By Aaron Strain. Contributors: Tabitha Barr, Leslie Grajeda
Several hundred people rallied at the Reno County Courthouse on Sunday afternoon to demand justice for George Floyd, who died at the hands of a Minnesota police officer last week. The peaceful protestors also called for continued activism to end police brutality and systemic racism.
The event was organized by local teacher Naee Williams with support from the Hutchinson NAACP, community organizing group Hutch in Harmony, and the Hutchinson Police Department.
Local civil rights leaders and elected officials spoke from the courthouse steps then marched with protesters around the building, and rallied at the intersection of 1st Avenue and Adams Street.
“Silence is compliance”
Scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., the demonstration started a few hours early when a single person, Daniel Bnitah, kneeled in the center of 1st Avenue, in front of the courthouse’s entrance, as police blockaded the road. He handed water bottles to protesters as they began to arrive around 1:15 p.m.
Initially, demonstrators gathered on the east side of the courthouse, an area shaded by trees. Some brought signs, while others made them from organizer-provided materials.
Chants of “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” “say their names,” and others echoed across the country grew louder, until the main event began. Eventually, the crowd moved to the courthouse steps to listen to community leaders, politicians, activists, and the Chief of Police.
Local leaders speak out
Kansas Rep. (D-Hutchinson) Jason Probst said the “revolting” death of Floyd forced him to think about how he would fare in the same scenario.
“If I break the law, the assumption is I made a mistake. When I go for a jog, the assumption is I am living freely in a place that is mine,” Probst said. “When George Floyd (is presumed to break) the law the assumption is that it was done in malice. When Ahmaud Arbery goes for a jog, the assumption is he’s a dangerous stranger who must be confronted.”
Probst encouraged people who looked like him to listen to people of color and ask what to do to help.
Hutchinson Human Relations Officer Datjeda Moore answered his question.
“Use your whiteness to destroy racism where you exist. No more racist jokes or attitudes. Call them out,” Moore said. “Take away their ability to disregard human life.”
Hutchinson Mayor Jade Piros de Carvalho said she could not shake hands with and hug those gathered due to COVID-19, and took time to recognize another pandemic.
“Many never stop to think about the public health crisis that this country has been mired in since its founding – racism – the original pandemic,” Piros de Carvalho said. “We can be the cure.”
Hutchinson Chief of Police Jeff Hooper said he was “appalled by the actions of some law enforcement officials who killed Mr. Floyd,” and promised swift action toward his officers should a similar situation arise.
“We are not perfect,” Hooper said. “But my promise to you is that when we make mistakes, we will hold ourselves accountable. There will be consequences and these individuals will not work for me.”
Local immigrant rights advocate Esmeralda Tovar-Mora said negative interactions with police have caused her fear, but thanked Hooper for his leadership.
“Whenever I receive threats to my life or my family, I never knew if it would be taken seriously, because of the color of my skin and my legal status,” she said.
Hutch in Harmony co-founder Rebecca Shetler spoke about her disappointment in white and religious people unsupportive of Black Lives Matter and the day’s event.
“It is Pentecost Sunday,” Shetler said. “If the fire isn’t falling on you to purge (racism and apathy) from your heart to get some empathy going, then you are waiting for the spirit in the wrong house, and you’re going to miss it. You’ve been missing it.”
Shetler said the deaths of many black people at the hands of police could have been prevented if events like this one happened earlier.
“I’m happy to see so many faces here today, but I also think we’d be remiss if we ignore the fact we should have been doing this so long ago,” she said.
Grabbing the bullhorn
After listening to the speakers, protestors marched around the courthouse, continuing their chants. After making a loop, they rallied in the intersection. Police officers redirected traffic accordingly.
Hutchinson Community College President Carter File was among the crowd and listened to the speakers. He said the event was an important showing of community support and awareness toward the issues of violence and racial discrimination.
“Every time that one of these events occurs – a black youth or person of color being killed by the police or being killed by an armed white person – it makes people understand that there’s still a long way to go in the fight for equality and justice,” File said. “While we’ve seen progress, there’s still a long way to go.”
File said HutchCC strives to do its part in the fight towards equality.
“The mayor talked about using our whiteness, and those of us who are white not tolerating (racism) … and we try to promote at the college equality and ending racial bias, and at the end of the day, everybody has to do that,” File said.
Wichita NAACP President Larry Burks spoke about the important position Kansas has in civil rights history, including holding one of the nation’s first successful sit-ins and the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision. He encouraged protestors to continue their activism, through non-violent demonstrations and the ballot box.
“We must keep our focus on the redressing the systematic racism against our community that leads to this kind of a tragedy,” Burks said. “We must peacefully protest, demand persistently and fight politically. But most of all, we must vote in November.”
“Sitting comfortably on our couches isn’t going to make a difference,” Tovar-Mora said. “Going out and doing something about the events that continue … to hurt people of color will let others know that we will not stand down … Continue to do this, don’t stop, don’t be complacent.”