A group of young people showing solidarity for the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement marched through Waynesville Monday evening, accompanied by police escorts.
The grassroots protest was organized Monday afternoon, June 1, with just a few hours notice to assemble in the Walmart parking lot by 8 p.m.
Word spread quickly, with between 75 and 100 young people answering the call to action with handwritten signs, walking with police protection through Hazelwood, toward the historic courthouse in downtown Waynesville.
“We want to show that we are all in this together and shed light on the issue itself and spread the message in an appropriate way,” said Dylan Davis, one of the protest organizers.
Protesters were nearly outnumbered by onlookers — some merely wanting a front-row seat if looting and rioting went down, and others armed and ready to step in as vigilantes if things went south.
But as protesters amassed in the Walmart parking lot, fellow organizer Zach Bach made clear they had no intention of mirroring the looting and rioting seen elsewhere in the country.
“What’s the point of blowing up a Walmart?” Bach said. “‘I’ve been watching all this vandalism and destruction, and that’s not how you get the point across.”
Demonstrators said they wanted to lend their voice in the fight against police brutality in America, having watched video footage of the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd beneath the knee of a uniformed police officer.
“It’s important to take activism to the streets, because that’s where real change is made,” said Grace Feichter, a college student back home in Waynesville. “We’re standing in solidarity.”
Along their route, protesters were outnumbered by onlookers — some recording the demonstration on their phones, others cheering for the procession, and a few jeering in their direction.
Police escort, militias watch
Waynesville Police Officers heard about the protest like everyone else: through Facebook late Monday. In the run up to 8 p.m., police cars circled the parking lot looking for the group of protesters.
Once a crowd began to congregate, Lieutenants Brandon Gilmore and Tyler Trantham approached with an offer of assistance. The officers said their top concern was to ensure the protestors' safety.
“We wanted to assist with what’s obviously a peaceful protest. That’s their right, and we want to be here to assist them in doing what they want to do as long as it stays peaceful,” Gilmore said. “We want it to be as organized as possible so we don’t get anybody hurt.”
After hearing the group’s intended route through town, Gilmore and Trantham offered them a police escort — with one police car in the lead and another bringing up the rear. The escort provided visibility to buffer the marchers from traffic while walking in the streets, but also served as a safety net should the protesters face threats along the way.
“We want to protect them from anybody trying to interrupt with what they are trying to do, and hopefully keep things calm,” Trantham said as the group headed out.
The protesters indeed encountered disapproval along their route. A truck flying an American flag made a couple passes, revving the engine forcefully as it went by.
While passing through a residential stretch of Hazelwood, some slurs were hurled at the protesters by a few residents emerging on their porches to watch.
But most of the spectators witnessing the procession weren’t there to cause trouble, any more than the protesters themselves were.
“As long as they don’t tear the place down, I’m OK with that,” said Jason Frisbee, from the protest's origin in the Walmart parking lot.
Eric Lance, a member of the national militia group III Percent Security Force, said he came out to lend assistance should things “get out of hand.”
“I am here in case law enforcement needs help, or to help extract Walmart employees or anyone that gets hurt if something happens,” said Lance, watching from the sidelines.
Lance, who wore a gun on his hip, said he had nothing against the substance of the protest.
“I support their constitutional right to peacefully assemble 100 percent,” said Lance, a Marine who fought to defend that freedom.
Taken to the streets
The Black Lives Matter protestors marched through Walmart's parking lot, onto South Main Street, down the avenues of Brown and then Hazelwood, then up North Main Street to the lawn of the historic courthouse, chanting along their route.
"What's his name?" A demonstrator from the front of the group shouted. "What did he say?"
"George Floyd," the pack responded. "I can't breathe."
Traffic was interrupted. A line of cars backed up behind the protestors as they marched, some with protest signs posted on the sides of their vehicles. Someone came out of their house to film a cell phone video, raising a closed fist in a show of solidarity.
"This is a part of history I want to be involved in. When my children learn about it in history class, I know there's going to be a racial bias," said a marching, sign-wielding Maddie Claytor. "I want to tell them what actually happened."
Onlookers were present all along the route — on their porches, from parking lots, in their vehicles and dining at restaurants downtown. At the courthouse steps, passersby gathered from a distance on the sidewalks, watching as the gathering rallied more chants.
"No justice, no peace," the protestors chanted. "Black Lives Matter."
Cameron Eastman said he recently moved to Waynesville, and came to participate having seen police brutality in his hometown where he came from.
"Back home we lost two people, they got killed by the police," Eastman said, adding that body camera footage was never made public, and the cases were quickly closed. "I came here with my brother to show some love and support for them."
By 10 p.m., the chanting subsided, and protestors dispersed to start marching home, with rumblings of another rally later in the week.