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The Importance Of Small Town Protests Against Police Violence


There have been huge peaceful protests all across the country to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism. The biggest crowds gathered in the big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and here in Washington, D.C., to name a few. But the wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody almost two weeks ago now has also reached countless small towns.

Anne Helen Petersen is a culture writer for BuzzFeed, and she wrote a recent piece titled "Why The Small Protests In Small Towns Across America Matter." And she joins us now from her home in Missoula, Mont.

Anne Helen Petersen, thanks for joining us today.

ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: Where are these small-town protests happening? Are they happening all over or just certain parts of the country?

PETERSEN: They are truly happening all over. Like, if you think of the town in your state where you're, like, there would never be a protest here, there's a good chance there's a protest there.

MCCAMMON: And what does that suggest to you?

PETERSEN: You know, because of the pandemic, there just hasn't been the sort of, like, massive organizing, everyone-come-to-the-city-if-you-want-to-protest sort of thing. But because of that, it's fallen on people in smaller towns, suburbs, you know, neighborhoods in the bigger cities to say, well, we want to organize something here to stand up, to say black lives matter to us. Even if there's very few people of color where we live, like, it's important that we take a stand.

MCCAMMON: How are these communities reacting to these protests, especially in the more conservative, more sort of rural parts of the country?

PETERSEN: So what I'm seeing, particularly in the West, is that a lot of people who aren't used to there being protests or aren't used to even thinking of their town maybe as having people with these mindsets, it's difficult for them to believe that these protests are homegrown. And so there are a lot of rumors that ANTIFA is coming to town and is spearheading the protest, and it's going to get violent, and it's going to ransack the downtowns.

And so in many of these places, you have counterprotests or "protectors," end quote, who are showing up armed to, they say, either protect the protesters or to protect the downtown. And I think that to me, what that highlights is that there is this dubiousness - that, like, how could there be hundreds and hundreds of people in our small town who would care about this? It has to be people who aren't from here. But that's not the case.

MCCAMMON: Have any of these small-town protests resulted in violent confrontations?

PETERSEN: Not that I have seen. And I imagine that there is probably some story out there of something - like, some sort of unfortunate instance of violence happening. But from what I have seen, again, in hundreds of submissions, they have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

MCCAMMON: You said that these protests are popping up in some surprising places where it hasn't been seen before, at least in recent memory, or where you just wouldn't expect a march or a demonstration of this kind. What does that mean?

PETERSEN: So in a lot of these places, there's no protest tradition. And what I mean by that is that there is no history of anytime that there is injustice, or that you're mad about something, or that you want something to change that people take to the streets. That's just not what you do.

So it takes a lot in a small town to say, I'm going to stand on the corner of this small town where everyone in my town where everyone knows everyone can see me and say, this is what I stand for. And I think that as much as, like, this is nothing compared to the bravery required oftentimes for a black person to navigate America on just a daily basis, I think that the bravery that we're seeing for people to show up in these small-town protests indicates that this time really feels different.

MCCAMMON: Anne Helen Petersen is a culture writer for BuzzFeed and joined us from her home in Montana.

Thank you for joining us today.

PETERSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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