in Silver Spring.

Police reported at the time that Okutuga was carrying an ice pick and refused to put it down. Organizers of the protest said the prosecutor’s officer “mistakenly” deleted the video footage of the shooting.

White, who struggled with mental illness and was unarmed, was identified as a suspicious person by police officer Anand Badjugar in June 2018 while White was walking near his home in Silver Spring.

Badgujar shot White multiple times during a reported struggle after Badjugar attempted to speak to him, according to police. White died.

Berhe was shot by Sgt. David Cohen on May 8, 2020. A police body cam shows Cohen repeatedly telling Berhe, who had a butcher knife in his hand, to get back and get on the ground. Berhe comes toward Cohen once, then retreats and waits, with Cohen still yelling directions.

Suddenly, Berhe again rushes at Cohen, who fires several shots, killing him.

Organizers of Monday’s protest said Berhe was suffering from a mental health crisis that should have been handled by a specialist, not by the police.

Monday’s protest in Bethesda came as protests have been held across the county and the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, who was black, died after a white police officer detained him during an investigating, pinned him on the ground and pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

The officer has been charged with murder. Three other officers also are facing criminal charges. All four were fired.

“No justice! No peace!”

The peaceful protesters chanted as they marched from Macedonia Baptist Church to the cemetery.

As they walked toward the gravel road that led to the overlook of the site, a white SUV drove past caution tape blocking the road and stopped beside the protesters. The group was standing in front of Bethesda Collision Repair Center.

A man driving the SUV rolled down his window and yelled at the protesters, “Stop making noise!” and “Get off my property!” According to a video of the exchange posted on Instagram on Monday night, he told the group he was the owner of the property and had blocked it off, and he asked them to leave. He told protesters, “I agree with everything you guys are doing,” but said he did not want protesters using his property.

The man called the police, at one point describing what was happening as a “riot,” which sparked more yelling from the group. Protesters filmed him as he argued with them. They confronted him about why he was calling the police and why he wouldn’t let them continue walking. (The man later corrected himself to a dispatcher and said there was no rioting.)

Some community leaders who helped organize the event tried to explain that they were peacefully marching. Others grabbed younger protesters away from the front of the SUV.

Another man in the passenger seat was filming on his phone.

As the driver continued to tell them to get off the property, many in the crowd chanted, “Shame on you!,” then eventually continued walking.

After the group spent around 20 minutes at the site, a volunteer at the event told Bethesda Beat that a police officer showed up at the site. The officer did not kick the protesters off the property. Event leaders decided to ask everyone to leave to avoid any escalation, the volunteer said.

As the protesters walked back to the church, the driver, who was outside the SUV at that point, held his phone up as if he were recording and told protesters to “have a nice day.”

The protesters ignored him as they continued to chant and hold up signs that read “Black Lives Matter in Life and Death,” “End Police Brutality” and “Black Ancestors Matter.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the protest group issued a statement calling for Montgomery County law enforcement to arrest the SUV driver.

Earlier Monday evening, the protesters held signs outside the church and gathered to hear from several speakers about racial injustice, community unity and police brutality. The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition organized the protest and march.

Coleman-Adebayo told Bethesda Beat that the church and county government officials have fought over the use of the land for around four years.

“It has been a very long, tough struggle. One of the reasons why it’s been so long and so hard is that land in Bethesda is precious. It’s so expensive,” she said. “To a large extent, they just do not believe that black people have a right to land. That’s always been a fundamental problem with this country.”

The church used to be right beside the cemetery, which means the cemetery belongs to the church, she said.

“This church is the only institution that has a right to speak for the descendants [and] the ancestors in Moses African Cemetery,” she said. “The county has just been very difficult in terms of just doing the right thing and telling the truth about this struggle.”

Coleman-Adebayo and other organizers urged the protesters to boycott county businesses every Monday, which they called “Justice Mondays.” The boycott will exclude businesses owned by minorities.

The organizers said the boycott will continue until the county officers involved in the deaths of Okutuga, White and Berhe are charged and arrested. It will also continue until the desecration of the cemetery stops, they said.

“Look at what’s happening here,” Coleman-Adebayo said, gesturing to the crowd in front of the church. “Politicians know how to count numbers.”

The Rev. George Gilbert of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., told the group that he and his 12-year-old daughter were recently protesting against police brutality and racism in the District. Police shot tear gas canisters, but Gilbert said he told his daughter to stay put.

“I said, ‘Don’t run. I want you to feel this. I want you to remember this.’ She said, ‘Daddy, why don’t you want me to run?’ I said, ‘Because this will help you fight when you become older.’”

Between speakers, the group chanted “Arrest Police” and “No justice! No peace!”

As cars drove by, they honked their horns in support of the protesters gathered in front of the small white church.

The Rev. Segun Adebayo of the Macedonia church told the protesters that they needed to destroy white supremacy.

“A change is going to come. A change has to come,” he said. “Without justice, there can be no peace. We are tired of living like rats. … We don’t take pleasure in marching. We don’t take pleasure in demonstrating.”

Black people should be able to walk on the street without fear while they are alive, he said, and should be able to rest in peace when they are dead.

Click below for more photos.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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