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How Small Towns Are Organizing Protests For Racial Justice


We've talked a lot about big-city protests sparked by George Floyd's killing by police. But people in small towns and cities across America have also taken to the streets. We're going to hear now from two people with two very different experiences.

Wilkes-Barre is a city of about 40,000 people in Pennsylvania. Sharee Clark moved there about seven years ago.

SHAREE CLARK: My first hour in Wilkes-Barre, I was racially profiled by the police. I was flagging down a police officer for directions, and he kindly let me know that he got me, which was his words specifically. I asked for some understanding, and he stated, you know you have warrants. And I said, there's a mistake. If you would be so kind, allow me to give you my ID. I would be happy for you to run me. And instead of apologizing, he said, you all look alike anyway. You got a twin running around here committing crimes - and drove off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She said her town is becoming more diverse. And since George Floyd's death, there's been a big push for change with frequent marches and protests. When we reached Clark yesterday, she was at one of the rallies that she helped organize. I asked her, how have residents reacted to the many demonstrations?

CLARK: The people that attend the protest - there's a real, overwhelming sense of love. About 80% of our protesters are our allies. A lot of people, especially our white allies, have awakened. And so their tone is just simply, how can we support you? How can we amplify your voices? And so the reaction, actually, for me is unprecedented. It was something that I could never expect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about the community at large? What has been the reaction there?

CLARK: The police have been supportive in the fact that they are with us at all of our protests. When we march, they follow us. In the beginning, we had some incidences where there were some bricks strategically placed at our venues. We are suspecting that it's baiting us to turn our protests into something else. I'm not quite sure. The police department do - they do sweeps prior to us protesting to ensure that that's not going to be an issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've said before that you wondered why you're in Wilkes-Barre, that you ask God, you know, why am I there, and that you had been looking for a way out. Have the protests changed your mind?

CLARK: Oh, absolutely. I believe in seasons and times. Through what I have experienced thus far, I definitely know that I am here for a purpose. My search for a release from Wilkes-Barre has been put to the back burner until we get at least our young people here fortified and in a position where they can carry it all.

ALICIA GEE: My name is Alicia Gee, and I'm one of the co-organizers for the demonstration that happened in Bethel last Sunday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Bethel, Ohio, where Alicia Gee had a very different experience from Sharee Clark. Bethel is a town of fewer than 3,000 people, and nearly all the residents are white. Gee said she's always believed in the Black Lives Matter movement. And when she saw protests happening in other small towns, she thought it was time to have one in hers. I asked her, how did it go?

GEE: We made a Facebook post in our little town's, you know, Facebook group. Very quickly, the other side kind of - just kind of rose up. They were like, you can't come into my town, and you can't - you've got to protect it. And this narrative of us being an outsider coming in and to destroy the town really took hold. And then about an hour before we were due to start, we found out that where we were originally going to be standing was filled with just, like, motorcycle gangs and people with guns and just people who did not want us to be there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There were around 800 counter-demonstrators. That's according to Bethel police. So Gee's group of about 80 people moved a few blocks away. But it wasn't long until the counter-protesters found them and gathered across the street.

GEE: Then a swarm of them came across the street at us and kind of surrounded us and were yelling, calling everyone all the names you could imagine they would call us. There was some pushing, and there was sign-snatching and ripping them up. And it became very clear that we had to get out of there very fast. It was very scary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alicia Gee headed for her car, parked some distance away. But she soon came upon more trouble.

GEE: One of our high school demonstrators that was with us was being herded by, like, probably 10 big men. And she's, like, less than 5 feet tall. One of them had, like, a big machine gun, it felt like. I don't know guns, so - she was just, like, walking backwards, just keeping an eye on them and just walking really fast, so I connected with her. And then another one of the people who was with us was already in her car, and she yelled for us to get in, and she drove us out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do you understand what it was that they were reacting to? Did they think, like has happened in other places, that there was misinformation that you were antifa, or did they understand that this was a protest, and they just didn't agree with the message?

GEE: There was definitely a lot of misinformation on their side. There was the misinformation that we were outsiders, that we were antifa, that we were looters, that we were rioters and not just peaceful families that live in their community with them who wanted to show our solidarity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gee said there's been fallout in her small town. This past week, protesters have received threats. Her personal information was posted online. She's lost friends. But she says she's not deterred.

GEE: As I've said multiple times to the people who are with us and to my community, this was just the first step. Clearly, we illuminated a division that we have. But I don't think it's irreparable. I think that we can fix it. We are definitely energized and ready to move and grow from that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Alicia Gee of Bethel, Ohio. And earlier, we heard from Sharee Clark of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., talking about what it's been like to protest in their communities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.