ASHLAND -- More than 200 individuals gathered at the Ashland County Fairgrounds Friday evening to support local law enforcement officers during the Shield the Line Rally and Cruise.
The impromptu event was organized recently after Ashland resident and former police officer Mike McPherran created a Facebook Group called Shield the Line for current and former law enforcement officers and their supporters to highlight the positive impact of law enforcement.
He only invited a handful of friends to the social media group, but saw it balloon to a following of more than 14,000 in less than two weeks. The excitement around the new group spurred the local event.
"We’re out here just to show support for our local law enforcement officers," McPherran said. "Just what I’m seeing in the media, I think they’re getting a bad wrap. And I want to keep their morale up.
"They are great for our community. We need them, we love them, and they are part of our everyday lives around here."
He went on to say the rally was not intended to be "an anti-Black Lives Matter movement."
"I’ve made it very clear in my posts, in my video posts, that this is not a pick one side or another," McPharren said about promoting the event.
The rally kicked off at 5:30 p.m. Friday when more than a dozen vehicles processed from the parking lot at Luray Lanes Bowling Alley to the Fairgrounds. Many vehicles displayed United States and thin blue line flags, and at least one featured a sign. It read, “We support our heroes.”
Once the vehicles from the cruise parked, the drivers joined more than 100 others who had already gathered at the fairgrounds to listen to a series of speakers, including Mayor Matt Miller, Ashland Police Chief David Marcelli, Ashland County Sheriff E. Wayne Risner and Deputy Chief of Parks at Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District Dan Mager.
“I’m absolutely encouraged and humbled by the overwhelming show of support for law enforcement in this community, not just tonight and not just in the past few weeks, but every day,” Marcelli said.
He then addressed the Memorial Day death that prompted rallies against police brutality across the United States, including regular displays in Ashland. George Floyd was killed at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, one of whom kept his knee on Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“What happened to Mr. Floyd at the hands of four former officers is repugnant. My wife wept as she watched it play out on TV,” Marcelli said. “But their actions do not represent 99.99 percent of the good law enforcement officers in this country and they certainly don’t represent us. We are not them.”
He pointed to the Ashland Police Department’s three core values: service, integrity and accountability. Those words are in the department’s mission statement and on every officer’s uniform.
“You have my solemn promise that whatever challenges we may face moving forward, the men and women of the Ashland Police Division will continue to serve with integrity and accountability,” he said.
Ashland County Sheriff E. Wayne Risner said the respect that local law enforcement has in the community was earned. Before addressing the crowd, he spoke briefly with Ashland Source about the importance that law enforcement officers build relationships within the community they serve.
“They earn it every day because they go out and do the best job they can, be the best law enforcement officer they can for you and this community,” Risner said.
He spoke highly of DARE programming at local school districts and the use of school resource officers, saying these early connections with Ashland County’s youngest residents creates opportunities for dialogue.
Miller told the crowd local law enforcement has his “full support,” prompting cheers and chants of “U-S-A.”
“I’ve met these men and women and heard them talk about the values they cherish in their hearts and I am darn proud of every one of them,” Miller said.
He continued to say, “There is no place for racism in America. And there is certainly no place for racism in any of our police agencies, local or otherwise. Would you agree?”
Again, the crowd clapped.
Miller also addressed how he thought some may have been hesitant to attend a rally in support of law enforcement.
“I’m sure some of you may have thought twice about whether or not you should get involved. Should you get involved with all the unrest happening in the country?” Miller said. “I think the answer is absolutely. You should get involved.
"Because it’s a democracy, and it depends on people standing up for the values and the principles they believe in.”
The United States, he said, has been seeking to “do what’s right” since its founding.
“They were seeking to build a nation on the values that apply to all of humanity. And even though at times men and women who called themselves Americans didn’t follow those values, our compass was turned the right direction,” Miller said.
Before taking the microphone, Miller also spoke personally with Ashland resident, Peter Slade, who brought up concerns about the event’s timing.
“I’ve been here for 14 years and there’s never been an event like this, so why is it happening now?” Slade asked.
With limited time to respond, Miller attributed this to the 24-hour news cycle showing “over and over again” the many communities with concerns about their police agencies.
Slade often attends the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Ashland, which continue daily from 1 to 3 and into the evening on Thursdays and Fridays. He said he came to Friday’s Shield the Line rally to seek understanding.
“I was aware that lots of members of my community were coming here, and I want to love my neighbors and that means I need to know what they do, what they believe and what they think is important,” Slade said.
“Many of the values I share, and I support the stated aim of this, which is to support tax-funded law enforcement officers," Slade said.
Mager, a former U.S. Marine, was the last to speak Friday evening before the event concluded with a K9 demonstration and a few final words from the organizer, McPherran.
He told the crowd he has many family members in law enforcement. He’s seen firsthand the impact that the career has on officers and their families.
He recounted a personal story about how his wife once woke up to find their teenage son sleeping in the hall with a pillow, blanket and shotgun. The boy had overheard a conversation about a death threat to his family and had slept in the hall in an attempt to keep his mother and two siblings safe.
Mager asked law enforcement first to assemble separately from the rest of the crowd. He shouted “We are,” and asked the audience to shout in return “your shield.”
“They are that shield all the time for you, but you guys can be the shield for them when they’re working,” Mager said.
Then, he invited law enforcement families to join him and did the same.
McPharren said the event far exceeded his expectations. The event was moved from Corner Park to the fairgrounds after realizing its potential size, but with rainy weather Friday evening, McPharren thought fewer might show up.
“It’s a tough time, so there’s not a better time to come together as a community and lift everyone up,” he said.
The “Shield the Line” initiative and associated Facebook group is intended to continue as a permanent way to support local law enforcement. T-shirts and signage were sold Friday to support the cause.