A minister who routinely addresses the City Council during council regular meetings took to the speaker's podium during the May 9 council regular meeting to comment about the recent gun-related violence in Rocky Mount and about the council's emergency meeting May 7.
The Rev. Nehemiah Smith Jr., who was one of 18 speakers to address the council May 9, asked for someone to explain what a symbolic state of emergency is. Smith was referring to the outcome of the emergency meeting being a symbolic-in-nature declaration of a "State of Emergency Against Crime" in the city.
Smith said he knows symbolic means figurative, representative, illustrative, emblematic, allegorical, parabolic, nonliteral, elusive, connotative and suggestive.
"But what pray tell is figurative about eight shootings, four murders in one week?" Smith said.
Each speaker is allowed three minutes at the speaker’s podium for the public input period of a council regular meeting.
Smith, while at the speaker’s podium May 9, emphasized the public was not allowed to speak during the emergency meeting May 7.
"This is not some political theatre. Real guns, real bullets, real families losing real loved ones, real citizens concerned about real life dealing with real issues — and symbolism is the furthest thing from their minds," he said. "I understand that there are those who are running for national and local office, but in this instance, leave your partisan and personal agendas at the altar of political aspiration."
"You want TV time? Pay for it. That's what your campaign coffers are for. Stop promoting your campaign off the backs and real pain and apprehension of the community," he said.
Mayor Sandy Roberson is seeking the Republican nomination in the First Congressional District GOP primary Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, Ward 2 Councilman Reuben Blackwell and Ward 3 Councilman Richard Joyner are up for re-election.
As for responses to the situation, Smith called for the municipality to start by seeking to designate parks and places of worship as safe zones, with at least a one-mile radius, and he called for the automatic jailing of those caught with an illegal gun or narcotics or having engaged in gang activity.
"That's not symbolic. That's real," Smith said.
Joyner asked about providing the meaning of symbolic in this instance.
Roberson made clear that generally a state of emergency is issued by the mayor to secure a commitment of funding in response to an emergency but that in this case, there is no provision for a state of emergency relating to crime.
Roberson described the state of emergency against crime in the context of expressing support for Police Chief Robert Hassell and his initiatives and wanting to know how he can be supported going forward.
Samuel Battle, who has long been a regular speaker during City Council meetings and who is a candidate for the Ward 2 seat, said he agrees with Smith's comment regarding safe zones.
Battle added that he believes every business needs to be a safe zone and called for every business in Rocky Mount to purchase security cameras.
“Y’all need to make that mandatory,” Battle also told the City Council of having businesses put such equipment in place.
Among his other remarks, Battle said he believes what is occurring is young people are gradually hanging out with other guys who want to be gang members.
“They’re good kids, but they get caught up in BS,” he said.
And he spoke of parents or guardians not being able to go to the parks anymore with their children for fear of something breaking out.
“It’s crazy here in Rocky Mount,” he said.
He also spoke of friends he has in the District of Columbia and of residents in the district being able to walk the streets there unarmed because the district has the best anti-crime technology.
And he called for having the same technology locally.
Broadcast journalist Bronson Williams, who also regularly addresses the council and who is a candidate for the Ward 3 seat, said when he heard of the emergency meeting, "The first thing that came to my mind was: Lights, camera and action."
Williams and Smith host a show together and Williams echoed what Smith said are the real issues residents are facing every day.
"When we see family circles being broken, that's real. When we see loss of life in the streets, that's real," Williams said.
Williams also made clear that he believed having a meeting yet not giving the public an opportunity to vent their frustrations and to offer their solutions was a waste of time.
"Too often in this community, we like to speak at folks versus listening and understanding what's really going on," he said.
He also made clear he believes a problem is a belief in the need to resolve conflicts by fighting or engaging in shootings.
"What happened to having a conversation about the things that's troubling us and working towards definite solutions that are sustainable? I hope as a community that we’ll get beyond the shaming, naming and blaming," he said.
Crystal Wimes-Anderson, a registered nurse who also is a candidate for Ward 3 seat, said she is pushing for the city to rally together and come together as one and try to address the issues.
Wimes-Anderson also made clear she would like the youth to be brought to meetings of neighborhood associations so members of those associations can speak with them and find out from them what is going on.
"I know I'm not dressed in professional attire, but sometimes we have to take off that suit and tie. We have to take off the makeup. We have to let our hair down," Wimes-Anderson said. "And we have to get out there and see what's really going on, because what better way to learn what's going on if we talk to the kids, the ones who are dealing with the issues that are behind closed doors that we can't see."
Warren Daughtridge returned to the speaker’s podium for the first time in a couple of years and commented during the May 9 council regular meeting.
Daughtridge said he believes the current situation has been years in the making.
"While we've spent 20 years or so blaming others for our population moving steadily west, what we saw was the steady decline of basic respect for our government, our laws, our city, even each other," Daughtridge said.
Daughtridge also said of what he presently sees in Rocky Mount: "Stroll down any street and you'll find trash as bad as you would in any third world country. Drive anywhere in the city and observe how people drive with utter disregard for traffic laws. Go to the mall, Walmart, even a restaurant and witness the foul language.”
He also spoke of how badly parents and students treat teachers at the schools.
"Go to any retail establishment’s parking lot and just watch how people disrespect the parking spaces," he said. "Also, look at where people leave their shopping carts. Finally, come to a council meeting, even, and see how people get treated when they have differing opinions."
And he made clear he was ashamed Hassell was unfairly blamed for a problem not of his own making.
Daughtridge told Hassell, “My family, friends and I are committed to lifting you up, chief, in our prayers every day, along with your officers who put their lives on the line for us each and every day, with little respect and even less pay.”
Hassell in May 2021 reported for work in Rocky Mount after having been chief of police in Reidsville in the Triad region.
Daughtridge offered the following suggestions regarding the situation: "Give the police officers the resources they need; pay them enough to attract and retain top-quality officers; enforce our existing codes and our laws, every one of ‘em. Don't blame others. Instead, reflect on what each of us can individually do and should do to make a difference in this city."
“It’s time to unify, guys," he said. "I’m in. I hope all of you are — and I hope everyone here is, too.”