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This Time Is Different, As Laramie, Wyoming's First-Time Protesters Demonstrate

Protestors in Laramie, Wyoming continue their nightly marches up and down Grand Avenue.
Conor Mullen
Protestors in Laramie, Wyoming continue their nightly marches up and down Grand Avenue.

Protesting racism and police brutality is nothing new. But large, sustained turnouts, especially in small, mostly white towns, is something we've not seen before. For many of these protesters, it's their first time demonstrating - ever.

Back in 2012, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, demonstrations broke out across the country, and then again when the man who killed him was acquitted of murder.

In Laramie, students and faculty at the University of Wyoming demonstrated on campus. But it was only a few dozen people and just for one day. In the wake of George Floyd's murder, thousands of Laramie residents have been protesting systemic racism, and the protests have continued for weeks.

On a recent night in Laramie, people were marching up and down one of the town's main streets for 30 blocks. In a parking lot along the route, Celeste Prall stood with a sign that read "Black Lives Matter." She was protesting from there because she's high-risk for COVID-19."I have an autoimmune condition, so staying here is probably the best for me," Prall said. "So we brought some water to set out so everyone can grab some water and some signs to just kind of be here while also being safe."

That week had marked her first time protesting. She was joined by her friend Hannah Rhymes, who attended marches with her family as a teenager.

"But this is the first march that I've ever come out to and attended of my own volition," Rhymes said. "I thought, 'OK, this is something that matters to me. I want to take a stand for this.'"

Prall and Rhymes are white. This spring, they both graduated from the University of Wyoming, and they credit that college education for helping them foster a more empathetic worldview.

"Over the past few years, I've had the privilege and honor of getting to know friends who are Black and persons of color, and really getting to see their life experiences has changed my mind," Rhymes said. "I will never understand what their life experience is like, but I can stand with them and demand justice."

"It's really important to me to emphasize that this is not a liberal issue, and nor is it a conservative issue," she continued. "Demanding justice and accountability from our police force is not a political statement. It should just be something that we ask for as Americans."

A few cars down, Vince Schaff and his family were preparing to join the marchers. Schaff is white, and this particular night marked his first time demonstrating as well. He said conversations with his college-aged son about race and white privilege motivated him to join."I never have to talk to my son about, like, how he dresses when he goes out at night, or if you get pulled over by a cop, you need to do these things," Schaff said. "And so I just feel it's time that I need to be out here to be able to say those things and I think that's important."

Hanson Nayos, who moved here from Papua New Guinea about six years ago to attend college, knows what it's like to be a young Black man in Laramie. He was protesting for the first time, too.

"Police following you for no reason down the block, you know, you're just trying to go home," he said. "You're wasting taxpayers money, you know, go do something else."

Nayos said he's grateful to see so many white people turning out to support people of color.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "You guys are together and it will make a difference."

Organizers of the protests hope that's the case. Already the protests have prompted Laramie City Council to review the Laramie Police Department's policies and police oversight, with a work session scheduled for next week.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Maggie Mullen, at mmullen5@uwyo.edu.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Wyoming Public Radio

Maggie Mullen is a fifth generation Wyomingite, born and raised in Casper. She is currently a Masters candidate in American Studies and will defend her thesis on female body hair in contemporary American culture this May. Before graduate school, she earned her BA in English and French from the University of Wyoming. Maggie enjoys writing, cooking, her bicycle, swimming in rivers and lakes, and most any dog.
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