PITTSBURG, Kan. — Several hundred people gathered Monday afternoon at Immigrant Park in Pittsburg to hear speeches on topics that have recently been receiving more media attention than usual — police brutality and race issues in America — before going on a peaceful march through downtown Pittsburg.
"The death of George Floyd isn’t necessarily shocking, but it’s heartbreaking to believe that one of my nightmares could actually come true," said rally organizer and Pittsburg State University Black Student Association President D'Andre Phillips Coble. Floyd died in late May at the hands of a former Minneapolis Police officer who now faces murder and manslaughter charges.
"These nightmares not only come when I’m sleeping, but they’re always in my subconscious, such as when I’m running down the street, just like Ahmaud [Arbery] did, or as I’m in the backyard playing with my nephew with water guns and reflect that with Tamir Rice, and most often when I’m driving on the highway and my heart freezes because I see the flashing lights of a police car, and can only imagine what Sandra Bland was thinking that night," Coble said.
CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY FROM THE RALLY
Other speakers at the rally included Pastor K.O. Noonoo of the Pittsburg Presbyterian Church, who noted that he and his family have lived in Pittsburg for the past 14 years, and it has been a good place to live, but he originally came to the US in 1990 from Ghana in West Africa.
"I came as an international student," he said, "and the reason I came to this country is that the movies that I was watching in Ghana convinced me that there was a system in the United States, and the system was this: it was a fair place, that if you worked hard you would advance, that there were opportunities. That was the system. And so my family sacrificed and sent me here to study. But we are here today to say that something about this system isn’t working."
Noonoo asked the crowd if the system was broken, and received shouts of "Yes!" in response.
"Not so fast," Noonoo said.
"The system is not broken," he said. "The system is working just fine. It is designed to get the results that it is getting. And that’s good news. It’s good news because it means if we open our eyes and get engaged with one another, together we can design a system that works for all of us."
Deatrea Rose, director of student diversity programs at PSU, who was another speaker at the rally prior to the march, addressed concerns some have expressed in recent years about the Black Lives Matter movement and its signature slogan.
"When we say black lives matter, we are not saying that all lives don’t matter," Rose said. "Nowhere in this movement does it say anything about discounting other lives in our communities. The point of this movement is to be loud advocates for the black community and to stop racial injustice that has gone on for far too long from our federal to our local level. All lives cannot matter until black lives matter."
Another speaker and organizer at the rally, Haylee Valley, discussed the local history of racism in Pittsburg.
"People think that because we live in nice, small little towns that we are immune to the effects of racism, however it has ingrained itself into our communities since the beginning of time. In the early 1920s Pittsburg actually had the third largest KKK chapter in the entire state and we would hold state conventions here because of our thriving KKK community," she said.
Some people may think racism is a thing of the past, but that is not the case, Valley said.
"Racism is very much alive and prevalent in our communities, including within our law enforcement," she said. "Just because they’re not putting on riot gear and putting people in choke holds doesn’t mean that they’re not just as culpable as the police who are doing this in the larger metro communities."
Valley said the turnout at the demonstration Monday was great, but more work needed to be done, not just by those in attendance but by elected officials.
"I’m looking at you too, because we are in this predicament partly because of your failure to pass legislation that protects your black constituents," she said.
One such official, Pittsburg City Commissioner Larry Fields, attended the rally and said it was extremely important for people to be there.
"Pittsburg is not a whole lot different than anywhere else in the world really," Fields said. "We always think we’re special, you know, we’re not covered by different things, it doesn’t happen here, but we’re all alike. So this is something that’s really important for people to get out and participate in."
Fields said more people showed up for the rally than he expected, and also compared his own experience of being pulled over with those described by some of the speakers before the march.
"I have a bit of a lead foot too," he said. "If I see lights behind me I say ‘Oh no, I’m speeding,’ but I don’t have to worry about my safety with it, and so it’s a different thing when you have to worry about your real safety."
Members of the Pittsburg State University football team were also at the event to show support.
