CASPER — Hundreds of demonstrators gathered to silently march and then make speeches in downtown Casper on Wednesday in protest of police brutality and the videotaped killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The protesters began marching at noon, starting at David Street Station and ending at the Hall of Justice, home of the Casper Police Department and the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office. Made up of a diverse group that spanned the age spectrum, the demonstrators carried signs decrying police brutality, listing the names of black Americans killed and beaten by police and calling attention to white Americans’ complicity in the violence.
Casper police told the Star-Tribune afterward that the crowd was roughly 300 strong. The peaceful protest was the first of three sizable demonstrations in Casper on Wednesday. Afterward, around 50 people from the first protest began a march down Second Street from David Street Station to the east side Walmart and back. Between the two, a group of 20-30 walked to the Dick Cheney Federal Building in a march led by local organization Our Resistance Casper.
The march was held in silence at the request of Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, Casper Youth for Change organizer Tanner Ewalt told the crowd before the action began. Jones lives in Rapid City, South Dakota.
The group, many with fists up, marched through downtown streets cleared by police as a small group of people carrying long guns mirrored them from across the street.
The latter group, one of whom cheerfully told the crowd “Good job” as it marched past, stayed on the periphery of the protest. But men carrying firearms were scattered across parts of downtown, from the corners surrounding David Street Station to farther down Old Yellowstone Highway, near Martin & Co Hair Salon. One woman, her office visible through a window on Second Street, sat next to a shotgun on the floor.
Many of those carrying long guns said they were there to protect the rights of the people protesting Floyd’s death.
Dan Sabrosky was among that group. He held an AR-15 rifle near David Street Station waiting for the march to City Hall. Sabrosky, who is white, said his group was made up of about 12 people.
“We’re here to protect the First Amendment rights of the protesters,” he said, adding this his daughter would be among those marching.
Tanisha Wallace waited at David Street Station for the march to begin, seated in the grass. She said she’s seen racism in Casper and hopes the protests accomplish something.
“I think today’s events, the most important thing it could accomplish is bringing light to the unjust slaughter of black people,” said Wallace, who is black.
Many of the protesters wore masks because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. When the snake of marchers arrived at the Hall of Justice, the silence was broken by a round of applause before several impromptu speakers addressed the crowd through a microphone and small amplifier.
The crowd chanted “I can’t breathe,” a reference to Floyd’s desperate pleas shortly before his death as a white police officer knelt on his neck for several more minutes. The phrase also dates back to the death of Eric Garner, who was put in a chokehold by a New York police officer in 2014. Floyd was approached by police for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Garner was killed after police approached him for allegedly selling cigarettes.
“I’m here because I’m mad,” Meeshla Bovee, 15, told the crowd. “Not only am I mad, I’m angry. Not only am I angry, I’m pissed.
“I shouldn’t have to stand next to my white neighbor and know if I walk into that store, they’re gonna follow me,” continued Bovee, who is black. “I’m tired of reading another black man killed.”
She was followed by several more speakers, most of them people of color. The speakers demanded change, demanded support from their white peers and chanted “I can’t breathe” and “black lives matter.” Some of the speakers became emotional as they spoke. One woman, standing next to her two children, told the crowd that she shouldn’t have to tell her children about police brutality and how African Americans are expected to avoid it.
Isaiah Dobbins, who paced in front of the speakers and shouted encouragement to them later directed questions to a Casper police officer standing to his right. He handed the officer a cardboard sign that listed the names of black people killed by law enforcement. The officer held it aloft for a few moments before setting it back down.
“That’s for the police department,” said Dobbins, who is black.
Teanna Montoya addressed the crowd as well. She carried a sign reading “Our color is not a crime” with the hashtags “George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “All the fallen victims from police violence.” She also had a red hand painted across her throat, representing “where police officers would take hands on us, put us down.”
She directed her comments directly to the officers in attendance, angling her sign so they could see it and looking at them as she spoke. She asked the officer to hear her concerns, saying black people are not a threat.
