Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando on Sunday said he plans to introduce local legislation that would declare racism a public health emergency.
Jawando spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people gathered at Pilgrim Hills Local Park in the White Oak area to grieve the deaths of black people in police custody.
Jawando, who is black, said “racism is embedded in every system and structure we have” in America, including health care, economic development, transportation and environmental issues.
“This has been a tough week, obviously, but it’s been a tough lifetime, too,” Jawando said. “… I’ve known for a long time this system is unjust. One of the reasons I got into public service was because of that, and trying to make that change at an individual and systemic level.”
He did not say when he would introduce the legislation, but in a Twitter post on Saturday, he said it would happen “in the coming week.”
The ceremony on Sunday was not a protest or a rally. It was called a “homegoing ceremony” to honor George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both black people recently killed by police. Organized by the grassroots group Racial Justice NOW!, the ceremony also honored Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by armed white residents in Georgia.
Attendees sat in the grass, listening to speakers. Most wore masks and sat a distance away from others who were not family or friends.
Montgomery County Parks Police and county police were present, but remained at the entrance to the park, directing traffic.
Robert Stubblefield, a speaker during the event, mentioned several black men who Montgomery County police shot and killed in recent years, including Robert White in 2018 and Finan Berhe in May.
White, of Silver Spring, was shot and killed in June 2018 during an altercation with police. Police said White was combative and assaulted the officer. It was later revealed he was unarmed.
Berhe was killed in May of this year after police say he rushed toward an officer while holding a knife.
Advocates question whether Berhe was suffering from a mental health crisis and argue the officer used unnecessary force without trying to de-escalate the situation.
“This isn’t something that’s happening in some other far-off place like Minneapolis,” Stubblefield said of police brutality. “This happened right here in our backyard and we cannot afford to be silent anymore.”
Jawando said “the latitude for an officer to use deadly force is too wide, and we have to narrow that.”
He said he is “working on several things related to the use of force” by police at the local level.
“I don’t want to be here 20 years from now saying the same thing about the same young men and young women who have lost their lives at the hands of a racist system,” Jawando said. “… There’s a lot of reasons we die, but none are more pernicious and pronounced than when you see a knee on a neck for eight minutes and you have to watch — watch — someone die. It’s unacceptable.”
Jawando has been an outspoken critic of police overreach in his time on the council.
In January 2019, he introduced a bill that requires an independent investigation whenever a Montgomery County police officer is involved in the death of a resident. He was also co-sponsor of a bill that creates a 13-member police advisory commission to guide the department on best practices.
He has publicly questioned local officers’ use of force, and, in June 2019, he said he was racially profiled when he was stopped by a state police trooper in White Oak for a minor traffic infraction.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org