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How Protests Spread to Small-Town America

There have been Black Lives Matter protests in more cities and towns than any set of demonstrations in U.S. history. Rather than traveling to the nearest big city, residents are determined to take a stand close to home.

Middle school students joined by parents during a Black Lives Matter protest in Norwell, Mass., pop 11,115. (Tom Gorman/ The Patriot Ledger)
Shirley Jefferson participated in one of the epochal events of the 1960s civil rights movement, marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr., an event that helped prompt passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “I have integrated this country,” she says. “I integrated my high school when I was 17 years old.”

She wasn’t about to sit out the current season of protests against police brutality and racism. Jefferson is an associate dean at Vermont Law School, located in South Royalton, a village with 694 residents. That was the right place to hold a march, she says.

“This is my community,” Jefferson says. “It was important that we do something for our people here — not to join somewhere in Burlington or Boston, but do our own stuff here and galvanize our people here in our community, where we live.”

Such insistence on homegrown response has led to rallies and marches taking place in hundreds of small cities and towns that have rarely, if ever, seen them before. Protests are fairly common in big cities such as Washington and New York. The current wave of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spread farther and wider than any that has come before.

Black Lives Matter protests have occurred not just in Minneapolis, but also in Owatonna, Minn. (population 25,766). Not just in St. Louis, but in Maryville, Mo. (population 11,687) as well. Not just in Philadelphia, but also Elizabethtown, Pa., (population 11,450). Pennsylvania has seen protests in 61 counties. The state has a total of 67 counties.

There were versions of the Women’s March of 2017, which took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration, in an estimated 650 locations. Over the past couple of weeks, protests have been counted in more than twice as many cities and towns. “This is total speculation, but if you told me there were 3,000 protests, that would be believable to me,” says Jeremy Pressman, a University of Connecticut political scientist who studies protests.

Change Starts at Home

The current protests are unusual, at least since the 1960s, in terms of being both large and sustained, Pressman notes. The Women’s March involved some 4 million protesters, but it occurred on a single day (followed by smaller sequels since). The Occupy Movement of 2011 spread to nearly 1,000 cities around the world, with encampments in Washington and London lasting as long as five months, but the number of participants was nowhere near as large as the current protests.

There may be several explanations as to why the Black Lives Matter protests have become so widespread. The movement has spent several years laying the groundwork, working on organization, messaging and ideas even before the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparked nationwide protests in 2014. 

The current generation of young people is the most racially diverse in U.S. history. Just under half of Americans now aged 8 to 23 belong to racial or ethnic minority groups. One recent poll found that nearly 90 percent of those aged 13 to 25 support the Black Lives Matter movement and believe that black Americans are treated differently from other Americans.

Many of the small-town marches have been organized by local high school or college students. Pressman says they’ve grown up used to seeing small clusters of people, organized by Indivisible or other anti-Trump groups, standing on street corners and waving signs. “Often the story is that a young student, who’s 17 or 19, who thinks, ‘My town should have a march,” Pressman says. “They tell their friends and put it on Facebook, but instead of their 15 friends, 300 people show up.”

Race is an issue everywhere, but there’s a difference between being part of a sizable black population in Philadelphia and New York and being almost alone as one of a small number of black people in a small city in, say, Oklahoma or Nebraska. Those individuals are now being recognized by their neighbors, with all-white or nearly all-white rallies are taking place in small cities all over the country.

Last August, Malik Dayo helped organize a protest in Ogden, Utah, following the fatal shooting of Jovany Mercado by four police officers. Despite the local nature of the incident, that demonstration attracted only a few dozen people. 

Clearly, the time is ripe for more people to protest. “I expected 30 to 40 people — that’s what I usually get at my protests,” Dayo told the Ogden Standard-Examiner during a May 30 demonstration in Ogden. “But we had close to 1,000 people here today.”

Local Concerns

There are sometimes local issues that come up during protests. Protesters keep turning out in Petal, Miss., demanding the resignation of Mayor Hal Marx, who tweeted in response to George Floyd’s killing, “If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing. Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack. Video doesn’t show his resistance that got him in that position. Police being crucified.” Marx has deleted the tweet and apologized.

In many cities, mayors and police chiefs are marching and kneeling alongside protesters. In others, there has been the same sort of violence that’s occurred in larger cities — both property damage caused by protesters and tear gas sprayed by police.

Some protesters have been met by armed residents who say they’re exercising their Second Amendment rights even as the demonstrators exercise their First Amendment rights. Law enforcement agencies have sometimes had to tamp down rumors, spread on Facebook or other social media platforms, that small cities were about to be invaded by antifa or other “outside agitators.” 

On Monday night, a man was shot and wounded in Albuquerque. A group of protesters were attempting to pull down a statue of a Spanish conquistador and shots were fired by a group of heavily armed vigilantes. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “That violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”

The organizers of small-town protests want not just to respond to national issues, but to make clear where their own city stands. Vidor, Texas, which is about 95 miles east of Houston, has long been a notorious “sundown town” (where black people had reason to feel unsafe at night, or often during the day). In 1993, Texas Monthly ran a cover story about Vidor, illustrated with a Klansman and describing it as “Texas’ Most Hate-Filled Town.”

“Vidor, Texas, will now be known for love,” the Rev. Michael Cooper, who chairs the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP, declared at a Black Lives Matter rally there on June 6. The rally was organized by Maddy Malone, a 23-year-old, fourth-generation Vidor resident.

People who grow up in a small town often dream about leaving it behind and recreating themselves in a big city. Right now, in this protest moment, young people seem interested in reclaiming their home towns, says Pressman, the UConn political scientist. “I don’t want to leave behind my small town,” he says, describing the mindset. “I care about this town and I want to voice to people here what I’ve seen in our town and in our country.”

It’s the old idea that change begins at home. Back in 1965, Selma was a city of less than 30,000 people and represented a turning point in the civil rights movement. “It starts at home,” says Jefferson, the Vermont Law School associate dean. “You’ve got to take a stand. You can’t just sit back silently now.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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