Police officers knelt side by side with protestors as armed citizens watched from afar at the Peaceful Rally Against Racism in City Park on Sunday.
In contrast to many riots that broke out after similar rallies throughout the nation over past weeks, the roughly 350 people who attended the Cody rally did not resort to violence. They did acknowledge Cody is a community that, just like on every corner of modern America, has not been spared from racism.
“The basis of our intervention is not our skin color,” said John Boyd, executive policy advisor for Kanye West, who was the closing speaker at the rally. “The basis of our intervention is that we have a conscience.
“What we are seeing today is a manifestation of good.”
The event featured nine speeches, including words from Cody Police Chief Chuck Baker and Mayor Matt Hall. Cody police chaplain Warren Murphy and Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt were also present.
About a half hour into the event, the protestors – many holding signs – made a perimeter loop around the park. These signs came with messaging that included “Racism is a pandemic too,” “United for justice,” “Justice for all,” “Today begins the dialogue of being actively anti-racist,” “Love knows no race” and “Equality now.”
Surrounding the perimeter of the park were about 30 armed citizens, many of whom said they were there to protect local businesses in response to the looting and burglarizing seen around the nation in recent weeks following protest rallies in larger cities. But rallies held in Casper, Pinedale and Jackson last week were all peaceful, with few if any conflicts reported and no property damage.
Melissa Maier, organizer of the event, said having a peaceful protest was a foremost priority for the gathering. She took the stage first and stressed this point.
“I’m so proud of our community today,” Maier said through tears afterward. “I’m just looking forward to what can be done moving forward.”
Although it was not a Black Lives Matter organizational event, the event’s motto was billed as “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
Maier said she worked with some of those walking the streets and sidewalks surrounding the park to help ensure safety and civility from both sides as a neutral force, and Rachel Hanan told volunteer staffers before the event they should use the word “eggplant” if they encountered a situation that needed de-escalation.
About 10 of those people were on horseback, including county commissioner Lee Livingston. The distant sound of an occasional bray added a strange juxtaposition to the speakers’ voices.
Lessons and thoughts
Change generally comes with education and awareness for an institutional problem.
“It’s really illuminating to see those voices come out to suggest that there is a problem here and we can do better,” Maier said.
Cheyenne Houser, who is black, moved to Cody a few years ago with her father from Salt Lake City. She said she never experienced discrimination until coming to the Big Horn Basin.
“The biggest issue is people don’t realize it’s there,” she said.
The recent upsurge in protests over the past two weeks has come in response to the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody, video shows, after being held to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, causing him to suffocate.
For that amount of time, demonstrators took a knee and remained silent.
Kema Jamal, a Cody resident and a woman of color, performed a theatrical dance to the audio of Floyd’s arrest, expressing emotions of fear and desperation with her movements to match Floyd’s pleas for help, echoing across a quiet crowd at City Park with a hollow pang.
“We have a responsibility to our children … so the generational lineage of how we behave, how we act, how we think, how we share, how we give, how we pay it forward, how we just be – is so vitally important for not what we’re just standing for today, but for a better global world,” Jamal said. “Education is the first and foremost part.”
Baker condemned the officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and said it was an incident that made him “angry” and “ashamed.” He also said a culture has developed among police officers of bias and stereotyping that leads to incidents of brutality.
“He was face down in a street with handcuffs when he was murdered by a man wearing a uniform similar to mine,” Baker said.
Three other Minneapolis officers had stood by as Chauvin kept his knee pressed against Floyd.
Baker said his department is in the process of enacting new policies for pursuits, de-escalation incidents, mental health calls and community oversight.
“Law enforcement has got a lot ahead of us, both here locally in Wyoming and certainly in those major metropolitan cities throughout the country,” he said to the rally-goers. “The gravity of the movement you’re involved in is going to change policing in America.”
In Cody, a city of around 9,500, more than 90% of the population is white. Although there was a smattering of color represented at the rally, a few of the speakers made a point to acknowledge the overwhelming white perspective.
“I don’t pretend to understand the sentiment of race struggle,” said speaker Jordan Nelson.
Baker, like many, said there are many great officers in this country, but it is a certain few who bring their departments down. Rooting out bad officers, he said, is a top priority, but one that can be hindered by the police unions.
“I do believe there are some restrictions on our ability to manage officers in that aspect,” Baker said.
The need for peace and equality were two key points continuously brought up during the program. Unlike other protests held throughout the country, there was no talk of defunding the police.
“I don’t find myself fighting a culture that perpetuates violence against my people,” Boyd said. “I find myself fighting a culture that perpetuates violence against all people.”
Meron Negash decided to come to the rally while visiting Cody on vacation from Dallas. Growing up in the southern state, she said she saw discrimination first hand nearly everyday.
She was impressed with Cody’s rally and said having events like these can mark the first step towards social change.
“Unity helps us heal,” she said.
During his speech, Boyd told the audience a story of a white man who adopted a black child.
When the child had turned 18 years old, she inquired to her father about racial protests occurring, to which he replied, “What does a white man’s interest have to do with a black man’s interest?” Boyd said. “She hung her head in disappointment and said, ‘Well, I thought you would make a difference in their lives not because you’re white. I thought you would make a difference because you called yourself a good man.’
“If you are a good person, it has a lot to do with it.”
Many of those surrounding the outside of the park had rifles displayed prominently, with a few brandishing visible ammo sleeves.
“The demonstration of firepower was a little over the top,” said Cody resident Marquis Houser.
There appeared to be very little conflict between the armed men and the protesters. The most contentious moment may have come at the corner of 10th and Sheridan, where across the street from the park about 10 people stood waving President Donald Trump signs and banners. As the protesters marched by, some pulled out cellphones and started filming the other parties. In response, the Trump supporters started filming the protesters with their phones.
Josh Schatz, who was part of the armed contingency, said he felt their presence helped keep the event under control.
Although Cody resident Frank Bohan did say he was proud of his city for being able to hold such an event, he suspected those patrolling the outside were trying to scare people away from attending the gathering as an intimidation tactic.
Cody resident Jared Griffin waved a “police lives matter” flag as he walked the streets around the park.
“Not all cops are bad, they’re out here to help and protect us,” he said.
Local business owner Cheri Fisher said although she was making sure to protect her Sheridan Avenue business during the protest, she supported the overall cause of the event.
“The discrimination needs to end, it’s divided us long enough,” she said.
Flint Flesher said he and Boone Tidwell helped organize many of those standing around the park, holding multiple planning meetings leading up to the event. A few of his group, wearing pink armbands, stood among the protesters near the bandshell.
“I didn’t expect it to get too nuts,” Flesher said. “Our biggest concern was protecting the outside businesses.”
In the days leading up to the event, there was harsh criticism from many for the event on the Facebook page Cody Classifieds, with racial slurs publicly posted.
Marques Houser said he found these posts “ugly,” but was given new hope after the event.
South Fork resident Zack Cook, who decided to patrol via horseback and carry an American flag on his own volition, said he saw on social media there might be an Antifa – a far-left wing militant group – presence at the event. A volunteer fireman, he said the damage inflicted upon fire trucks in other parts of the country as a result of the recent riots bothered him deeply. On Sunday, he said he found one protester’s sign so offensive that it could be considered a threat to Trump’s life.
In addition to voter registration materials, there was also Black Lives Matter and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women literature placed on tables set up at City Park.
An exemption request was approved by Public Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin in order to have the rally. Most in attendance wore face masks, with free N-95 masks, hand sanitizer and gloves also provided by organizers, according to the event's exemption request. The stage microphone was wiped down between each speaker, but social distancing was limited by the crowd.