Montgomery County police removed four members and supporters of Macedonia Baptist Church from Wednesday’s Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission meeting when they continued to protest at a public forum where they demanded a historic Bethesda cemetery be protected from development.
Some 75 residents packed into the meeting room and many spoke about memorializing the site of a historically-black cemetery in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood.
For the last two years, the church has been pressing to have the burial ground memorialized, which would make it illegal for the county to plan any development there, but there had never been a confrontation with police during public meetings.
The four were given citations for disorderly conduct and trespassing but not taken into custody.
As the forum came to a close at HOC’s offices in Kensington, activists gathered near the commission members, singing and chanting.
HOC Chairwoman Jackie Simon was unable to move the meeting to the next topic on the agenda and county police officer Chris Hackley stepped in and warned the group for a third time that continued disruption would lead to their arrest.
When the protest continued, Hackley and another officer escorted the four out of the meeting room and into a limited-access section of the building.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Tim Willard, Mary Rooker and Lynn Pekkanen emerged after about 20 minutes and held an impromptu news conference.
“What happened here today was really important,” said Coleman-Adebayo, who chairs the church’s Social Justice Ministry. “This was an act of conscience. We can no longer come to HOC month after month and be ignored. This was our opportunity to really convey the fact that we are not going to allow business to continue as usual.”
The four protesters were given citations for being disorderly and trespassing, Hackley said, and they will be required to appear in court on the charges.
Officers allowed the four to address the media and supporters before escorting them from the building, and their chanting resumed.
The police intervention was the first ever at an HOC meeting, an official said.
Pekkanen said she had reached out to police by email before the meeting, expressing concerns for her safety after the HOC called the police during a previous meeting, she said.
During the public testimony session, Coleman-Adebayo continued her remarks after her three-minute time limit expired. As officials urged her to leave the microphone and called the next speaker, others shouted their support and began singing.
Hackley, the police officer, then issued a warning that anyone violating meeting rules would be removed.
The church group has been trying since early 2017 to have the area turned over to the church and made into a memorial, preventing the county from developing the land, much of which is home to the Westbard Tower apartments.
The HOC, which runs public housing programs, bought the property in December 2017.
“None of us are responsible for the things that other people did before we were born,” resident Mike Mage said. “That’s just not logical. But, when they come to our attention and their consequences come to our attention, it then becomes our responsibility.”
County Executive Marc Elrich offered his assistance to the group at a November HOC meeting, and said he would serve as liaison between the two sides.
Speakers referred to Elrich’s support, as well as that of other government entities.
“You’re still telling us untruths, hiding behind bureaucracy, and what bugs me about it is you don’t seem to see that you’re the villain in this story,” resident Bill Cook said.
The HOC distributed a staff report before the meeting on its support for the memorialization of the site.
The report states the HOC has met with the church, its supporters and relatives of those buried in the cemetery to work out solutions.
The HOC is not convening an advisory group, has taken no developmental actions toward building a parking lot on the property and did not purchase the parcel with taxpayer money, according to the report.
“HOC has and will continue to make room for and listen to community stakeholders on efforts to memorialize the Moses Cemetery,” the report said.