Black Lives Matter gains momentum locally

Jeff Guy
A woman holds a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Winfield.

Recorded on smartphones and shared on social media, it was an image that sickened Americans. For eight minutes, 46 seconds, a white Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer knelt on the neck of a subdued and visibly terrified George Floyd, an African American man who died at the scene.

“It was so heart wrenching,” Amanda Meads, of Winfield said of the video. “I cried so much.”

As with the 2014 case of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a police chokehold, Floyd’s final words I can’t breathe have become a rallying cry among protestors carrying placards bearing such messages as “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George.”

Last weekend, around 25 people participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Winfield. Meads, who organized the protest, would have liked a larger turn-out, but she was happy the event went peacefully and she was elated by the supportive gestures from people in the community.

Meades plans to hold another protest in Winfield this Friday.

Many motorists gave the thumbs up sign and some people offered food and drink to the protesters, gathered on sidewalks at the four corners of Main and 9th streets. They had the support of local police who simply told them to stay on the sidewalks, wear masks and practice social distancing.

“The kindness shown by people taking the initiative to do things for us was awesome,” Meads said.

One of the people who visited briefly with the protesters was Winfield Police Chief Robbie DeLong, off work for the day and wearing civilian clothes. DeLong told Meads he supported what she and the others were doing. While Meads maintained good relations with the police and received their verbal support, she wasn’t able to persuade them to do what she most wanted - join the BLM protest.

While many passers-by expressed support for the event, a few were hostile. Two white men in a Camaro passed by, hollering, “We should kill more of them.” Somebody at the event took a picture of the car’s license plate and turned it into police. The car was from Sedgwick County.

Meads, who is white, said only two of her black friends attended the event. Most stayed away out of fear that there would be violence.

Throughout the six hours Meads spent at the protest, she feared something would go awry, as it has in other parts of the country.

A day after Floyd’s death, riots broke out in Minneapolis out of protests that the officer accused in his death had not yet been charged. A police precinct station was burned to the ground. Protests have taken place in over 100 U.S. cities. Police have been in riot gear and clashed with protesters in many places. The National Guard has been activated in at least 23 states and Washington, D.C.

Meads quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

“I don’t agree with everything getting burned down but at the same time I understand where it came from,” Meads said. “People are angry. They are hurt.”

Good cops, bad cops

There is one talk Queen Barnes, an African American woman living in Wellington, dreads she will have to one day have with her one-year-old son.

She will have to explain to him that if he is ever pulled over by the police, he is to keep his hands on the wheel, that even reaching into his wallet or glove box to pull out his license or registration could be deadly.

“Right now he’s innocent,” she said. “He doesn’t know what’s going on in the world. It honestly breaks my heart that one day I’m gonna have to tell him.”

Barnes did say she did not fear Wellington Police and that she had not experienced racism from law enforcement here.

“There are some wonderful cops out there,” she said. “They don’t care if you’re black, white or purple. They’ll go above and beyond for you. There are also corrupt cops who don’t deserve to wear the badge. I feel like every corrupt cop has put an impression in every African American’s mind that all cops are bad.”

Both Barnes and Meads knew Tayler Rock, a young black man from Arkansas City who was shot to death by former Cowley County sheriff’s deputy Steven Deill in 2014 during a traffic stop. The 22-year-old was shot five times. Then Cowley County Attorney Chris Smith determined the sheriff’s deputy was legally justified in shooting him. Rock’s family filed a $5 million wrongful death suit against the county, which was later dropped.

“His death sparked something in me,” Meads said.

Barnes said she believes if Rock were killed today, there would be more protests, media attention and questioning of what really happened.

Meads said if people had not rioted in Minneapolis, the police officer accused in Floyd’s death, would have never been fired, arrested or charged.

Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Protesters say the charges are not harsh enough.

“I really and truly don’t think he’ll be convicted because he’s gonna have his brothers, meaning his squad, behind him 110%,” Barnes said.

Meads said things will “get bad” if Chauvin is not convicted.

“I’m saying that as a fact, not as a threat,” Meads said. “People are gonna be outraged.”

Ending racism

In the wake of Floyd’s death, Barnes said many of her white friends have expressed outrage over what happened to him and put their support behind BLM.

Meads said, “We need to use white privilege to end this.”

Tabatha Rosproy, a preschool teacher at the Winfield Early Learning Center, joined the BLM event. She has participated in several other protests over the years, she said.

Rosproy talked about the need to teach children to love and respect each other regardless of creed, color or religion.

We hope the love & acceptance will begin at such an early age that when they are confronted with racist ideals they’ll be able to remember those foundational components that we’re all human, that we’re all worthy of love and acceptance,” she said.

Rosproy sees opportunity in the current chaos. “This can be our chance to end systemic racism for good,” she said.

Meads said there is a potential for great positive change in society. “I think this is our revolution,” she said.

Families and children take part in the Black Lives Matter protest. [Courtesy Photo/Wellington Daily News}