A voice for justice: Weekly rallygoers call attention to voting rights on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Sunderland

  • Jennifer Unkles stands at the corner of Routes 116 and 47 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the weekly standout for racial justice and voting rights. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

  • Aaron Falbel, who’s been at a weekly standout at Routes 116 and 47 since spring 2020, notes the importance of the last four words on his sign: “by ending our own.” STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

  • Sunderland residents Jennifer Unkles and Scott Reed at Routes 116 and 47 as part of the weekly standout. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2022 12:39:21 PM

SUNDERLAND — Not even a heaping of snow followed by freezing rain Monday morning could deter a group of residents from continuing their weekly standout for racial justice and voting rights.

“I do feel like a nutjob for justice,” said Jennifer Unkles, standing at the corner of Routes 116 and 47, clutching an umbrella to her side while holding a homemade sign with the phrase, ‘Lift every voice.’ “But I do feel like the rest of the country is crazy to think we can go on this way as a divided nation, not learning from our country’s history and living in denial.”

The group, which has met with others at that same corner every Monday since shortly after a Black man named George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, represents a variety of causes, from police brutality to voting rights.

“I’m out here to be a voice for justice and truth and racial equality,” Unkles said. “I think of it as a way, as a white person, to think about how my life is different than people of color — the privileges and the way I live my life — and how that would be different if I was a person of color.”

Unkles said she was apprehensive at first about coming out in the middle of the storm that hit the region in the early hours of Monday morning. Remembering the significance of the date — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — was the final push she needed.

“Martin Luther King is a hero, and … we’ve made some progress, but there’s a long way to go,” she said. “(The standout) is a reminder to everyone else. It gives them something to think about.”

Resident Aaron Falbel stood at the intersection for a similar reason.

“We’ve been at this intersection since June of 2020 – about 18 months now,” he said. “We’re out here to try to keep this issue in the minds of people who drive by, even when it goes out of the news cycle. This has to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.”

In his hands, he held a sign with the words, “End police racism by ending our own.”

“Those last four words are important, because I don’t believe the police are any more or any less racist than the population at large,” Falbel said. “They grew up in the same racist society we all grew up in. The police aren’t the problem; they’re the symptom of the problem.”

He said racism is “baked into the fabric of our society.”

“That’s invisible to white people, because they’re not affected by it,” Falbel said. “It’s not at all invisible to Black people, to people of color.”

He said although the way racism presents itself may differ from the past, it still exists in less obvious ways.

“Today, we have angry parents confronting school boards who don’t even wish for the students to learn about the history of racism, and consider those issues to be divisive,” Falbel said. “Well, they are divisive … but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it — that doesn’t mean children shouldn’t learn the truth.”

While the main message of the weekly standouts is that of anti-racism and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, other messages have been incorporated over time as well, he said. Monday’s standout, in particular, was a day for some to bring attention to voting rights.

Scott Reed, also of Sunderland, joined groups across the nation taking part in a Day of Action called by King’s family, who, along with others, are demanding the passage of two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts.

Donning a sign around his neck with the words ‘Freedom to vote,’ Reed sought to bring attention to the two bills, which aim to increase access to voting across all races and classes.

“We’re out here every day for Black lives and racial justice,” Reed said. “But today is a special day, because it was a target day for passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts.”

Elsewhere, activists rallied in Northampton at City Hall on Monday morning during a similar standout in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by Indivisible Northampton.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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