Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed News, June 3, 2020
Dorian Miles arrived in Havre, Montana — a windy farm town, population 9,700, along what’s known as Montana’s Hi-Line — just five months ago, a young man from Georgia coming to play football for Montana State University–Northern. “I was nervous about walking around,” he told the Havre Daily News. Like many small towns in Montana, Havre’s population is aging and, generally, friendly. But Miles, who told the paper his uncle had been shot and killed by a police officer in Atlanta, knew that strolling its streets as a young black man with tattoos and dreadlocks could be risky.
On Sunday night, though, he said he felt safe. Over 100 people showed up to a rally in Havre, organized by Melody Bernard, a Chippewa Cree Tribal Member from the nearby Rocky Boy Reservation.
After the rally, Miles posted photos and a message to Facebook. “SPEAK AND YOU WILL BE HEARD!” he said. “Today we did what had to be done in Havre. A SMALL town of predominantly older white Americans stood with me to protest the wrongdoings at the hands of police EVERYWHERE….Today we stood together for an injustice. Today people who don’t look like me or relate to me showed love and support. I was overwhelmed to see the people I saw today marching in protest to the public lynchings that have been done by the only people whose job is to PROTECT and SERVE their community.”
The movements and marches that convulse big cities don’t usually (or ever) make it to Havre. Nor do they usually make it to hundreds of other small towns across the country. But the protests following the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody on May 25, are different.
All over the country, people are showing up — often for the first time in their lives — to protest police brutality and injustice. In tiny ag towns like Havre and Hermiston, Oregon, but also in midsize cities Topeka, Kansas, and Waco, Texas; on island hamlets (Friday Harbor, San Juan Island; Nantucket, Massachusetts; Bar Harbor, Maine); and in well-to-do suburbs (Lake Forest Park, Washington; Darien, Connecticut; Chagrin Falls, Ohio). They are showing up at the courthouse. They are kneeling and observing eight minutes of silence — a reference to how long Floyd was pinned to the ground in a knee chokehold by the Minneapolis police officer who was later charged with his murder. They are marching down interstates and waving signs on street corners. Sometimes, like in the town of Alton, New Hampshire (population 5,335), where one woman organized a protest just two months after being hospitalized with COVID-19, only seven people come. Sometimes, like in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, there are thousands.
These protests are covered by local news outlets, but amid the deluge of national news — major protests in major cities, guard tanks and helicopters, tear gas and rubber bullets, looting and destruction in select cities, the president’s reaction, massive economic anxiety and unemployment, all against the backdrop of the continued spread of COVID-19 — it’s hard for these stories of smaller, even silent, protests to break through.
When, for example, the New York Times compiled a map, published on June 1, of where protests had happened over the weekend, it missed dozens of protests across rural, small-town, and midsize-town America. It’s hard to fault them: My attempt to keep track has consumed the last three days of my life, with people flagging more every hour.
There have been protests in Belfast, Maine. In Farmington, New Mexico. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In Bentonville, Arkansas. In Lubbock, Texas. In Idaho Falls, Idaho. The biggest anyone can remember in Paducah, Kentucky, in Bozeman, Montana, in Pendleton, Oregon, in Frisco, Texas, and in Ogden, Utah. In Tacoma, Washington, pastors knelt in the rain, pleading with God. In Bowling Green, Kentucky, three rolling days of protests. In Owatonna, Minnesota, a student-led protest lasted for 10 hours. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, thousands gathered on the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. In Myers Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Charlotte, North Carolina, where black people were prohibited from owning property for decades. And in Petal, Mississippi, where protesters have spent days calling for the resignation of Mayor Hal Marx, who tweeted last week that “If you can talk, you can breathe.”
These protests cut across demographics and geographic spaces. They’re happening in places with little in the way of a protest tradition, in places with majority white population and majority black, and at an unprecedented scale. People who’ve watched and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement since 2015 say that this time feels different. And the prevalence of these small protests is one of many reasons why.
Jordan Miller grew up in Carrollton, Ohio, a town of about 3200 people on the eastern side of the state. When he graduated from high school, he was one of just 75 in his graduating class. He’s amassed a following of over 20,000 on Facebook covering news all over Ohio as local news outlets are gutted. In the past week, he’s documented protests and interviewed participants all over the state. On May 31, he was in New Philadelphia, whose population is just over 17,000, and hundreds had assembled to march. The county sheriff, Orvis Campbell, and his deputies marched beside them.
In other towns, too, they keep showing up. Last night alone, there were protests planned in Whitefish, Montana; in Gunnison, Colorado; in Pasco, Washington; in Brea, California; in Cranford, New Jersey; in Albany, Oregon; in Bethel, Vermont; in Fairfield, Connecticut; in Ketchum, Idaho; in Annapolis, Maryland; in Flagstaff, Arizona; and in dozens of other places, large and small.