What It’s Really Like to Protest in a Small Town

It’s not all big, energized crowds and visible progress. In some parts of the country, the fight against racism is smaller, slower, and more difficult—but just as important.

It’s Saturday morning at 10 a.m. I’m driving south, away from the small town where I live and toward another small town 16 minutes away where fans of the Confederacy have been gathering every weekend for the last several months. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered them, nor will it be the last.

While I drive, I shove scrambled eggs and link sausages into my mouth and slurp down a large unsweetened tea. Another message comes in through the alert system: five of them, only three of us. Once I get there, we will be almost even. Soon, more of us will appear, and we will outnumber them, as we always do.

I park out of sight, blocks away from the spot where they like to gather. I don’t want them taking photos of my license plate and finding out my home address. They show up to these protests armed. I don’t carry a gun; I’ve never even fired one. But I won’t let them intimidate me, and their show of force won’t keep me away. This is too important.

Growing up in the shadows of racism

I was born six years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I grew up in the ’70s and attended an integrated school where I had four Black teachers by the time I turned 10. My parents made sure of this. They had been born into the segregated South, and they grew up separated from their Black neighbors by an invisible but unquestionably real scrim of hatred. They felt the wrongness of segregation from their earliest childhood. My mother would tell the story, in hushed tones of shame, of elderly Black men stepping off the sidewalk as she, a little girl of five, passed by.

Even in my own childhood, though, the undercurrent of racism persisted. When adult conversations in the front room at my grandparents’ house threatened to take certain turns, my father silenced uncles and neighbors with an icy glance. This hushing and silencing was always chosen over open conflict in my WASP family. To yell and shout would be unacceptably rude and trashy, but that yelling and shouting might also release a torrent of ugly truths—like the fact that our family had been complicit in slavery once upon a time…all the way back, on all sides.

The very real threat of White supremacy

I stop in at the café that has been supportive to us these past several months. I’ve gotten to know the young Black woman who works there a little bit. Before I arrived today, one of the racists—an enormous White man, known to be violent, who’d driven here from several states away—had come up to the door of the shop and started waving his huge Confederate flag in her face. She was alone.

My heart hasn’t stopped pounding since I heard what happened. Even though these people had been terrorizing this town for months and even though they had physically attacked us more than once, I’m still shocked. Why, though? My shock is nothing more complicated than White privilege. Everyday acts of racism are nothing new to people of color.

I come in the back door of the café and hug her. She is not shaking or crying, as many White women would be. She is nervous but also angry. I look out the window to see the five of them, all my age or older, standing in a sad clump at the spot where the Confederate monument—removed months ago by the county—once stood. They look at once both menacing and utterly lumpy and ridiculous. I start to laugh. She joins in, and we both laugh until tears roll.

This is part of what it means to be an ally in the movement toward equality.

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Infuriating double standards

Things change when George Floyd is murdered. Movements spring up in every city. Monuments start to topple like dominoes. Positive changes begin rippling throughout the country. I know they’re definitely not happening in one place, though—another small town 20 minutes from my house. The sheriff there has brazenly targeted people of color for two decades. Black people do not patronize the downtown area—at all—and the square feels like it has been imported whole cloth from 1955. A Black friend says: “The Civil Rights movement never arrived here.”

Once again, I witness the sickening sight of a stone monument to a treasonous band of traitors surrounded by scores of heavily armed police. It’s as though this cheap, ugly, mass-produced granite slab were a living, breathing, feeling human being. I hear thinly veiled threats from racists as they pass by, one older White woman loudly commenting that the huge German Shepherd she is walking “might snap.” I see armed White supremacists protesting in a public space without being arrested.

If my sign had even a simple paint stirrer attached as a handle, I would be approached by police and told that I cannot carry weapons at a protest. If I fail to comply—to ditch this flimsy wooden stick that weighs exactly one-third of an ounce—I will be arrested. This blatant double standard exists in every city, in every town.

Staying the course

A video appears on Twitter: Employees at one of the many downtown businesses owned by a city councilwoman film themselves inside the building after hours, showing off their stockpiled long guns and bragging about shooting at the five-person BLM protest across the street. At another, larger protest, the sheriff puts his arm around the most vocal and visible White supremacist in town, despite the many cameras documenting this public gesture of support.

During this protest, I stand in front of a Black-owned business, the only one in the entire downtown area. A White man wearing a hat, sunglasses, and star-spangled scarf over his entire face walks over from the café (also owned by the city councilwoman) where the racists hang out and stands in front of me, arms crossed. A minute passes. I do not move away, but begin—low, almost under my breath—to sing a gospel song about suffering and keeping the faith. After three minutes, he walks away.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Jessica Harrison is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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