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Timberly Vogel felt jaded about marches. As the president of the Black Student Alliance at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Vogel had led and participated in her fair share. They struck her as quiet and contained within the student community, never affecting the rest of the town, which is roughly 90 percent white. So when local residents started to organize protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis, Vogel worried they would be another disappointing flash in the pan.
But the last few weeks in Laramie have been like nothing Vogel could have imagined. In early June, she and hundreds of others protested for 10 days straight, filling the streets and blocking intersections in the small city, population 32,711. “We’ve never really seen an outpouring like this.… These marches have really crossed the usual demographic boundaries that have usually stifled these sort of movements in Laramie,” said Vogel. “The diversity of these demonstrations across race, across age, across socioeconomic status, it’s mind-blowing and I’m still every day shocked to feel and see and know that people in this tiny town care.”
Two years ago, a Laramie sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a resident named Robbie Ramirez, who struggled with schizophrenia. The same officer previously killed a 15-year-old while employed with the Las Vegas police department; he was later fired from that department after being accused of assaulting a videographer. Vogel, who graduated this year, wrote her thesis on Ramirez’s death and the way it was covered by local media. “People took it as a random incident,” she said, rather than evidence of deeper problems. Now, Floyd’s death has reinvigorated efforts by a community group to hold the officer accountable for Ramirez’s killing and to implement more significant reforms. Vogel, who grew up in Tennessee, planned to leave Laramie after graduating, but yje coronavirus and the protests have changed that. “I’ve basically told myself I have 365 days to change the face of Wyoming, and of Laramie in particular.”
Laramie is one of thousands of communities across the country where protests sparked by Floyd’s killing have upended business as usual. While massive crowds and violent police crackdowns rocked New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other major cities, countless other demonstrations occurred out of the spotlight in small and midsize cities, in rural towns, and in remote unincorporated communities—in all 50 states, even in white, conservative areas with little to no history of protest. The scale of the movement is unprecedented and, weeks after Floyd’s death, it was still rippling across the country, spreading and blooming like scattered seeds.
The nature of the demonstrations has been as varied as the communities they’ve occurred in. In Millerton, N.Y., a solitary white woman sat beside a road with a Black Lives Matter sign. In Leavenworth, a Bavarian-themed village in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, 1,300 people showed up at a march—more than half the town’s population. A huge group blocked off a thoroughfare in Fort Myers, Fla., and in Murphy, a town of 1,654 in the southwestern mountains of North Carolina, 450 people went silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. (Buzzfeed News writer Anne Helen Petersen tracked many of these protests on Twitter.)
Many demonstrations have been led by teens, college students, and first-time activists. On a hot evening in early June a thousand people followed five teenagers down Main Street in Ada, Okla. For two of the teens, Is’Abella Miller and Delanie Seals, the video of Floyd’s killing was horribly familiar: One of their relatives died last fall during an encounter with an Ada police officer that was filmed by a bystander. “Anthony was our unknown George,” said Seals, 18, referring to her cousin Anthony Meely. “It really hit home for us.” Both recall being the target of racist comments in school, and said they received threats as they organized the march. “A lot of people say racism doesn’t happen here, but it does, just like any place,” said Seals.
The sweep of the protests corresponds with profound changes in public opinion about race and policing. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement leapt in the two weeks following Floyd’s death, growing nearly as much it did in the preceding two years. In a Monmouth University poll released in the first week of June, 76 percent of Americans, including 71 percent of white people, described racial discrimination in the United States as “a big problem,” up 25 points from 2015. In that poll and another conducted by CBS, 57 percent of Americans said that police treat white people better than black people. More than 60 percent of white respondents in a recent CNN poll said they felt the justice system is biased in their favor; just five years ago, only 42 percent of white respondents felt that way. “In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote on June 8. “We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.”
Veteran activists have never seen anything like it either, and they’re scrambling to harness the energy and direct it toward long-simmering local struggles over police reform, civil rights, and historical memory. Twelve hundred miles from Laramie in Florence, Ala., Camille Bennett and the organization that she founded, Project Say Something, have advocated for years to relocate or contextualize a Confederate monument that stands at the Lauderdale County Courthouse. Their campaign has struggled to gain traction, but now, “there seems to be an awakening that’s never been quite this intense before,” said Bennett. “I’ve never seen people dig so deep.”
A march of hundreds of people through Florence on a recent Sunday ended at the courthouse, where participants listened to an activist read George Floyd’s final words. A few days later, county commissioners, who have jurisdiction over the fate of the monument, had to move their meeting to a larger room to accommodate the crowd of residents who wanted to comment on the relocation, all but one in favor of it. The commission failed to agree even to hold a vote on the matter, but they haven’t heard the last of it: Project Say Something is now organizing protests five days a week at the courthouse.
Bennett sees this eruption of dissent, anguish, and solidarity as a consequence of overlapping crises and years of racial justice organizing, led in many places by black women. “Starting in 2014, if we look at Ferguson…we’ve seen a trend which is that black bodies are murdered and then you see a push for activism, but it’s short-lived,” said Bennett. “This moment, I think it’s a combination of the coronavirus and how it disproportionately affects black people, and then you have these concentrated events”—the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in South Carolina, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Floyd in Minnesota. “As a black woman, I’m mourning, right? I’m mourning these deaths and these lynchings of our people. You want to stay there and deal with that,” she continued. “And then you see that you’ve been working on something that is [suddenly] a national issue and it’s time to go.”
