"We Have To Be The Peaceful Ones:" Riverton's Evolving Activism Tradition
This summer, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers sparked a wave of protests across the country. The first Wyoming community to join that national movement wasn't Laramie or Cheyenne, or even Jackson Hole. It was Riverton.
On June 1, 150 or so people gathered in Riverton City Park to honor George Floyd's life and demand justice. They stood along Federal Boulevard chanting "Black Lives Matter" and "Justice for Floyd."
Micah Lott, one of the young Northern Arapaho people who organized the protest, spoke to the crowd about how Black people are expected to respond to acts of violence with peace.
"What's frustrating is the constant demand to forgive and forget," said Lott, "But how can any human being do that if they have to endure a system that refuses to destroy the very same acts of violence and injustice?"
Lott is one of a handful of people in Fremont County with direct experience organizing protests. Five years ago, they were a water protector at Standing Rock, perhaps the largest Indigenous-led activist movement in history. They've travelled across the country and as far as Spain advocating for climate justice. But they trace their roots as an activist right back here to Riverton, Wyoming.
"It's kind of difficult to pinpoint when you come from a targeted community," Lott said. "I think that there's probably a lot of pivotal points in my life that pushed me to the forefront of organizing things."
One of those pivotal moments came in 2003, when Lott was only nine years old. A white supremacist group with a history of violence announced that it would move its official headquarters to Riverton.
People in Lott's circles were outraged and afraid.
"The majority of the response had come from Indigenous people, the tribal leaders and people like that," Lott said.
Tribal youth were also called to action. Stephanie C'Hair was a student at Wyoming Indian High School in 2003.
"I was shy, but I felt really deeply, and I still do today, that this was something I wanted to speak out against," C'Hair said.
She and her classmates had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. They wanted to plan a demonstration to show that Fremont County wouldn't tolerate white supremacy. But there was no roadmap for them to follow.
"We did some research prior, and we didn't really find too many protests or peaceful marches or rallies before that," C'Hair said.
A lot of people in Fremont County wanted to keep it that way. The idea of a white supremacist group setting up shop in Riverton wasn't popular, but neither was the idea of a bunch of Native kids marching through town in protest.
Colleen Whalen was a teacher at Wyoming Indian High School who helped the students organize the 2003 march.
"Not everybody, including my principal I think, was just all out thrilled," Whalen said. "There were families, and the adults that came up to me and said, 'No, our family will not be coming. That walk is dangerous."
So, there was a lot of pressure to keep the event not just peaceful, but positive. Stephanie C'Hair said she and her classmates internalized that.
"We didn't want to divide people. We wanted everybody to come together, so we came together and did the whole peaceful protest. We did the walk from Walmart to City Park," C'Hair said.
And it was a success. Hundreds of people came out to support them. There was no violence, and no counter-protesters.
Every year since 2003, Wyoming Indian High School has organized a Martin Luther King Day walk in Riverton. The event has become something of a blueprint for activism in Fremont County. Ron Howard leaned on that blueprint in the summer of 2015, when Riverton was grappling with another act of hate.
On July 18 2015, a white city parks employee shot two Northern Arapaho men in the head while they were asleep in a detox facility. Sunny Goggles survived the shooting, but was severely injured. Stallone Trosper died that day.
"It was like a punch in the gut that something so brazen and so bold could have happened," Howard said. "I was angry and I was confused and I didn't know what to do but I knew somebody had to do something."
Howard wanted to make sure what Goggles and Trosper suffered wasn't swept under the rug. So, he organized the first annual Riverton Peace March through downtown. He's kept the tradition going every year since then. Despite the violence that prompted it, Howard said he strives to keep the tone of the event positive.
"A lot of people were so angry [in 2015] that they said 'No, we don't want to do that. We need to do something more,'" Howard said. "But in the name of peace and tolerance, that was about the only thing I could think of."
One of the people who wanted to do more was Micah Lott. They believe that all this focus on peace and unity lets racist people and systems off the hook.
"It seems as if it's like bandaids to the much larger issue," Lott said. "We want results. We don't want racism and violence to keep happening."
Since they were a kid, Lott has watched Riverton's protest tradition take shape. The Martin Luther King Day walk and the annual peace marches helped shape their identity as an activist. But Lott is tired of being polite.
"Why do we have to be put in that situation where there's this continuance of violence put against us, and then we have to be the peaceful ones, and we have to be the polite ones, and we have to be the ones that have non-violent communication? And yet, nothing changes," Lott said.
Lott says Native people in Riverton are only listened to when they're calm and peaceful. And as long as that's the case, they don't expect anything to change.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.