THE BUZZ 2: Anger Erupts Over Anti-Racism Rally

By on July 26, 2016

A group of people that gathered on town square has brought Jackson Hole into a national conversation about police brutality and race relations.

Sarah Ross, 22, organized a gathering to remember unarmed African Americans who have been killed by police. The event sparked anger and confusion among some valley residents. (Photo: Meg Daly)

Sarah Ross, 22, organized a gathering to remember unarmed African Americans who have been killed by police. The event sparked anger and confusion among some valley residents. (Photo: Meg Daly)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A small gathering in the name of the national movement Black Lives Matter was met with confusion, hostility and anger last week in Jackson Hole.

What began as a peaceful rally on Thursday led to a group of residents becoming the target of verbal attacks and threats.

About 30 people gathered in support of racial justice and ending police brutality were accused of not placing equal value on police lives and nonblack lives. The rally organizer, 22-year-old Sarah Ross, was also threatened with death.

After the rally concluded, Ross said numerous people made “disparaging and hateful” comments, including one man who suggested she could be “beaten to death” for holding a BLM sign near a war memorial. At that point, rally attendee Matt Stech stepped in to diffuse the situation, and the group dissipated.

Stech recalled: “I said, ‘that is unnecessary, sir.’ He then approached me, said something about veterans dying for my rights, poked me in the chest, and hurried off. Clearly he took offense at the topic of racial justice to the point of aggression.”

The antagonism didn’t end there. Since the protest was announced, several individuals have taken to social media to repudiate Ross and other protest participants. One Facebook user commented on The Planet’s Facebook page: “All lives matter you friggin’ idiots.”

Former Teton County commissioner Barbara Allen challenged Ross on Facebook. “Sarah, did you read the names of cops who have been murdered in the last year or more?” Allen asked.

In fact Ross did mention the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge during her remarks at the protest. Allen, however, was not in attendance.

Looking at the lives on the line

Participants of the Black Lives Matter movement have become dismayed by the misperception that BLM is somehow aimed at devaluing other lives. BLM supporters say this notion brushes aside facts—that there is an increasing number of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, and America’s history of racial violence.

“The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police … Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago,” writes The New York Times editorial board. “They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. People who are unacquainted with this history are understandably uncomfortable with the language of the movement.”

A July Reuters article also explored how Black Lives Matter is misunderstood. Reuters noted that Dallas Police Chief David Brown told the press that the shooter who killed five police officers at a march for racial justice said he was “upset about black lives matter.” The march is widely misunderstood to have been organized by BLM, but was in fact organized by an organization known as Next Generation Action Network.

BLM was quick to condemn the killings of the police officers in Dallas on its website. “There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans. We should reject all of this. Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.”

Progressive police departments across the nation are showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In Wichita, Kansas, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay recently hosted a cookout for members of law enforcement and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile the Associated Press reported July 19 that “the Phoenix Police Department considers Black Lives Matter as a partner to hold the force accountable, not a terrorist group.”

Apparently this news has not reached certain Facebook users who posted inflammatory comments attacking Ross. These remarks have since been removed from the social media platform.

Indeed, the aggressive response by some residents and visitors indicates how misunderstood the Black Lives Matter movement is in America, and right here in Jackson Hole.

Southern Poverty Law Center president J. Richard Cohen explained in TIME magazine: “The backlash to [Black Lives Matter], in some ways, reflects a broad sense of unease among white people who worry about the cultural changes in the country and feel they are falling behind in a country that is rapidly growing more diverse in a globalizing world.”

Why Black Lives Matter matters to locals

Thursday’s rally was comprised of mostly Caucasian supporters of both Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice, two organizations encouraging dialogue about ending racism and injustice.

“I want to be part of the solution,” said Natalia Duncan Macker, a Teton County commissioner and the artistic director of Off Square Theatre. She attended the rally with her brother and her young son. “There are people in our community who live in fear and live in the shadows,” Macker said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Pastor Inger Hanson of Shepherd of the Lady Lutheran Church said she attended the rally to feel connected to her friends in larger cities. She did her seminary training in Philadelphia, where she worked with other activists in the name of racial equality. “Just because we don’t have the diversity of Philadelphia doesn’t mean we don’t have a different diversity here in Jackson,” she said.

Kjera Strom Henrie attended the rally with her five-year-old son, Augie. She said the event offered validation that she isn’t alone. Her work, she says, exposes her to the challenges people face in Jackson. “As a Spanish teacher and an elementary school teacher, I’m often called upon to be the voice of others,” Henrie said.

Born in Africa and raised in Jackson, Ross said the rally offered a time for folks to come together and recognize the racial tension that is gripping the country. “I see this event as a time to reflect collectively on our role as white people in this struggle, and to honor the lives lost in recent weeks, months, years, centuries, and their grieving communities.”

The event commenced as Ross led attendees in a moment of silence in memoriam of the hundreds of unarmed black Americans who have been killed by police. She then invited people to read from the list, “Ways you could be killed if you are black in America.” The list included:

“Failing to signal a lane change, Sandra Bland.”

“Riding in your girlfriend’s car with a child in the back, Philandro Castile.”

“Running to the bathroom in your own apartment, Ramarley Graham.”

“Selling cigarettes outside a commuter store, Eric Garner.”

Afterward, it was clear the rally had an effect on its attendees. Nineteen-year-old Kenny Perez said he thought it was a brave thing for white people to draw attention to themselves in this way. Perez, who is Latino, was born and raised in Jackson. “I didn’t expect something like this here,” he said.

In an interview after the protest, Ross said the challenges and anger directed at her on the Internet and at the town square rally indicates a level of discomfort people feel discussing the deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of law enforcement—people meant to protect the public.

“People are upset we talked about something that doesn’t ‘matter’ here, but they seem to forget that silence isn’t neutral,” Ross said. “I think people mistake starting a conversation for destroying peace, when actually it’s a way to reveal all that’s not being said.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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