LAWTON - Lynda Williams had to be there. Having grown up in Lawton and now raising 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-old 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 lie 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 that 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 second-degree murder.
The police officer had originally been charged with third-degree murder but on Wednesday, June 3, the charge was upgraded. In addition, three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin's actions, reports from The Associated Press show.
Although the officers had been fired, 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 in Lawton. “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 fed up with seeing no action and the same results. As a nation, I believe we have to bring this conversation to the front and make sure everyone is aware that we as a nation cannot move forward and heal until we are honest about the systemic racism and oppression in this county,” Crowley said.
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 community, 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,” he said.
CONVERSATION OF CHANGE
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 big- ger 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,” she said.
MAYOR SUPPORTS OPEN DIALOGUE
Lawton Mayor Stan Booker was not in attendance. In a statement he released earlier last week, he said he had a prior engagement with his family. However, Booker stated he did support the open dialogue and communication about the challenges the nation faces. Ward 7 City Council Member Onreka Johnson spoke in place of Booker. “I know the chief and I are going to get together and talk about some things that we can do in order to build and foster relationships with the police department and our young people,” Johnson said. “Especially our youth, and just kind of build some trust and things like that and as they grow up they’ll have the trust with the police department.”
Those who did speak at the rally included Ward 7 City Planning Commissioner Paula Bowen, House of Representatives District 64 candidate Kyle Meraz, Medicine Park Mayor Jennifer Ellis and a host of civic and community members. “I am extremely proud of Lawton. How we conducted ourselves. The overall event allowed Lawton residents, people in leadership and community influencers to speak out to the community on a personal level,” Hamilton said. “The number of people that were not there stood out. As many of our leaders made themselves heard, there were still many, many others who did not show up.”
Protesters also walked around city hall eight times with their hands raised in the air chanting, ‘No Justice, no peace.’ “I think it went off fantastically,” Lance Miles said. “I think Jacobi Crowley and the people that put it together hit a homerun. They allowed people of all colors to speak. "They challenged not only the white community, but they also challenged themselves. The best part about it was the behavior of the people in attendance. I, as somebody who has spent a large portion of my life in this community, know of the state’s opinion of the City of Lawton and my community showed them that they could not be more wrong. Proud of them,” he said.
Even though the spark that lit the nationwide powder keg was lit in Minnesota, residents who spoke said many of those same types of incidents and conflicts have occurred in Lawton between the police department and the black community. Names such as Michael Davis and Marcel Johnson were brought up as examples.
Yet, not everyone agreed with that sentiment. “Through personal experiences, I feel there is not a problem with the police and people of color,” Hamilton said. “The Lawton Police Department has made several advances through positive connections with events open free to the community yearly. I do believe there is still a racism problem among Lawtonians.” Both Miles and Williams said they just don’t know because they have not experienced it.
The past week has been filled with reports of violence, destruction of public and private property and looting. They took place at the same time as many of the protests, which has local and state officials trying to figure out the correct response. In his statement, Booker had urged citizens to remain respectful during the rally and applauded community leaders for seeking peaceful avenues to address issues during “challenging times.”
However, for others, the restrictions placed on the rally didn’t allow them the outlet they were looking to have.
On the popular Facebook Group page, Lawton Grapevine, one poster, who uses the name HotS*** G-Way, voiced his disappointment I the way the rally was put together.
“I Don’t Like How Our Protest Was Limited To Only 2 Hours And We Weren’t Able To Actually Go Out Into The Street.!! It Felt Like Another Form Of Oppression Not Being Able To Let My Voice Be Heard Across The City Like Other Places,” G-Wayy stated. “I’m Sorry But I Don’t Feel Like The City Heard Us On A Sunday Gathered In Front Of A Closed Building..I’m Pretty Sure Other Cities Didn’t Go Out Trying To Get Permits For Their Protest..I For One Am Disappointed.!”
G-Wayy went on to say he wasn’t calling for residents to go out and destroy Lawton, but “we should go back out and let our voices be heard and let officers and city officials know we are done with the mistreatment of black people and other minority groups.”
Crowley saw it differently.
“We live in a community different from any other community in this country. We do have problems within Lawton that have been addressed with thought out conversation, but no action taking place. We first have to address the issue that brought us to this place of discomfort: and that is the death of George Floyd,” Crowley said.
“We cannot get blinded by the reason for us to bring the conversation to our community by nitpicking on how we think the event could have been better. When we had the rally the most important thing I wanted people to take back to their own social groups and communities is that protesting and marching is only one piece to solving this puzzle.
"The outcome of the rally brought back the idea of a Citizens Advisor Board back to the table. With the help of Lawton city leadership, I believe this will help create a better relationship within our law enforcement and citizens.”
As protests for racial and social justice continue in many cities throughout the country, now is when the hard work really beings. What do communities, cities, states and the nation do going forward to build off of everything that has taken place over the past two weeks.
For Crowley, it has to be a collaborative effort. “I am a true believer that this is not just a black and brown problem in this county but an American problem,” Crowley said. “We don't need just black people to care about black people but we need whites to care as much. This calls for the privilege to take a stand with us saying enough is enough. We also need the City of Lawton and other surrounding communities to take a stand with the black community and change policies and create initiatives that will make sure we won’t see this happen in our communities.”
Hamilton sees her city growing from the experience. “I pray and hope these conversations continue,” Hamilton said. “Changes are made. Lawton grows. Lawtonians realize their biggest voice is in the ballot booth.” Miles has similar hopes for Lawton.
“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.”