Open Letter to County Council Chairman John Grasso

My middle school picture, taking the same year I was attacked by three older white boys who broke my wrist and called me racial slurs. Photo: Vickie Gipson
Vickie Gipson's elementary school photo, which was taken a few years before her arm was broken in hate crime attack.

Dear Chairman Grasso;

I met you on June 5th when I testified to the Anne Arundel County Council in support of the recently adopted Anti-Hate Resolution. The measure passed, but in retrospect, I wonder how seriously the Council views this resolution as an opportunity to create a lasting foundation for substantive inclusion of and sensitivity toward minorities in the Anne Arundel County legislative process.

During my statement, I shared that I am a victim of a hate crime. It happened on the way home from school over forty years ago. As I walked across the school grounds on my way home from junior high school, I was surrounded and attacked by a group of white boys. My arm was broken during this assault.

I think about this hate as arthritis sets in and my wrist aches more with each passing day. I think about this hate whenever I have to explain why my handwriting is barely legible, which is a direct result of this attack.

As I twist and turn each night, unable to get comfortable because my arm often hurts, I think of the attack and how it has taken away even the simplest pleasure of a peaceful night’s sleep.  For many of us who have experienced hate crimes, there is a direct connection between racism and physical harm.

There is no wonder why I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories of hate never leave you.  They sit and wait and then something will trigger them and it feels like you are drowning in a flood of emotions remembering the taunts, the sting of the rocks against your skin and the feeling of fear mixed with indignation.  How dare they call me a “NIGGER!” – I was “baby” to my mother; and, “precious” to my grandmother – but never “NIGGER!”

At the end of my statement to the Council, you quipped that one day you would share your own personal experiences. Your motivation confused me. Why would you respond to my testimony on a hate crime with a reference to you as a white man in America?  Would you have been so glib and cavalier if I were your White daughter, your White wife, your White mother, your White neighbor?

Would you have been so thoughtless… if I were White?

After my testimony, I began to wonder if what appeared to be your effort to marginalize my recollections of a hate crime was a knee-jerk reaction to an uncomfortable subject or an example of systemic racism?  Why did you, Chairman Grasso, use the derogatory reference “boy” to address Councilman Peter Smith, a black man?  Why did you censure the testimony of county citizens offering historical context regarding hate in Anne Arundel County, which included Councilman Michael Peroutka’s disturbing membership in the League of the South, a neo-Confederate secessionist organization? This affiliation was a subject of a news report, which included a clip of Councilman Peroutka leading this group in the Confederate anthem “I Wish I Was in Dixie.” Despite the fact that this is a well-known affiliation, you yelled that defamatory or untrue comments were being made about Councilman Peroutka as numerous county citizens attempted to testify. So the lesson learned might be that if the Council does not want to deal with an issue, someone can shout that the statements being made are defamatory and the matter will be swept under the rug.

I stated during my testimony that it did not matter to me whether Councilman Peroutka was once a member of a racist group; after all, people can change.

However, what is the ethical responsibility of the County Council to make sure that its members are fairly fulfilling their duties as government officials?  I believe that I found the answer in Public Ethics Law, Article 7§1-1-2, Anne Arundel County Code, which states:

“The County Council, recognizing that our system of representative government is dependent in part on the people maintaining the highest trust in County officials and employees, finds and declares that the people have a right to be assured that the impartiality and independent judgment of County officials and employees will be maintained; and that this confidence and trust is eroded when the conduct of the County’s business is subject to improper influence or even the appearance of improper influence.”

Wouldn’t this mandate suggest that there should be a full and fair investigation?  This will help establish the facts surrounding Peroutka’s involvement with an organization that may be perceived as juxtaposed to his role as a public servant. The council is obliged to determine whether there is the appearance of impropriety or whether there has been phenomenal personal growth for which credit should be given.

In the 21st century, we are acutely aware of the complexities of racism, including implicit bias and micro-aggression.  Racism is insidious and makes the life of the victim miserable.  In the legislative process, racist legislative actions or inactions take away opportunity and freedoms.  If a member of our community loses faith in the fairness of the legislative process, shouldn’t we keep the dialogue going no matter how unpleasant to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and given an equitable place at the table?

Again, I hope my comments will be taken in the spirit they are meant – one of reconciliation and healing.  I also hope that any rawness evoked by this discussion can be forgiven as a reflection of the pain that I live with every day. This pain may never go away, but with your leadership and willingness as Chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council, we all may have an equitable place at the table.

Yours truly,

Vickie Gipson

Vickie Gipson has lived in the Annapolis area since 2005. Most of that time she lived in the historically Black community Venice Beach, which neighbors Highland Beach. Highland is also a historically black community in Annapolis. Both of these communities have a rich history and strong sense of community. Vickie Gipson hopes to share this strength of community with others in Annapolis by encouraging open discussions of uncomfortable subjects about race to eliminate the cataclysmic racial divide in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

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.

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