FORT MILL — As an African American adolescent, Kennedy Williams was concerned enough after hearing dozens of stories about unarmed black men and teens killed by police in shootings across the U.S. and even as nearby as Charlotte.
When another police encounter really hit close to home, Kennedy’s concern turned to fear, then anger and before long, motivated her to activism. It wasn’t a violent encounter, but with her mind flashing back to those shootings — some broadcast live in real time on social media for the world to see — it certainly was traumatic, Kennedy said.
Twice in one week last year, she was riding in the family car with her father, Arthur Williams, at the wheel when they were pulled over by police for what they consider no apparent reason other than “driving while black.” Police officers — the Williams family, including Kennedy’s mother, Latoya Williams — prefers not to say which jurisdiction they were in other than it was “in the Fort Mill area” — were not violent with Arthur, they said. But the family insists the officers were far from polite, seemed to be overreacting for what police said were alleged minor traffic infractions necessitating the stops, and were intimidating.
The second incident occurred with all three in the car and Latoya was upset by her daughter’s palpable reaction.
“It was less than seven days that had gone by (since the first incident), it was the Christmas season and this time, it was three cop cars (involved) and she was just hysterical,” Latoya said about Kennedy that day.
“Based on what she had seen on the news and now basically she was living that and thank God nothing worse happened.”
Kennedy, a seventh grader at Fort Mill Middle School, spent most of the next year planning “Races Unite: A Day of Unity,” an event that begins 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Veterans Park, 106 N. White Street, in downtown Fort Mill. Asked what motivated her, Kennedy is blunt:
“Me and my dad were harassed by the police, and seeing and hearing about unarmed black men shot and killed by the police.”
Both mother and daughter are convinced neither incident would have happened if the family were white. But out of those traumatic experiences an activist was born.
“At first I was angry,” Kennedy said, “but I decided to do something about it. I wanted to do something peacefully that wouldn’t cause a riot.”
Along the way it even took some convincing to get some friends, even another African American girl, on-board.
“I did get some negative energy back from a couple of people, but that didn’t stop me from doing what I thought was right,” Kennedy said.
She did get “a lot of support from teachers and support staff at school,” Kennedy said, and in fact, after the procession makes its way from Veterans Park to Bethlehem Baptist Church, 601 Joe Louis Street in Fort Mill’s predominately black Paradise neighborhood, one of two guest speakers will be Fort Mill Elementary School guidance counselor Elizabeth Hart. The other is Jeremy Simmons, youth pastor at Sanctuary Charlotte Church.
Following them will be Kennedy “telling my story” and then her father and another Bethlehem Baptist Church member performing a spoken word piece they call “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” after the nationwide movement that sprang up a few years ago in response to fatal shootings by police of unarmed black men.
Kennedy remains unimpressed by the pace of change in the U.S. since that movement and others such as Black Lives Matter gained national attention.
“Right now, I think things are getting worse,” she said. “But the only way we can change that is by making change in our local community.”
Latoya is slightly more optimistic.
“I’m somewhere in between neutral and it’s getting worse,” she said. “As an adult I have to unplug sometimes because it’s hurtful to see people of color — it’s not just black people, but other people of color, like right now Hispanic people are targeted — treated unfairly. It’s very hurtful to me to see that.”
Even the rain that’s expected to fall overnight and into Saturday won’t dampen the spirit of the event, Latoya said.
“I asked Kennedy about that and she said the plan is to keep walking,” Latoya said. “So we’re saying ‘bring your umbrella, your galoshes and ponchos and let’s go ahead and make this happen.”
She also said Kennedy wants it to be clear that the fact this event is taking place during Black History Month is more or less a coincidence.
“She wants everyone to know this is not just for Black History Month. It just happened to fall like that. This is something she wants people to embrace every day.”
For Kennedy, an aspiring child psychologist who plans to remain an activist, this is just a beginning.
What: An event to unite the community and raise awareness
When: 10 a.m. Feb. 16
Where: Begins at Veterans Park, 106 N. White Street and proceeds to Bethlehem Baptist Church, 601 Joe Louis Street.