The Audacity to Seek Justice in Small Town America

Drew County, Monticello, Arkansas is a small community nestled in the southeastern corner of the state. Its claim to fame is the mascot for the local college, the Boll Weevil. Drew County is also where I was born and raised.

During my childhood, Burlington Industries anchored the economy. People from all over southeast Arkansas worked at one of the three Burlington rug factories in Monticello. My parents and paternal grandparents all worked at Burlington. People of all ages and races worked side-by-side and got to know each other. I believe the town benefited from the relationships citizens built at Burlington. Unfortunately, Burlington closed its doors about twenty years ago, the economy, and the tight-knit relationships forged at Burlington, never fully recovered.

Burlington’s closing left a massive void in Drew County. Now, twenty years later, an enormous void is once again felt in Drew County and beyond. On February 9, 2020, Drew County resident, Marquise Martin, went missing. His body was discovered on March 7, 2020.

His murder is still unsolved, so his family, friends, and sleuths from all over the country search for answers and try to understand why his murder happened and who is responsible. The local sheriff’s department, which is in charge of the case, has reported no updates since the murder.

Marquise’s mother, loved ones, and even strangers are determined to get answers and justice. On Friday, June 4, 2021, a peaceful rally was scheduled to occur at the Drew County courthouse to bring more awareness to Marquise’s story. In response to the protest, local authorities decided to close the courthouse, alleging threats made by people who don’t reside in Drew County. Authorities blocked the steps to the courthouse to prevent people from getting close to the building on the planned date.

The decision of local authorities did not deny Marquise’s supporters. On June 4, Marquise’s friends and loved ones showed up and held a peaceful rally on the courthouse’s lawn. The audacity of Marquise’s loved ones to show up for him led some county leaders to propose a “parade and assembly” ordinance four days after the rally.

On June 8, at a public meeting, the county judge and attorney presented copies of an ordinance, based on Little Rock, AR’s parade and public assembly law, to county decision-makers. Rural Drew County and urban Little Rock are culturally different, and the types of protests in the capital city rarely, if ever, happen anywhere else in the state. While local parade and assembly ordinances are common, the rush to expand local government in response to the rally held in honor of Marquise appears to be a forceful response to a grieving family and community.

The county judge and attorney spoke in support of passing this ordinance in Drew County. The attorney even stated during the meeting that he’d had businessmen ask him since the rally, “Are we like Little Rock? Have we reached that point?” Based on this question, there is some pressure from local business people to pass this ordinance quickly, even if it means creating a barrier between the county and citizens who want to gather on public properties for celebrations or peaceful rallies.

In addition to business people, the county judge and attorney also spoke about numerous people they say support the ordinance. However, during the rush to pass this ordinance, they admittedly did not notify the mayor of Wilmar or other mayors in the county. Laws like the one proposed directly impact mayors and their ability to make decisions about the use of public spaces.

Based on the proposed ordinance discussed at the meeting, any group of at least twenty who assemble at a local park would need a permit. For example, a group of at least twenty who want to meet and pray on the grounds of the courthouse would need a permit and would have to pay a fee. If at least twenty of Marquise’s loved ones want to hold a candlelight vigil in a publicly owned space, for example, they would have to get a permit and pay a fee.

Wilmar is a small town in the county, and it is also the place where Marquise’s body was found. The town is grieving, and many citizens want answers. The proposed ordinance, and the timing of the proposition, add pain to an already hurting community. If justice happened as swiftly as the proposed ordinance, the pain that radiates because of Marquise’s murder might be less. After a brief discussion, county leaders tabled the proposal.

Unfortunately, the timing of this proposed ordinance appears to be a reactionary, retaliatory response to the rally for Marquise. If the county judge and attorney want this to be a transparent process, they should share a copy of the prosed ordinance on the county’s website so citizens can decide if this is what they want. Ultimately, the official’s response to a grieving mother trying to keep her son’s memory alive and get justice might change local laws forever.

I hope that Marquise’s murder is solved and justice served.

Member of #WEOC Author of Everyday Prayers for Servant Leaders and Montongo Roads. More: andreadprice.com

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