A group of local young people organized a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” demonstration Tuesday afternoon in the courthouse square.
Twenty-year-old Dessa Cline said she and a few friends from her generation hosted the event, which protested the death of George Floyd last week after a police officer in Minnesota kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.
Cline posted the event “Peaceful Protest: United We Stand” on Facebook with the message:
“Hello wonderful people of Great Bend. A few citizens and I will be hosting a peaceful demonstration in support of the black lives matter movement! And (we) urge you to come if you are in support, and have positive words to say! We will not condone any violence or negativity!! Our goal is to open the conversation, and better our community with this movement! Everyone is welcome!! With that being said please don’t show up if you have any interest in hurting us, or disrespecting the police! Stay Positive, Stay Calm, and I hope to see you there!!”
Police Chief David Bailey said he was aware of the planned gathering because he was at the City Office when someone came in to fill out paperwork for a gathering on city property. He said he was told approximately 27 young people are planning the event.
The actual turnout was at least twice that size, with protesters who appeared to be pre-teens, a lot of young adults and some older people. Some carried hand-made signs with messages such as “Your silence is violence,” “White silence is white compliance,” “Justice for Floyd” and “I can’t breathe.”
From the band shell, Cline invited people to speak.
“This isn’t a love fest,” one woman shouted as she moved to the front of the crowd. “Police the police for once!”
“There are some good cops,” a woman in the park seating responded.
“And they should start standing up for us!”
“End police brutality!”
The crowd wasn’t in consensus about the police. Several GBPD officers stood on the sidelines throughout the 90-minute rally and Detective Joel Hamlin handed out bottles of water.
The protesters also brought bottles of water to hand out.
The Great Bend Tribune spoke to Cline before the event to ask about its purpose.
“It’s to protest the deaths of millions of unarmed black men who have been shot and killed. It’s to stand in solidarity,” she said.
Other Black Lives Matter demonstrations have occurred throughout Kansas and the nation in the past week, prompted by the death of George Floyd. Some demonstrations have been peaceful while others have erupted in violence.
Cline stressed that the local group is peaceful and she also spoke highly of the Great Bend Police Department.
“GBPD is amazing,” she said. “And I don’t think anything like this would ever happen here.
“This isn’t to make anybody angry,” she said. “We want to show our community that we care.”
They also want fellow Americans – including those in a small town like Great Bend, to do better. She said she’d like to see an end to some negativity.
“Great Bend is a very conservative town,” Cline said. “I want something good to happen for our community. ... If we can all sit together and just talk together – share stories – we’ll be a stronger community.”
She expressed concern about the possibility of violence. “We’ve had a lot of people threaten to hurt us,” she said. If there is violence, “it won’t be my group.” Organizers were asking anyone who wanted to start trouble to stay home.
As the protest got underway, some people on the stage said they were harassed while organizing the event.
“People were threatening to have us arrested. We had to buy a permit.” While the speaker admitted there was no fee for the permit, she was still concerned.
Another woman said, “I’d like for my voice to be heard in prayer,” and the group paused for her to pray.
“This is about the acceptance of sin,” said a white woman who confessed, “I’ve lived a privileged life, but it is about the fact that we have allowed injustice.”
“Just because somebody has a different complexion shouldn’t matter,” Cline said. A sign behind her read, “Dark skin is not a crime.”
Thelma Russi, the last president of Great Bend's now defunct chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, watched the event quietly.
“I think it’s very courageous of them,” she said of the protesters. “The change will come through young people.”
City Manager Kendal Francis also watched from the sidelines, and said he was “pleased to see they’re peaceful. It’s encouraging to see young people stand up for something they believe in, exercising their rights in a peaceful manner.”
The protest moved from the band shell area to the sidewalk around the courthouse, with people standing at the corners and holding up their signs. They moved on to the grassy area in front of the courthouse to kneel or lay on the ground for nine minutes.
Motorists who drove by sometimes honked in support, although some made rude hand gestures or laughed.
One man with the group walked up and down the ranks, shouting the messages on the signs and prompting the protesters to make themselves heard. “Murder is not OK.” “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Shouts of “Black lives matter” were sometimes met with a response that “All lives matter,” which in turn was met with “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
A man who may have been a pastor spoke with the protesters, urging them to “focus on Jesus. Every life matters. Life matters,” he said.
The rally ended peacefully about 90 minutes after it began. Cline had invited people to bring food and stick around for a water balloon fight.