The spark of protests (and conflict) hits Oklahoma

By Michael Kinney

Photos by Michael Kinney

Lynda Williams had to be there. Having grown up in Lawton and now raisin two young boys in the city, the 47-year old Child Welfare Specialist had to see it for herself.

The event was the Lawton Peace Rally Sunday afternoon. It was spurred on by the death of another unarmed black man by police in a state hundreds of miles away. But it still hit close to home for Williams.

“I went to show my support for our African American community and let them know that we all need to stand together to stop the senseless killing of African Americans in this county,” Williams said. “It was important because there is racial injustice everywhere even in Lawton and our voices need to be heard.”

On May 25, a video was released on social media of a 46-year black man being detained by four members of the Minneapolis Police Department. They had been called when a shop owner accused George Floyd of using a fake $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes.

Less than 30 minutes later, Floyd was dead.

The video showed in detail a white officer, Derek Chauvin, placing his left knee on the back of Floyd’s neck as he laid on the ground.  He kept the knee there for nearly nine minutes while Floyd was saying “I can’t breathe” and asking for his mom.

When it was found out the Floyd died after the incident, the video went viral and made Floyd, a household name as the country was left to grapple with another death of an unarmed black man in police custody.

Chauvin and the other three officers were fired the next day. However, it took several more days of protests and violent conflict before Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder.

But by then, it was too late. The spark had been lit and it set off a tidal wave of protests, rallies and marches across the country. It also brought about acts of looting, vandalism and violence.

“I am not surprised nor am I apologetic on the efforts of black people forcing the conversation for people to listen to our cries as a nation,” said 28-year old Jacobi Crowley, who organized the peace rally. “No one wants to see riots and protest, but when we have done peaceful protest we were ignored and told to stand up instead of taking a knee. I now see a people feed up with seeing no action and the same results. As a nations I believe we have to bring this conversation to the front and make sure everyone is aware that we as a nation can not move forward and heal until we are honest about the systemic racism and oppression in this county.”

Many cities have had to find ways to deal with what has become a national tragedy.

That includes Lawton, which is why Crowley put together the Peace Rally after being encouraged by citizens in the community.

“I was asked by fellow citizens to organize and put together a peaceful rally. I thought it was a great opportunity for the Lawton community to show the nation we are in solidarity with the black community on George Floyd’s death,” Crowley said. “As a diverse communit,y I think it is important to take a stand for things like systemic racism that happens within this county. In order for us to truly have a conversation that will show solidarity and togetherness, we must first have a real conversation that deeply impacts the black community.” 

For many of those in attendance, it was something the city needed.

“My husband and I attended the rally due to us wanting to be a part of the conversation of change in Lawton, 44-year old Monica Hamilton said. “Both of us being born and raised in Lawton and now raising our four kids of color, we saw it important to be there. Lawton for years, and within my family’s and my own personal experiences, has been divided. If we, as a community look at the bigger picture, Lawton needed this rally. With the unfortunate death of George Floyd, I instantly felt compassion and a sense of connection, among other feelings. I’ve gone over my father’s, my kids and my own memories of racism. I thought of the ‘what ifs’ those experiences would have gone badly. What if? Today, Lawton felt the same. Today’s rally showed Lawton in a very positive light.”

The organizers of the event seemed to work in concert with the City of Lawton, who granted a permit for the rally. That made for a more relaxed environment that was inviting to all.

“What stood out to me was the amount of young people in the crowd and the size of the crowd is what stood out to me,” said Williams. “When I drove up the rally had already started and there was barely anywhere to park. To see Lawton show up like that was really heartwarming.”

More than 60 miles away in Oklahoma City, a much larger protest march was taken place on Sunday.

Led by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, thousands of people arrived at NE 36th and Kelly to hear a few speakers before they made their way to the Oklahoma State Capitol.

The crowd was filled with men and women of all races and nationalities. The marchers filled the streets as they chanted and waved signs before they congregated on the front steps of the capitol.

“Today’s protest and march in Northeast OKC was well-attended and entirely peaceful,” Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said. “When someone defaced our Capitol, a group of people removed their shirts and began cleaning. My gratitude to the organizers and those who attended.”

