Chairman Grasso Makes Jokes as County Citizens Tell Emotional Stories of Racism

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The Anne Arundel County Council Chairman John Grasso (second from left), made jokes and cut off citizens' testimony during Monday's Council meeting where anti-hate legislation was introduced by Councilman Peter Smith (third from left). Photo: Anne Arundel County

On Monday, June 5th an anti-hate resolution was introduced with a profound testimony by a clearly emotional Councilman Peter Smith (District 1). The Councilman shared a personal story of his experiences with racism, including the heartbreaking story of his stepfather beaten with a shovel by three men when Smith was a young boy. The entire packed councilroom was visibly moved. Aisle by aisle we stood to show our appreciation both for the resolution and for Smith’s courage in sharing his own experience.

Smith explained how he came to public service to create a “command culture” of positivity, similar to the one he learned during his time in the military. However, the positivity intended by putting forth such a resolution was overshadowed by the careless comments made by the Chairman of the Council.

The carelessness began with Chairman John Grasso (district 2) addressing Councilman Pete Smith, an 18-year United States Marine Corps veteran, as “boy.” Civil Rights leader Carl Snowden took up his own testimony time to admonish the Chairman for this error. Yet even then, Grasso failed to see how the historical context of referring to a grown, black colleague as “boy” was shortsighted and ultimately disrespectful.

When introducing “African American Studies” into curriculums was suggested by William Rowel, Chairman Grasso felt comfortable joking, “How about Italian Studies! Nobody ever brings up the Italians anymore. What’s up with that deal?” There was a dead seriousness in Rowel’s proposal for next steps, a dead seriousness that Grasso did not seem to grasp. He failed to realize that Italians are already represented in the current school curriculum by figures such as Christopher Columbus. Unfortunately, this failure to think through the comment highlighted how inappropriate it indeed was.

Chairman Grasso had a lot to say throughout the night and felt empowered by his role to silence multiple citizens during their two minutes of public comment. After multiple instances of the Chairman yelling down discussion of Councilman Michael Peroutka’s (district 5) ties to the League of the South, Councilman Chris Trumbauer (district 6) suggested that the Chairman explain to the chamber calmly which rule he had been trying to enforce by yelling at us.

Rule 4-106 concerning Order and Decorum was read to the confused audience; members immediately noted that the censored testimony didn’t break the rules of decorum stated. This was further highlighted by a representative for the ACLU who highlighted the importance of the First Amendment of the Constitution in her testimony.

As the Chairman continued to silence audience members testifying their concern over Councilman Peroutka’s past affiliation with the League of the South, Councilman Smith advised that the discomfort many were feeling as they gave personal, painful testimonies should be met with appropriate solemnity and respect. He noted that members of the Council may be feeling uncomfortable as they hear the personal anecdotes and learn of community members experiences with racial violence but that they need to embrace the “mud being splattered [on them]” for the night. The pain that they may suffer in hearing these testimonies was nothing to the pain some audience members had suffered from acts of racism.

The majority of the council did respect the aura surrounding a long needed resolution concerning race in the county. They projected the respect deserved by the man in whose name the resolution should have been titled, the late Richard Wilbur Collins III. The council voted 7-0 both for the resolution and for adding the germane amendment denouncing the “white supremacy” that ultimately led to Collins’ murder.

Courageous citizens shared stories throughout the night of how they relate to Richard Wilbur Collins III and how they have experienced racial violence in their own lives. Throughout, Chairman Grasso’s discomfort with the conversation showed through his overly lighthearted demeanor.

I do not believe that Chairman Grasso is taking this resolution lightly. I believe that he is cosponsoring it because he too feels for Collins’ family and sees the concerns of the community regarding white supremacist activity threats, such as the noose hung at Crofton Middle School. In my opinion, Grasso’s often flippant comments evidence his discomfort with these difficult, painful topics.

In the spirit of Councilman Pete Smith’s advice, may we all endeavor to feel equally uncomfortable and to listen respectfully when confronted with new hard truths. No matter how they make us feel, may we endeavor to have the hard conversations as we fight for racial justice and equality. Doing so is a matter of life or death.

Rebecca Forte is a concerned citizen living in Severna Park.

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The full video of the Anne Arundel County meeting can be seen here. Councilman Pete Smith’s introduction to the legislation begins at 55:00 minutes into the recording.