In an interview after the demonstration, Montoya said she is angry and scared but hopeful for change.
“Every time I go out, I don’t know if I’m going to come home to my daughter” who is about 1 year old, she said. “But we have to be strong and keep our head up high.”
Montoya, who is black, said she thinks racism in Casper is a big problem and that she’s been called racial slurs by police officers. But she said it isn’t just police.
“Every time I go to the store, some people don’t look at me, or they look at me like I’m nothing,” she said.
The protest, which dispersed shortly before 1 p.m., remained peaceful.
“They thought we would be violent, we weren’t violent,” Ewalt said, before making a final call to action for people to continue advocating for change after the day’s events.
Secondary protests gathered downtown afterward. They were not affiliated with Casper Youth for Change, an advocacy group formed by Natrona County High School students in 2018. Our Resistance Casper, which led the smallest of the three marches, is a local group supportive of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Kevin Hawley, who operates David Street Station, said a group reserved the venue for the noon demonstration, paying $1,500 for four hours. He allowed the space to be used for the entire day.
A moment of tension during the early afternoon speeches came when a white man who identified himself as a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate took the mic. He began talking about his platform and his personal relationships with African Americans. Other than Ewalt, who began the speech, the man was the first white person to speak. As he continued to speak, some protesters called on him to give up the mic and not make the protest a political rally. Others demanded that he detail what he would actually do to change the status quo.
The crowd continued to swell as the event went on. Protesters spilled onto David Street in both directions between the Hall of Justice and Casper City Hall.
“Black is beautiful, not criminal,” read one protester’s sign Wednesday. “Hands up don’t shoot” read another, which honored other black men and women killed or abused by law enforcement.
The Casper protests follow nationwide displays of outrage at Floyd’s killing. As police have geared up elsewhere, protests have turned violent, with civilians looting businesses and officers videotaped beating demonstrators and shooting them with rubber bullets. As the protests have continued in cities across America, the Minneapolis agency fired Chauvin and three other police officers involved. Chauvin has been charged with two felonies, including second-degree murder. Authorities on Wednesday said they planned to file charges against the three other officers who were present at the time of Floyd’s death.
“We don’t care about that,” Dobbins yelled. “We care about black lives.”
The slow official response prompted extensive protesting in Minneapolis that soon led to looting and property destruction, including the razing of a police precinct building.
On Tuesday, a group of about 30 students marched in Casper in solidarity with protesters against police brutality in Minnesota and elsewhere. Other protests have been held throughout the state, including in Cheyenne, Jackson, Laramie, Riverton, Gillette and Rock Springs, and a vigil in Floyd’s honor is planned for Friday in Casper.
Wednesday’s march had been much anticipated by law enforcement locally. The Casper Police Department issued a statement on Monday asking people unconnected with the protest to avoid downtown and recommending that businesses close during that time. Then, on Tuesday, the agency issued a series of statements denouncing social media conspiracies suggesting buses of out-of-town agitators were headed to Casper. There was no evidence Wednesday of any out-of-town instigation. All protesters who spoke with the Star-Tribune said they currently live in Casper.
Some spectators watched the rally while carrying pistols and AR-15 rifles. A handful of armed spectators told a reporter they were there to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters and had bottles of water to hand out.
Police maintained a strong presence but did not interfere with the rally. Officers were dressed in their regular uniforms during the noon protest, thought at least one was observed with a gas mask on her left hip.
Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters addressed demonstrators prior to the march, explaining some of the precautions that the city had taken ahead of the event. He said that Floyd should not have died and told the crowd that officers — who maintained a low profile throughout the main march— were there to protect the demonstrators and shepherd them to the police station.
Ewalt moved to end the demonstration around 12:50 p.m., as the dark clouds that had gathered over Casper Mountain moved over downtown. Still, the crowd held another moment of silence for Floyd and continued chanting. As they marched back down David Street, the crowd continued to chant, and a large group broke off and gathered again at the station. As they marched, one woman burned sage. Several of the speakers embraced and cried. Business owners and strangers passed out waters.