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Community rallies for equality

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Krystle Lewis holds a sign along Water Street during Sunday's Equality Rally for Unity and Pride at Mariners' Wharf, Sunday. The event coincided with national marches held Sunday.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A rally at Mariners’ Wharf Park in Elizabeth City on Sunday drew more than 200 people in support of equality and justice for gay, lesbian and transgender people, and called for unity around progressive solutions to pressing problems.

Organizers of the Equality Rally for Unity and Pride said attendance peaked around 80, with many others attending part of the event sometime during the day.

Numerous others waved as they drove by or honked in response to “Honk if you love equality” signs. There was only one report of negative feedback — a passing motorist who flashed an obscene gesture at rally participants.

Kathy Mudge of Elizabeth City said she enjoyed the spirit of unity at the rally.

“I love the message here about inclusion and love and working together to benefit the whole,” Mudge said. “It just makes more sense. We can make more progress this way, without all the division.”

Unity and inclusion are concerns that motivated her to be part of the event, she said.

“It’s just mostly about inclusion for everybody,” Mudge said.

Catherine Cuningham, secretary of NorthEast North Carolina Progressives and one of the event’s organizers, spoke about being an effective ally and advocate for marginalized groups. 

“We really just wanted to jump in and make a really big impact on our community,” said Cuningham, a stay-at-home mom who runs an online baby hats business. ”This is really our big inaugural event.”

Luke Marcum, a detective with the Elizabeth City Police Department, also spoke at Sunday’s event. He spoke about the department’s work with area agencies and organizations to combat and to treat opioid addiction.

“We realize that from our perspective, even though we are a law enforcement agency, we fully realize that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” said Marcum, who was one of the event’s earlier speakers. “For years we’ve heard this old phrase of ‘the war on drugs,’ and I’ll say it’s been kind of a losing war for everybody involved. We’re still losing people due to overdoses. We’re still losing people due to violent crimes associated with the illegal drug trade. To continue believing that we can arrest our way out of a drug problem is kind of a dunce thought for anybody associated with law enforcement, or the criminal justice profession.”

By working with other area groups and organizations, the ECPD is taking a proactive stance in combating the opioid abuse epidemic, Marcum said.

“We want to be that open door, come to us for help,” he said, referring to people who may be struggling with addiction and seeking treatment.

Also speaking at Sunday’s event was Juniper LaNunziata, a 2014 graduate of Mid-Atlantic Christian University. LaNunziata, who works as the director of education at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, said they identify as “non-binary,” or someone who doesn’t consider themselves either male or female.

Using a reporter’s notebook and pen, LaNunziata illustrated by drawing a horizontal line and writing male at one end of the line and female at the other. In between male and female LaNunziata wrote “demiboy” and “demigirl” as examples of other gender identities.

LaNunziata recalled that while studying at MACU the university announced its support for Amendment One, the North Carolina constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. The amendment was overturned by a federal court judge and then struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage.

MACU officials support for Amendment One was a tough situation for LaNunziata, they said, because they felt they had no way to voice their opposition to the amendment.

“I was kind of caught in the middle by this structure of power that I was a part of because there was no real opportunity to dissent, to make a change,” LaNunziata said.

LaNunziata, who majored in bible and cross cultural studies at MACU, said the best way to bring about change is to vote. To emphasize their point, LaNunziata turned to a booth set up nearby where people could register to vote.

“Vote in every local, state and national election,” LaNunziata said. “That is the only way to make a real difference. That’s the main way to make a difference.”

Hope Cerveny, a rising senior at Northeastern High School, also spoke at Sunday’s rally, reading from an essay she wrote titled, “Make America Hope Again.” Cerveny said she wrote the essay earlier this year as part of a school assignment. In the essay, she describes waking up Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, to learn that Donald Trump had won.

“That morning, that day, that nightmare I knew I had definite proof that America chose to go backward instead of forward,” Cerveny’s essay begins.

Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also spoke at Sunday’s rally. He talked about “fusion politics” that brings together people of different races and backgrounds around issues of common concern.

Citing the political coalition of blacks and poor whites in North Carolina and other southern states immediately after the Civil War, Rivers called on people to again come together around shared needs and concerns. He pointed out that after Union troops left the South, the Ku Klux Klan arose and began to undermine many of the gains made by the fusion politics of blacks and poor whites.

After more than two centuries of slavery and then 99 years of segregation after that, it has only been 52 years that blacks have lived in America with no legal restrictions, Rivers noted.

All these years later blacks are still struggling for education, health care and economic opportunity, according to Rivers.

Rivers mentioned the achievement gap in education between white and black students, saying it’s important to address that gap for the good of all.

“You don’t focus on blacks,” Rivers said. “You focus on where the need is. That means we all have to step in. We all have to do something.”

Rivers said “many of the issues that whites are fighting for now and issues that African-Americans have been fighting for their whole lives.”

Fusion politics is focused on issues, he said.

Lisa Creef spoke about mental health issues. She cited the value of sitting on the porch and having a conversation the way Andy and Barney used to do on the “Andy Griffith Show.” Taking the time for that kind of relaxing activity is a buffer against stress, she said.

Creed emphasized health self-care, including exercise and not trying to do everything.

“You can’t take on everything,” she said. “Sometimes you have to say ‘no.’”

Tim Aydlett spoke about conservation and the environment. He called himself an avid conservationist and environmentalist but added “I’m not a tree hugger, because I see trees as renewable resources.”

He called for common-sense environmental policies such as stream buffers, clean energy, international collaboration, and preservation of public lands.

City Councilman Ray Donnelly, who represents the 1st Ward, cited the Pledge of Allegiance’s affirmation of “liberty and justice for all” in his remarks.

“We need to get there,” Donnelly said. “We’re not there now. We say it but we need to get there.”

Michelle Aydlett, Tim Aydlett’s wife, spoke about education, emphasizing a need for more funding for public schools and stronger community support for schools. She said that Avery County last year had a 100-percent graduation rate, which has been attributed largely to a community-wide effort to get civic clubs and other organizations involved in volunteering at the schools.

Aydlett said she hoped NorthEast North Carolina Progressives would be a catalyst for getting community groups into the schools.

Multimedia Editor Chris Day contributed to this report.

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