"I think this is wonderful. I’ve seen protests on TV, but to see something like this in Pittsburg was great. I thought the speakers were great, the community reaction was great, the walk was great, and it was really nice to see our community come together like this," said Pittsburg State University assistant coach and former Pittsburg High School Head Coach Larry Garman.
"I've been in Pittsburg for a long time, and I’ve coached a lot of good kids, both white and black, over the years, so I think it was important to be here and show support here today," said Garman.
"We met with our players and had a conversation as a team, and the African American players shared some of their frustrations with the obstacles they had to overcome growing up as black men in America, and we felt it was important for us as a team to come and support the message that black lives do matter," said Pittsburg State Head Coach Brian Wright.
Rally attendees who aren’t politicians and who weren’t involved in organizing the event also discussed their reasons for participating.
"People shouldn’t have to fear for their lives just because of their skin color, you know, like they can’t change that," said Bryanna Fullhart, 18, of Pittsburg. "Like why would you look at someone and think they’re a criminal just because of the way they look? That’s not right."
"I think it was a great opportunity for those who want to be allies but aren’t sure how, to be able to see ways to support the cause and help the movement going forward," said Emma Noonoo, of Pittsburg.
Tenasia and Natalie Baugher, sisters who are in high school and came from Fort Scott to attend the rally, also discussed their reasons for going.
"We were raised in a white family because we were adopted, so we were kind of oblivious to all of this growing up, and ever since all of this stuff has been brought up and been filmed lately it has been so heavy on our hearts because we are also people of color but we did not know of any of this happening," said Tenasia.
"And as all of this goes on, we’re learning a lot and so is our mom," said Natalie. "She was kind of oblivious of it too."
Tenasia said the turnout for the rally was incredible.
"I honestly didn’t expect that many people because the protests in our town have been maybe 60 at the most," she said, "but this was a very good turnout and it was very peaceful."
Local law enforcement officers were at the rally and blocked off streets to facilitate the protesters’ march on Broadway up to 4th Street, over to Pine Street, and back to Immigrant Park. Chants from the protesters during the march included "No justice, no peace, no racist police," "Black Lives Matter," and "Hands up, don’t shoot."
Pittsburg State University Police Chief Stu Hite was also invited to speak at the rally, and said the circumstances that brought the demonstrators together — the death of George Floyd and other recent deaths and incidents, often involving police, that have been widely condemned as resulting from racism — were unfortunate.
"I wish we were able to have this conversation under different circumstances and I hope that from the other speakers that have been talking I hope you get that, and I hope that we do continue this conversation," Hite said.
"After being in the profession for 32 years, I’ve heard about the fear and apprehension members of the Afican American community have towards being pulled over by the police. It’s something that we take for granted sometimes, pulling people over for traffic violations, but it is vital that we look at it and the impact that those interactions can have on people."
Crawford County Sheriff Danny Smith also attended the rally, and said that while he is proud of his deputies and the way they handle themselves professionally, he recognizes they can always do better.
"I think today gave everybody an opportunity here to voice their concerns over racism and any social injustice and I think it opened up the communications," Smith said.
He said it was a good opportunity for law enforcement to listen to the community, and also condemned the killing of George Floyd.
"It’s embarrassing as a law enforcement officer to see that," he said, adding that he could not bring himself to watch the entire video. He also said he was glad to see that there was no violence or direct conflict between the protesters and police Monday.
"It was our job to facilitate a peaceful assembly and that’s their right, that’s what this country is all about is being able to voice your concerns," Smith said, "and it’s our job to make sure people are safe, so whatever we could do today, it was a joint effort between the local agencies and it went smooth as expected."
Following the march, Valley, like others at the rally, said she was impressed with the turnout and that the demonstration remained peaceful.
"I thought the turnout was amazing, it was very emotional for me to see this many people here, because a lot of times like especially when you’re in a predominantly white community it feels like no one cares," she said. "So seeing this many people come and support us and want to hear about what’s going on and what they can do, definitely one of the best moments of my life."