On TV and on social media, the protest movement sweeping the country often looks grim and explosive, a montage of rubber bullets and teargas, activists facing off with police, low-flying military helicopters, broken store windows. When protests first started popping up in small towns across the country, some residents could only imagine they were the work of interlopers. Rumors whipped through dozens of rural and suburban communities about busloads of anti-fascist activists on their way to wreak havoc. In Snohomish, Wash., where Mayor John Kartak promoted unsubstantiated rumors that “an
For people living in small towns, the dissonance between the dark fantasy of antifa marauders and the actual nature of local protests—many of which have included kids, dogs, and elderly people—has been hard to miss. In addition to adding weight to concrete demands for reform, widespread protests are upending stereotypes about what the Black Lives Matter movement is and who supports it. Frederick Brigham, who lives in Klamath Falls, Ore., said that on June 1, the first day of protests there, the main street was lined with counter-protesters, many of them carrying weapons. Walking past them down the street felt “like being a prisoner of war. You could just feel the heat on you. I’m one of two black males that are out there…[and] they are all looking at me,” said Brigham, a musician who goes by the stage name Wreck the Rebel. Although he’s lived in Klamath Falls for several years, Brigham said that he was accused of having come up from San Francisco to rile up the community.
But after that first protest, the armed counter-demonstrators largely disappeared. “They have been made to look kind of silly. You should have seen how they showed up. It was like a war—these people showed up for an enemy that was never there,” said Brigham. Meanwhile, people continued to gather in town for Black Lives Matter rallies during the first two weeks of June. “I think it’s very important because it shows people, you know, a different side of things,” Brigham said. “It’s happening in these smaller towns with little to no black population. That shows people this is a human thing, and that there’s a lot of us out there who care about each other and want to stand up for each other. And you know, change can happen from anywhere.”
Some protests offered at least a temporary reclamation of public space in communities long defined by segregation and legacies of brutal racism—places like Vidor, Texas, a former Ku Klux Klan haven that Texas Monthly described as the state’s “most hate-filled town” during a struggle over court-ordered desegregation of public housing in the early 1990s. When a 23-year-old woman named Maddy Malone started promoting a racial justice rally in Vidor earlier this month, many people responded skeptically, as Christopher Hooks reported for the Monthly: “This is a set up,” someone wrote on Twitter. “Texas people know if you’re black you don’t even stop for gas in Vidor.” But Malone was for real, and ultimately some 150 to 200 people showed up at the June 6 demonstration.
“I’ve never seen so many white people give a darn about black people,” said Mildred Henderson, a 78-year-old woman and veteran activist who was interviewed by The Southern Illinoisan at a June 4 rally in Anna, Ill. In 1909, mobs drove black residents out of Anna after a lynching in a nearby town; for decades, Anna was known as a sundown town, where black people were not welcome after dark. Although Anna was originally named for a woman, the town’s racist history has given it an unofficial acronym: “Ain’t No [N-words] Allowed.” Kevin Jackson, who also attended the protest in Anna, told the Belleville News-Democrat that it was the first time he’d ever walked down the town’s Main Street despite having worked at a hospital there for seven years. “I probably wouldn’t do it again without my white brothers and sisters,” Jackson said.
For years, Jasmine and Crystal Hayter have put up with various forms of discrimination in Dallas, Ore., a modest city of 17,000 about 15 miles west of Salem, the state capital. “We’re a lesbian couple and an interracial couple and we get it from all sides,” explained Jasmine. They avoid local bars and diners because they don’t feel welcome, and they recently stopped going to a bowling alley after someone working the cash register there refused to take a debit card out of Jasmine’s hand. “I have never experienced more racism in my town than [I have] now,” said Jasmine, who has lived in the area for more than a decade.
The first protest in Dallas after Floyd’s death was small—about 25 people, Crystal guessed. A few days later 400 people packed a busy intersection. “It was really beautiful to see,” said Crystal. There has been some ugliness, too; the couple said they’ve received a number of threatening messages recently. “I’ve been trying to ignore the negativity as best I can,” said Jasmine. “I’m glad that I get to get my story out, because I’m tired of sitting and being quiet.”
Like many others, they are already thinking about what happens next. After we spoke they were headed to a meeting with other people in their county who had organized demonstrations, to strategize about what kind of policy changes they wanted to see in their communities. “The point first was to make noise…and now we want to do something beyond that,” said Crystal.
Back in Laramie, Timberly Vogel was also preparing for a meeting, this one with the city manager. She and other organizers in Laramie have called for a number of changes, including the reallocation of some of the police department’s budget for community programs and making officer disciplinary records public. Ultimately, she would like to see Laramie become a “blueprint” for police reform in small cities. She’s gotten so used to marching that when she paused for a few days to work on the policy demands, she missed it. “It’s been so powerful,” Vogel said. “This has totally consumed my whole life.”