On a day when Kirksville residents took to the polls for municipal elections, hundreds more turned out Tuesday to protest recent cases of police brutality and racism.
A crowd of 250-300 people lined up along Baltimore Street, from the Adair County Public Library down to the intersection with North New Street. Holding signs with many different phrases voicing support to end racism and remember the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the protesters peacefully stood for about two hours without incident.
Kirksville Mayor Zac Burden stood in front of the library, also a polling place for Tuesday’s election. He closed Monday’s City Council meeting with a statement saying he knew the protest would go well and how he wanted Kirksville to prove him right. That ultimately happened. He said he joined the event not just as a citizen, but also as an elected official.
"This is a cause that, when you really boil it down, I think everyone can get behind," Burden said. "This is about making sure no one in police custody should die. The support of that effort today is an important part to be heard here in Kirksville or anywhere else in the nation.
"I’m also here in my capacity as mayor to show folks that peaceful protest is an important part of our American, democratic tradition that goes back even before our founding," Burden said. "To have that demonstrated today by people who agree and people who disagree — that’s how it works in our country. So, as mayor, I’m really proud to see that happening here in Kirksville. It’s a shame that this won’t get national attention, but Kirksville can really showcase what this looks like."
Here is part of the crowd assembled along Baltimore. This is maybe half of them, though I’m bad at estimating. Everything’s been peaceful, plenty of honks from cars driving by pic.twitter.com/6ukuOZJ3Sp— Austin Miller (@AustinMillerKDE) June 2, 2020
Kirksville residents JoJo and Garrett Nichting organized the rally, putting it together over the weekend. JoJo said she wanted to do something after she saw the video where George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Floyd was reportedly detained for using a counterfeit $20 bill. Officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd was unresponsive for the final 2 minutes and 53 seconds.
Floyd’s death came a couple of weeks after Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police. The police had a search warrant for suspected drug dealers, but she was not one.
The Nichtings figured getting people lined up alongside the busiest street in Kirksville would get the most attention for their cause. The Facebook page had more than 200 people who said they would show up. Both JoJo and Garrett said they felt hopeful at the conclusion of Tuesday’s protest that many people shared their frustrations and anger.
"A man was killed for no reason," JoJo said. "He had a knee put to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I think people can all agree that’s not good, that we can’t let that happen. We need to put a stop to police brutality.
"We wanted to make it so the town could see that we are here for the black community, and we want to stand with them and help them. We didn’t want to step on their toes and represent them in a bad way. We want to lift them up and give them a voice."
The event started with everyone gathered around the pavilion at Rotary Park. Both JoJo and Garrett gave brief speeches, songs were sung and then there was a moment of silence — the length of Floyd’s final moments — before lining up along Baltimore.
Adair County Sheriff Robert Hardwick, Kirksville Police Chief Steve Farnsworth and several officers were present for the event. Safety for everyone involved was their top concern.
"We’ve been talking with the organizers for a couple days now. Facebook is a good thing, but so many rumors start on Facebook. We’ve been out trying to curb those rumors and take advantage of that," Farnsworth said. "But we also wanted to give these people peace of mind because we got a number of calls of people saying, ‘I’m going to be at the protest, but we want to know is safety one of your priorities?’ And, of course, safety is our top priority."
There was no violence, no screaming and very few instances where passersby yelled obscenities or flashed a middle finger. Instead, a steady stream of honks from people showing support of the protest. Hardwick complimented JoJo at the conclusion, saying they went about it the right way, and thanked them for picking up garbage and water bottles.
Clarissa Gonzalez and Regina Hernandez learned about the rally over the weekend and decided to come out on Tuesday.
"For me, supporting on social media and speaking out on social media just wasn’t enough," Hernandez said. "It doesn’t feel right just posting and pressing ‘Share’ on my Facebook page and saying I’m here for change. We’re coming out here to show people this is a real thing."
They both held signs referencing their Latino heritage and how that community supports the issue at hand.
"When we learn to stop looking at things from a color standpoint, then we’ll be fine," Hernandez said.
"We’re all the same at the end of the day," Gonzalez added.
Truman women’s basketball coach Theo Dean and men’s assistant coach Austin McBeth also attended. Dean posted a statement to his Twitter account over the weekend detailing racism he has experienced in his life, including his many years in Kirksville as a student and coach.
With the ongoing racial tensions seen across the country, it has allowed Dean and McBeth to reflect on their place in the community. With no black members of local government and most congregations being led by white people, they are some of the most prominent black figures in Kirksville. Along with football assistants Thomas Kearney, Isaiah Walker and Derek Gray Jr., the Truman coaches are some of the only leaders of color in the area.
McBeth said it’s hard to see himself and think of himself in that capacity, but he understands the weight it carries.
"The things that I do, the things that I say, the conversations I have, the way I love people, the way I treat people matters. It might sound crazy to say, but there might be people in Kirksville whose only impression and understanding of what a black person is like, how they act, what they do, the way they communicate, is from me and Theo," McBeth said. "I understand that responsibility and I’m willing to carry that. Not that it’s my responsibility to make someone think one way or another about people of color, but I also understand that my actions really do matter. I hope people of this community can equate what they think about black people to what they think of me or Theo.
"Even if Kirksville can be a place where all lives matter, black lives matter, every ethnicity, race and orientation — if we can come to a place in this community where every person matters and every person feels like they’re safe and cared about, then we’ve made a difference in this world," McBeth said.
Estimates from the Census department say Kirksville’s population for 2019 was 17,602. Of that, 88.4 percent was white and 5 percent was black. That data seemed true for the people protesting on Tuesday, with most of the crowd being white. But there were other colors, creeds and orientations represented. One citizen held a sign referencing how June is LGBTQ Pride Month.
Even if Kirksville is a mostly white community, all protesters were happy to see the whole community show up to support one another.
"I think it’s important that no matter how low the population of black people in our community is, they still matter and their voices still matter," said Garrett Nichting. "They still experience racism. We may not have the long history of police brutality, but we still have racism like every community in the world. We need to look at every instance of racism and challenge it."
"I think it’s important to understand that this is not a matter that just impacts African Americans in our country — this impacts Americans in this country," said Mayor Burden. "It impacts humanity all over the world. To have a cross representation of people here, particularly in a town as white as this one, it’s an important showing."