It was one of the largest marches Oklahoma City has seen in quite some time. While it was peaceful, many of the attendees felt they had been heard.

After an hour, the bulk of the marchers headed back to the starting point in Northeast Oklahoma. However, another smaller group of a couple hundred young men and women diverted back downtown to the Oklahoma City Courthouse.

Because of what took place Saturday, the police were on high alert and had called in help from other departments in the area. Every officer was in riot gear and they also brought in a armored vehicle, which they parked on the front lawn behind a barricade.  

Things stayed calm until the sun went down. Then there was a replay of the night before. Objects being thrown at the police, including fireworks and rocks and tear gas tossed at the protesters.

At 9:45 p.m., Holt announced a curfew for downtown Oklahoma City started at 10 p.m.

The police were able to push the group to outside the curfew zone and they tangled until around 2 .m. before they finally got things under control.

Once again, small businesses saw their property vandalized. That included Valir Health, which was looted.

“In our form of government, the City Manager and the Police Chief are the leads on our law enforcement response and our Charter prohibits the Mayor from directing the operations of the police department,” Holt said. “I have confidence in the expertise of our city’s law enforcement leadership, but I am absolutely monitoring the situation very closely. We’re all in this together. I will always believe that.”

This all came on the heals of Saturday’s protest event that started out well, but quickly spiraled out of control after demonstrators stopped traffic at the intersection of NW 23rd and Classen.

At that point, around eight Oklahoma City Police officers pulled up and told the protesters to get back onto the sidewalk and stop interfering with traffic.

Two or three individuals were taken away by the police and later arrested.

Members of the Oklahoma City Police Department take down a protester Saturday before arresting him. Photo by Michael Kinney

As soon as the police left, the group got back into the street and took over the intersection for the rest of the night. After a couple of more altercations with the authorities, they group, which numbers a couple of hundred, made their way throughout the city and ended up at the Oklahoma City Police Headquarters.

For several hours, the protesters squared off with the police. During that time people in the crowd threw water bottles rocks and bricks at the police as they formed a protective line around the station.

The police used tear gas, flash bangs, rubber bullets and bean bags on the agitated crowd. However, there are differing accounts on who began the crowd.

Throughout the evening, several storefronts had windows broken and graffiti tagged on their buildings. A total of 25 individuals were arrested throughout the evening.

“Destruction of property or threats of violence are not acceptable. It doesn’t serve a higher purpose and it distracts from the important issues at hand,” Holt stated after the situation was under control. “It is not something we will ever condone in Oklahoma City. I am especially disappointed in property damage to small businesses, who have suffered enough from the pandemic. Having said that, I’ve heard many anecdotes tonight about people who spoke out against vandalism and violence. Those anecdotes hearten me, but don’t surprise me. The vast majority of people in this city, even those who are angry right now, do not want to harm our people.”

It is believed by many, that the violent and destructive parts of the weekend were led by outside groups who’s only intention were to create problems. This has been a reoccurring picture around the country as protests have been hijacked by those seeking to exploit the situation for criminal activities.

However, since it has not been proven, the peaceful protesters have also been labeled rioters and looters.

The question that remains what is next? After the nights of protests and riots, what needs to happen going forward to improve the nation and state.

“I pray and hope these conversations continue,” Hamilton said. “Changes are made. Lawton grows. Lawtonians realize their biggest voice is in the ballot booth.”

Lance Miles has similar hopes.

“First and foremost, I hope that it will force our politicians to create a dialogue with the leaders of the African American Community. Not fake dialogue but true dialogue. With national and state leaders who truly want to listen and make a difference,” said Miles. “I hope that it brings forth a new crop of leaders to the forefront. Leaders who have empathy, new ideas and have the strength to withstand the backlash that will obviously come from those who are scared of change.”

For Williams, the question is bigger than just the city she grew up in. She looked at what was taking place across the nation and wants better for the next generation of young, black kids.

“My hope is that America will open its eyes to the racism that is in this country. It exists and is alive well in 2020,” Williams said. “My hope going forward is that my black son, husband and grandsons will not be considered a threat just because of the color of their skin.”

Michael Kinney Media

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