A resident used the speaker’s podium at the City Council meeting to call a local social media page “an undercover racist group.”
During the public input phase of Monday’s meeting, Kiyah Darden quickly took verbal aim at the Rocky Mount Concerned Citizens Facebook page. One of the administrators of the link, in an email to the Telegram on Tuesday, countered Darden’s claim.
City residents can use three minutes at the podium at council meetings to comment to the seven-member panel — and the remarks can become quite lively and at times contentious.
During Monday’s council meeting, Darden said she would be using her time “to bring a lot of clarity to some very disturbing things that are going on in our city, as well as in the media.”
“I will assume that all of us are well aware of the undercover racist group on Facebook portraying to be concerned citizens of Rocky Mount,” Darden said.
“Considering the fact that I am a millennial, I spend a lot of time on my social media platforms,” Darden said. “I have taken the time to read the comments of the concerned citizens — and I have become basically sick to see such disrespect towards our black city leaders.”
Darden told the council she believes there is an underlying widening divide between different races, which has grown significantly not only in the city, but all over the nation since the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president.
“If we continue to sit and act as though there isn’t, our city will result in re-segregation, which I am very afraid of,” she said. “Our ancestors endured so much so that black people could one day become successful and have the opportunity to sit in a leadership position.”
Barry Rehm, who is one of the administrators of the Concerned Citizens Facebook page, told the Telegram on Tuesday the link has more than 4,700 quite diverse members represented by different ethnicities, most of whom either live in Rocky Mount or have lived in Rocky Mount for years.
Rehm went on to state that, “The focus for years has been concern of how the City Council has acted in direct conflict with the majority of citizens.”
Rehm said because he and a fellow administrator of the page have busy lives, they cannot monitor all of the comments 24/7 and that since this is a public page, he and the fellow administrator have elected to let members post comments without approval.
Rehm did make clear he and the fellow administrator will intervene and delete a comment when a complaint is found to have merit.
“And the admins stand behind the service to the community and roundly refute Ms. Darden’s claim that we are some sort of undercover racist group or any other kind of undercover group,” he said.
He said although Darden is not a member of the Concerned Citizens group, she is welcome to join.
During Monday’s council meeting, Darden also referred to having read about plans for Blanche’s Bistro “possibly bringing controversy to the new Main Street reality.”
Darden did not name names, but she was referring to comments on Facebook by Cooper Blackwell, who is an activist and son of Councilman Reuben Blackwell.
Darden also was referring to subsequent back-and-forth online between Cooper Blackwell and downtown revitalization advocate Stepheny Houghtlin.
Cooper Blackwell on social media said he was proud to announce — “after years of hard work and hundreds of roadblocks” — the Blackwell family’s intentions to open a restaurant in the 100 block of Tarboro Street. The location is on the Edgecombe County side of downtown and close to the Five Points intersection.
What prompted numerous subsequent comments on Facebook was a line in Blackwell’s posting.
In that line, Blackwell asked people to come out on Feb. 8 and provide support “as we bring fresh innovation to the up and coming Black Business District.”
Houghtlin, in a posting on her blog, said, “I’m all for ‘up and coming’ but it felt deliberate to exclude others who aren’t black that are working in the same vineyard.
“The new reality on Main Street is that everyone is included,” Houghtlin said. “What people want is a Third Place where they can come without necessarily knowing anyone yet feel safe and welcomed.”
Blackwell, in response, called Houghtlin’s posting a “terrible article” and said there are more than 30 black businesses downtown.
Blackwell also said, “Pro-black is not anti-white. Black business districts exist all over the country.”
Blackwell went on to state that the Blackwell family has friends and supporters of all colors and told Houghtlin that the naysayers, whom he believes she has aligned herself with, typically are white people who do not have the best interests of Edgecombe County in mind.
Houghtlin, in response, expressed appreciation for what she believed was a well-stated correction.
Houghtlin also said, “If it is true that pro-black is not anti-white, being white does not mean anti-black. Let us agree to that truth.”
Darden on Monday told the council she agreed with Cooper Blackwell’s comments about pro-black not being anti-white and about black business districts existing all over the nation.
Blanche’s Bistro made news about a year ago because the location reportedly lacked a liquor license.
The Telegram reported Cooper Blackwell had been promoting a cash bar or a cover charge at the location and also reported the property as being in the name of Councilman Andre Knight’s mother.
During Monday’s council meeting, Darden said, “Also, I know you all have heard of Chinatown. I never read an article about Chinatown causing controversy to nearby business developers.
“All types of ethnicities are welcome to Chinatown — and there is no sign saying who is and who is not welcome,” Darden said.
“So with that being said, please lay off of the foolishness and learn how to celebrate one another,” Darden said. “Downtown is developing — and I can actually say that I am pleased to be a part of Rocky Mount to see the great things that are in store for all people.”