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At Small Town Protests, Young Wyomingites See Signs Of Change

Catherine Wheeler
Danica Boyce, 16 (left) and Rowan Heil, 18 (right) attended the a Black Lives Matter protest in Buffalo on Monday, June 15, 2020. Heil helped to organize it, and Boyce spoke at the event.

Buffalo, Wyoming is a small Western town with fewer than 5,000 residents. The historic Occidental Hotel still stands on Main Street. Murals of horses paint the sides of old brick buildings. Buffalo's most widely attended event is a four-day long festival that celebrates a fictional sheriff in town based on Buffalo and Johnson County.

But now, Buffalo is like the hundreds of cities and towns across the country holding protests against racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police officers. Buffalo held a march on Monday, June 15. The march was organized by a small group of teenage friends in town after they attended a protest in neighboring Sheridan.

"And I figured, if a young girl can organize that there, then why can't I do it here?" said 18 year-old march organizer Rowan Heil. "And we figured, why wait? This movement is now, this is happening, this is current. So we organized it for a week in advance."

Credit Catherine Wheeler
Protesters marching in support of the Black Lives Matter movement kneel for eight minutes and 46 seconds in Crazy Woman Square in downtown Buffalo in honor of George Floyd.

More than 50 protesters marched less than a mile from the Johnson County Justice Center to Crazy Woman Square in downtown Buffalo. When protestors arrived at the town square, they knelt in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds-the length of time a police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck on a Minneapolis street in late May, killing him.

Protesters gave speeches that focused on the need to end racial injustice and address it, even in towns as small as Buffalo. Sixteen year-old Danica Boyce, who is biracial, said she sees this as her community stepping up.

"I was just so ready for a change. Because if it's happening in a large city and it trickles down this far, it's such an amazing thing. Because not a lot of things get this far, get to the small communities over here. So, the fact that it did is such a momentous feat, and I'm so proud of my community for doing it," Boyce said.

And it's not just Wyoming that's seeing this change. Across the country, small towns that tend to sit out social justice movements are joining the conversation. Anne Helen Petersen has been writing about the phenomenon for Buzzfeed.

On June 1, Petersen started a Twitter thread highlighting demonstrations happening outside of major cities, in places like Portland, Maine and the suburbs of Chicago. But she started seeing reports of massive protest crowds in some truly unexpected places.

"The first one that I was like "Holy crap" was Havre, Montana, which is just not a place that you would ever think there would be a social justice protest," Petersen said.

You might say the same about Buffalo, Wyoming, or Torrington or Pinedale, but demonstrations in each of those small, rural towns drew dozens of Wyomingites.

Petersen said that kind of small town participation is part of the reason this moment feels different from previous Black Lives Matter uprisings.

"It's really emphasizing that this is a national movement. It's a global movement, but it's also a completely national movement. Not only all 50 states but every corner of every state. And that speaks to just how strongly people want change," Petersen said.

Credit Tessa Hust and Kellyn Chandler
Kellyn Chandler and Tess Hust protesting in Dubois.

That resonates with Tess Hust and Kellyn Chandler, who organized a small protest in tiny Dubois, Wyoming. They just graduated from the town's high school with a class of eleven students, and Chandler said their politics have always set them apart.

"We don't exactly fit in with the general population of Dubois, it's a really conservative town. We're both more radical I guess you could say," Chandler said.

But aside from "mini protests," like wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt to school, this was Chandler and Hust's first foray into demonstrating. And they weren't expecting their neighbors to be on board.

"But really, the support was pretty overwhelming. We stood on the street corner, the only intersection in town. As people were driving by we got a lot of thumbs up, people honking, and a couple people stopped and said 'Wow, this was really awesome,'" Chandler said.

Credit Tessa Hust and Kellyn Chandler
Protesters in Dubois, Wyoming, population 968.

One local family even got out of their car and protested alongside them. But others stopped to argue with them, or shouted angrily at them as they drove past.

Chandler and Hust know that there are people in the community who disapprove of what they did, and might even look down on them for it. And in a town of fewer than 1,000 people, your reputation sticks to you.

"I did get a couple people telling me 'Don't do it, it'll ruin your reputation,'" Hust said. "And I was like, if my reputation is ruined, that's not as big as people literally dying from police [violence]. It's really not a difficult choice."

In Buffalo, Rowan Heil made the same calculation. She said she's been targeted and harassed since announcing on social media that she was helping organize the protest.

"Some people threw trash in my backyard, honked outside at 1:30 am. I got a lot of negative Facebook messages, people thinking they convert me to 'All Lives Matter' by sending me some dumbass videos," Heil said. "And my friends got those as well from people that don't even know us, people who have never spoken to us personally, making a judgement off one post that we made, trying to stand in solidarity."

And while knowing everyone in town might make you a target for some hate, it can also have the opposite effect.

"I felt like there was an energy in our little circle, in our little group that just made me feel comfortable enough and feel safe enough to speak on my personal viewpoints and how I feel," said Danica Boyce.

During a speech at the protest, Boyce said she was fighting for the right to be seen as a whole person, not just as the "only Black girl in class." Through heckles from counter-protesters, she thanked her small town for showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Credit Tessa Hust and Kellyn Chandler
Hust and Chandler's protest helped inspire a community walk around Pete's Pond in Dubois in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Still, Boyce said she knows the event didn't solve all of Buffalo's or the country's problems. In Dubois, Tess Hust and Kellyn Chandler said their small protest didn't change the world either. But it did help inspire another demonstration: a walk around a local pond in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. And that event was organized by adults in the community.

"I was just like, gobsmacked at how many people showed up. And these people also weren't afraid to get on their knees to show support," Hust said. "I was blown away because my whole life I've spent here I've been like, 'I can't wait to get out of here and meet some new people who agree with me.' But it kind of just makes me want to stay."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu and Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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