When Joshua Ray Bell drove from Stockbridge to Mason, he did not envision himself having the biggest impact at the Black Lives Matter protest. He did not picture receiving a standing ovation from the hundreds in attendance because of the words he spoke to the lone counter-protester.
However, Bell did all of this and educated a young mind about the lessons of racial tolerance in the process.
A 19-year-old Mason resident showed up to the Black Lives Matter protest waving a Confederate flag from the back of his white Chevy Impala. His presence was largely ignored by the crowd peacefully protesting.
Bell said he could not just sit idly by with the symbol of slavery flying at the protest, so he talked to the young man flying the flag. After about 20 minutes of conversation with Bell, the young man removed the Confederate flag from his car and gave the flag to another protester, Ray Hauser of Mason, in exchange for an American flag to fly instead.
“We got talking about George Floyd and what happened there with Derek Chauvin, the officer and I said he was the old generation, he was in his 40s,” said Bell. “He has that racism engrained in his mentality. You are 19 years old, that can be 20 years of progress.
“Do you want the next generation to go through the same stuff we are going through now? Do we want the same problem, or do we want to progress from here? And eventually, he realized what he was doing wasn’t funny and that his stunt backfired on him,” said Bell.
The Black Lives Matter Solidarity protest took place on June 13 on the lawn of the Mason Courthouse. Hundreds of people were in attendance to protest the treatment of black citizens by the police in the wake of Floyd’s death in the hands of the police. The protest was peaceful and featured many powerful moments, capped off by Hauser and Bell convincing the counter-protester to trade in his Confederate flag.
Ben Ackley and Declan Cady, the organizers of the protest, said that the number of people that showed up in support was shocking.
“Mason is a town with its own checkered racial history, so the fact that this many people came out with signs and positive things to say is really inspiring,” said Cady.
Just this past year, Mason’s lone black teacher, Paul Kato, was subject to investigation over an alleged assault of a student because she was wearing a Trump 2020 pin on her shirt. Kato was suspended while an investigation took place and was eventually reinstated in November 2019.
“I think that Mason has always had my back,” said Kato, who was in attendance. “The thing I like about the Mason community is that you are judged by the character of the person and no matter what color. The issue of diversity is always present, you are confronted with it every day now.
“And Mason kids are going to have to deal with that. Right now, we are all still learning, and Mason is no different than any other part of the world in that aspect. We have to learn; we have to change with the times.”
Despite the support for Kato while he was suspended, he said he still believes that Mason has a long way to go to learn from diversity and use it as a learning tool.
“The lack of diversity among teachers in Mason is a definite problem,” said Kato. “I’ve been preaching that for over 20 years now. Part of it, though, is the perception. Mason is perceived as a racist town from the outside. I think there is a lack of unique viewpoints in Mason. They need to make the city attractive to minorities, so they feel welcome when they come here,”
Other members of the community did not share quite as positive of an outlook as Kato. A local black business owner, who asked for her name to be withheld, said that the police in Mason target black citizens directly.
“Earlier this week, I was followed by a cop and they followed me all the way down Okemos road, turned followed me on Howell for another two miles,” she said. “I did nothing wrong but was followed regardless.”
“Growing up in Mason, we didn’t see the problems dealing with race in this world, we were shielded from them. We wanted Mason to have a BLM protest because we want to tell the minorities in our community that we support them and Mason will be accepting of them,” said Ackley.
Ackley and Cady announced to the crowd later in the protest that they were going to hold the event every Saturday going forward for the rest of the summer, which was met with a round of applause from the audience.
“We educate ourselves every day and America will forever be a project that we will continue to learn about,” said Bell. “And the change and education begin in small communities like here in Mason. Protests and conversations like these lead to meaningful change, and we need to keep having these conversations”