A mass uprising against racial inequality has convulsed the nation following the police killing of George Floyd. On any given day, protestors from all corners of the country are filling streets to demand change.
They march, sing, dance, and chant. They kneel in silence for eight minutes, the amount of time Floyd was pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. They light candles and pray. They wave signs demanding justice and police reform.
Many of these rallies are organized by women furious over police mistreatment of Black people in their communities and beyond. We spoke with five female activists about what it’s like hosting protests in their small hometowns—and how they plan to sustain the momentum to create actionable change.
Activist Kelsey John, 23, marched through the streets of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on May 30, handcuffed and dressed in all black to demand police reform following the death of George Floyd. The city blocked off the streets for John, who led 100 other protestors through Vernon Dahmer Park, named for the Civil Rights activist murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in 1966, and past a Confederate monument that will be relocated following a resolution passed by the Hattiesburg City Council.
“Racism and violence isn’t something I want to run away from, but to try and change. If you can appeal to people in the right way and be genuine, you have an opening to make a positive difference. That’s what I want to do here in my hometown. Even if your hometown doesn’t have a huge population, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a huge impact with activism. Every voice, no matter where you live, carries weight. I had a lot of support from friends and family, but there were people who tried to work against me. Sometimes you can’t let outside voices deter you from doing something you know is right. So I followed my heart and stood up for what I believe in. I was enraged and upset at what happened to Ahmaud Arbery [who was shot and killed while on a run in his Brunswick, Georgia neighborhood] and George Floyd. I used those emotions to get out there and march for police reform. I knew that sometimes it takes just one person to make a difference.”
Alton, New Hampshire
Two months after Ruth Larson, 71, recovered from COVID-19, she was on the streets of Alton, New Hampshire, demanding justice for George Floyd. The retired attorney, who is running for state representative in New Hampshire, wasn’t sure anyone would show up to the demonstration she posted about on Facebook. Seven people did, which Larson calls a “good turnout.” They wore masks and stood 6 feet apart with signs that said “Liberty and Justice for All” and “Equal is Right.” Passersby flashed thumbs ups and honked car horns at them. One woman yelled out: “I’m with you!”
“Even here, in the most conservative and least diverse area of New Hampshire, there is support for racial justice, and people here do believe in liberty and justice for all. Attitudes seem to be changing for the better, and the recent George Floyd killing may have helped turn the tide, or at least started ignited a change that could lead to a kinder and more just America.”
Two hundred protestors gathered in downtown Anna, Illinois, on June 4, chanting “A-N-N-A! Ain’t No Negativity Allowed,” an alternative to the town’s infamous unofficial acronym “Ain’t No N—— Allowed.” According to ProPublica, nearly a century ago Anna was a “sundown town,” meaning Black people were barred from being out after dark. Jessica Moore, 25, who helped put on the demonstration, grew up a few miles away in the city of Ullin, where she says that even today “you aren’t accepted if you weren’t white.” The protest was a step in the right direction, but Moore—who is already working on a second protest—says this is just the start.
“When we started posting about the protest [on social media], the reactions were almost immediately negative. People said we were just coming to Anna destroy property and someone even said they would shoot us if we stepped foot on their property and that they would run us over in the streets. But I wasn’t scared, not anymore, because I feel that I have a purpose and that’s to make things right and just. The day of the protest, we marched, we yelled, we cried, and we came together as one. When I stopped and looked around and saw how many people had come to support us, I just sat down and cried. I will never give up.”
Flower Mound, Texas
When Sarah Edwards, 43, posted about her plans to protest in a community Facebook group for Flower Mound, Texas, the fitness instructor received a flurry of DMs accusing her of bringing “violence” to the town. An admin quickly removed her post for violating “community rules.” But that only reassured Edwards she was doing the right thing. On May 29, she stood outside the local Kroger grocery store with a hand-painted sign reading, “Stand Up 2 #SocialJustice.” She went back the next day, and again the day after that. By her 11th straight day of protest, more than 1,200 people had joined her.
“This was a grassroots movement prompted by my [Christian] faith and by the injustices that are suffered daily by Black Americans and people of color all over the world. Protests in smaller towns matter, because racism is an issue everywhere. That was very evident to me when I was organizing this protest, because [I got] comments like, ‘Why would you do this here? If you want to protest, go and protest where it’s a problem.’ That statement alone confirms that, yes, we have a problem right here [in Flower Mound]. My focus is now on getting involved in trying to help create meaningful change so that people of color truly have equality. Let’s work on our education system and let’s ensure that our history books are not written strictly by white people.”
Queens for Peace
A coalition of women called “Queens for Peace” are speaking out against racism in Dubuque, Iowa, a town once described by the state’s biggest newspaper as “the Selma of the North.” On June 1, the group’s leaders—Dereka Williams, 38, Monique McCauley, 40, and Gwendolyn Fountain, 42 (pictured above with marcher Latoya McCauley)—organized a peaceful rally downtown, where marchers laid belly-down, chanting “I Can’t Breath” in honor of George Floyd. The Queens helped oversee four more protests the following week, plus a silent march, a candlelight vigil, and a block party where attendees were required to wear masks.
“We know that, as Black women, it is our duty to be a voice for our community. We stand with the rest of the world to demand justice for our people and to show that our community cares, as well. Our vision is to promote peace, while bringing awareness to issues within our own community. [The people of] Dubuque are supportive, even more so than expected, but very much needed. We have a long way to go, but the community support showed us that this town is ready to change.”