SHERIDAN — A man with work-tanned skin, cowboy hat and Carhartt pants leaned against the concrete wall at the Sheridan County Courthouse. He stood out among the large group surrounding him, holding a simple cardboard sign with a quotation from the Bible on one side.
For Montana resident Rod Parr, showing up for the Black Lives Matter Solidarity Peaceful Protest Friday tied closely to his religious beliefs.
“There’s so much in the Old and New Testament about justice and truth and honesty and treating the poor people right and giving the wage earner what he deserves,” Parr said.
When asked why he made the trip to join Sheridan’s demonstration, his response was simple: For justice.
Several world health leaders have raised the possibility that recent public protests may worsen the spread of COVID-19.
The 500-600 people who joined Friday’s protest may not have all followed physical distancing or face covering protocols but for some, the surprising turnout represented, for attendees, another step toward justice.
Prior to departing the library, co-organizer Jamie Schlegel said she only expected about 15 people to turn out for the march. As interest grew, so did the need for clear communication and definitive messaging against any sort of violence.
“Since most of us are not black people, I think that we have a big responsibility to keep it peaceful and not do any harm to the movement,” Schlegel said.
Some who chose not to attend the protest for health concerns showed support in other ways by donating masks or money and helping with advertising, she said.
Though they were invited, neither Mayor Roger Miller nor any city council members were seen at the protest.
Miller confirmed he did receive an invitation but chose not to attend partly so SPD could monitor the event and not be concerned with the mayor’s safety if something went wrong. He said the event turned out well but he maintains the belief that “all lives matter.”
For any future demonstrations, Miller said peaceful marching has less potential to turn negative than a formal protest, which may draw groups more predisposed to riot violently in the future. While he was pleased the event remained peaceful and some people showed honor and reverence, he could not support anyone condemning SPD.
Miller described efforts by other U.S. jurisdictions to defund police departments as “complete nonsense.”
In his experience as a former police officer, Miller said he was never trained to hold someone down for the length of time shown in the video of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police — especially while they are not struggling against arrest in a way that warrants that level of control. Miller encouraged dialogue (rather than protest) between the public and their law enforcement officials about protocols and training.
Miller reiterated his support for peaceful demonstration but argued the racial component “doesn’t need to be there” in the Equality State.
Schlegel said she is open to the idea of organizing another protest with a permit from the city so marchers wouldn’t be confined to the sidewalk.
Across the street from the courthouse, Matthew Thompson stood armed with a bow and arrow next to a friend with a rifle — Thompson said he felt compelled to defend against potential destruction.
“I’d like to see where they’re actually coming from,” Thompson said. “Because I honestly don’t see the logic behind it...in big cities, they’re killing innocent people for defending their town.”
Thompson said he understood the protests until rioting began to take over demonstrations around the country. He cautioned that protesters could “get themselves into trouble” in Wyoming with a large population of armed residents, if looting and burning begins.
“If it stays peaceful, by all means,” he said. “But we’re basically here just in case.”
During the march, “Wyoming is love” was shouted back against “Trump 2020” as individuals with differing opinions were separated by a wide, empty street. Some lingered on the edges of both sides, watching and listening to those who turned out, but with whom they did not wholly agree. As protesters made their way down Main Street, some honked car horns or revved engines in support of the entourage, while one person yelled “Y’all go back to the sewer you crawled out of.”
Pride flags and signs advocating awareness for missing and murdered indigenous people peppered the crowd around Tehn Ehsahni Suah, who took to the megaphone on the steps of the courthouse.
Suah said they never expected to see such a public display in Wyoming — of people standing together to say “enough is enough.” Protesters shouted in support as Suah shared experiences as a black, queer, transgender person.
“Every day I walk out the house, I am afraid for my life,” Suah said. “Because of my queerness, because of my trans-ness and because of my dark skin. I know that this could be the day that I may not make it home. No one should have to live like that...Unfortunately, all my brothers and sisters and others out there are living like that.”
After the protest, Suah said the demonstration was positive and protesters largely chose not to respond to mild provocation from others.
Organizers collaborated with police in planning the event, which diminished some of their concern about a heavy police presence, but Suah said they still were not completely comfortable surrounded by officers.
In response to question from a friend, Suah encouraged the public to not become too “hung up” on good versus bad officers and instead focus on the system that allows police corruption to persist.
Prior to the protest, Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson and SPD Lt. Travis Koltiska both shared a belief that law enforcement’s role in all U.S. jurisdictions should be to ethically and fairly enforce the law while focusing on community service.
“When we lose that trust or fail to provide openness and transparency, then I have failed as a leader and our office has failed to serve the needs of the people to feel safe and secure,” Sheriff Thompson said in an email.
The demonstration may represent a positive start, but Suah noted the need for individuals to continue to educate themselves, learn how to recognize inappropriate microaggressions and improve interactions with people of color.
“I’ve heard it said before, America is extremely good about short-term compassion and not long-term change,” Suah’s fiancée Alex Edwards said.
Day-to-day change truly shows itself in workplaces and at dinner tables, Edwards added. Joining others who share similar beliefs with loud voices in greater numbers provides a level of comfort — “it’s a lot harder when it’s your family and your coworkers or your boss.”
At more than 80 years old, Parr recognized some concerns about people tightly packed together in the current public health environment.