Chester Prays for Unity, Healing Amid Violence

Jun 1, 2020

About 200 Chester County residents gathered Monday night for a prayer vigil led by Sheriff max Dorsey, a white man, and Mayor Wanda Stringfellow, a black woman. The aim was healing and unity amid a troubled week for many U.S. cities.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey doesn’t want his county to make the news because it’s on fire.

“I don’t want [Chester] to look like burning buildings,” he said. “I want the world to see Chester as unified.”

To show the type of unity as the example Dorsey wants to set, he and Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow put together a prayer vigil in Cestrian Square Monday night.  Around 200 community leaders, including ministers, teachers, students, and administrators from the county school district and government offices, as well as representatives from county and municipal law enforcement offices, gathered to pray for peace following days of violence and rioting in several cities across South Carolina and the country this past weekend.

Protesters angry about the death of George Floyd and what they cite as a history of systemic racism in government and police culture clashed with officers and counterprotesters at rallies in numerous cities, and even sent President Donald Trump to take brief shelter in the White House bunker. Fights, property damage, and even tear gas erupted during marches in Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville on Saturday and Sunday.

A peaceful and productive march calling for awareness of police/community relationships and for a citizens review board occurred in Rock Hill Saturday. Without incident, that march ended with a promise by city Councilwoman Nikita Jackson to get a citizens review board item on an upcoming City Council agenda.

A public rally for George Floyd  in downtown Chester Saturday ended peacefully and without incident, but he Rock Hill example of solid police/community relations is what Dorsey wants most to emulate in Chester. To get there, he said, requires relationship building among the residents, their government, and their law enforcement agencies. While relations between residents and the sheriff’s office under Dorsey’s charge are generally cordial, that between residents and Chester City police is a little more contentious.

Dorsey said at the vigil, "We have many problems in Chester and it would be disingenuous to pretend that we don't. But here we have an opportunity to be different. Our prayer tonight is that this gathering will lead to significant change in our community."

Several ministers spoke to the need to not just pray in church, but to act on the principles of their faith in the world, to regular choruses of "amen" from the crowd.

Stringfellow called out systemic racism and vowed to put a citizens review board on the city's agenda on June 22. She also promised to revive community meetings centered around the gun violence that plagued the city last summer and said that Chester would develop an education that intended to foster better relations between the police and the community.

The prayer vigil was designed to give residents and  officials a chance to come together public and begin the healing process, Dorsey said. It was not a forum for accusations about racism, nor a place to bash police. It was, he said, an attempt to foster caring and loving as a community. It ended peacefully, with several prayers and a call to live by the principles outlined in church.

“It’s OK for us to say we have problems and differences,” Dorsey said. “But in my opinion, the destruction, the looting, that’s just people … using tragedy to do bad things.”

Dorsey is actually plenty angry, at both Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, and the rioters inciting violence and destroying property in cities around the United States.

Dorsey said he has seen part of the video that shows Floyd’s death in police custody, but says he cannot watch the whole thing.

“I don’t need to watch the whole thing,” he said. “I’m angry at that guy (Chauvin). He’s put [law enforcement officers] in a terrible position. And I’m angry at the people capitalizing on a tragedy [who are] taking advantage of our communities. The point of our [vigil] is denounce violence in all forms – by police through excessive force and by looting.”

The vigil – which began at 8 p.m. – ended peacefully, with a call for unity and open conversation. It was why Chester’s more official public response to the situation was a vigil and not a march.

“Being later and getting around dark, it’s just safer if we’re all stationary,” Dorsey said. But, moreover, he said he chose to organize a prayer vigil because it would foster more community conversation if everyone were gathered in one place.

“The only way this is going to change,” Dorsey said of the often-strained dealings between communities and their police departments, “is through relationships with one another. The foundation of this [vigil] is to pray as a community, as a group of people who come from different walks of life. We need to get to know peoples’ hearts.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.