GAMBIER – Leeman and Rachel Kessler often jokingly refer to themselves as the “church-and-state” couple in Gambier.
Leeman is the village’s mayor, elected in 2019. Rachel is priest-in-charge at Harcourt Parish and the chaplain at Kenyon College.
But on Saturday, as cities burned and protests roared across America in response to centuries of racial oppression and police brutality against black citizens, the Kesslers struck a different tone.
“We actually wanted to take a moment and rather seriously address a lot of the issues that are impacting our nation,” the mayor said, in a video posted to the village’s Facebook page. “They may seem far away from Gambier, but Gambier is home to people from across the country and across the world, and whenever any part of that country or world hurts, we feel it here.”
The Kesslers offered a heartfelt message to their community – one centered around empathy and action.
“To our black friends and community members, we wanted to say that we love you, that we see you, that we are striving in your name to be the best allies that we can be, knowing that we do so imperfectly,” Rachel said.
“And to people of all racial backgrounds in our community, and particularly to our fellow white community members, we urge you to listen; to hear; to follow diverse voices on social media – even, and especially when, it makes us uncomfortable.”
Leeman mentioned one of his first acts as mayor, speaking at the local Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Breakfast in January. The theme of this year’s breakfast was, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Kessler recalled one of the key points in his speech, which considered the work it took to uphold centuries of racism, and the work it would take to dismantle it.
“One of the things that I mentioned in that speech was how so easy it is to confuse chaos for community; to try to preserve the status quo; to try to follow the letter of the law, and in so doing, perpetuate injustice to silent voices that need to be heard,” the mayor said Saturday.
“Now more than ever, it is so vital that we hear; that we listen; and that we recognize the pain of our friends and our neighbors, and we do what we can to do the work to heal that pain.”
Rachel concluded with a note of optimism:
“We continue to pray that true justice, true reconciliation, and true peace may be present in our world,” she said, “not in the words of Martin Luther King to be confused for that false peace of stability and complacency.”
The Kesslers’ message Saturday came during a week of heightened racial turmoil, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Monday. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and charged with murder. The three other officers involved in the incident have also been fired.
Floyd had been pulled over Monday evening for allegedly using a counterfeit 20-dollar bill at a nearby deli. An analysis by the Washington Post shows that a struggle ensued between Floyd and the officers, and he eventually ended up on the pavement. Floyd screamed “I can’t breathe” as he lay face-down, handcuffed, suffocating under the knee of Chauvin.
Despite Floyd’s cries for help, and vocal criticism from bystanders, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd eventually turned unresponsive. He was transported to a local hospital and pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
The killing has prompted protests across the country, beginning in Minneapolis and spreading to cities small and large. Protests began in Columbus on Thursday night, resulting in shattered windows at the Statehouse and violent exchanges between police and protesters.
Cities across Ohio organized similar protests on Friday and Saturday, with some more violent than others. Gov. Mike DeWine called in the National Guard to enforce curfews in Columbus and Cleveland on Saturday night, in order to prevent further damage.
“The vast majority of demonstrators want simply to be heard," DeWine said during a press conference. “Sadly – sadly – there is a relatively small number of violent individuals who pose a specific threat and a real threat to our law-enforcement officers and to the safety of the people of Columbus and Franklin County."
In north central Ohio, young community members from Mansfield organized a peaceful protest at the city's Central Park on Saturday. Hundreds showed up for the three-hour rally, which included speeches, prayers, signs and chants.
"If everyone here took the top layer of our skin off, we all look red. We are all red! This is not about a cultural thing. This is about humanity," Lamont Lindsay, a pastor from the Book of Life Church in Mansfield, told the crowd gathered downtown.
"I am a human being. Our children are human beings and we wanted to be treated like human beings."
While DeWine has spoken twice since protests began, in an attempt to offer local leadership during the national crisis, the response among government officials at the hyper-local level has been mixed. Gambier’s statement Saturday has been the only response from government officials in Knox County since the protests began.