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Protest organizers, city officials working together to ensure peaceful, safe ‘March for George Floyd’ in Spencer

The organizers of the March for George Floyd Thursday evening in Spencer want nothing but a peaceful, safe protest that denounces what happened to Floyd and sheds light on racism.

Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him down for eight minutes and 46 seconds. His death has sparked protests nationwide, in communities large and small, in which protesters say they are raising awareness of yet another killing of a black person, particularly at the hands of police, and condemning institutional racism across the country.

That message will make its way to Spencer on Thursday.

“Our plan is to meet up at East Leach Park at 5 p.m. to begin our march down to the local police department and then, at the police department, we are planning eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd,” said Morgan Mack, a former Spencer resident and one of the event’s lead organizers. “And just protesting against what happened to him and racism in general.”

The organizers are working alongside city officials and local law enforcement to make sure the event remains peaceful and safe for all involved. Some protests in other cities, such as Sioux City, Des Moines and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, started out as peaceful before groups of protesters turned to rioting, destruction of businesses and other violence.

Mack and her husband, Stephen Mack, also a former Spencer resident, now live in Sheldon. Each of the event’s primary organizers have either lived in Spencer at some point or have at least spent time in the town.

That’s ultimately why they chose to hold their event here.

“Everything that I know is still Spencer, Okoboji – it’s just centralized,” Stephen Mack said. “I’ve got a lot of friends out there.”

Spencer’s also one of the larger cities in the area, said organizer Kayla Weishuhn, another reason they chose Spencer.

“Spencer is one of the bigger cities in this area aside from Sioux City,” Weishuhn said. “Sioux City kind of already had their marches and rallies. For us, we feel to have the largest impact – and we even looked at the Arnolds Park and Okoboji area – and we just felt like there was more of an ethnic diversity in Spencer. I mean, it’s still not very large, but it’s definitely there.”

Protest organizers are expecting a gathering of at least 100 people, maybe more. There are 169 people who have RSVP’d as going on the Facebook event page, with another 383 who have RSVP’d as interested in going.

Local officials communicating with march organizers

Stephen and Morgan attended a peaceful protest last week in Sioux City. They saw first-hand how a protest can go well when there’s communication between protest leaders and city officials.

“It was just really amazing to see the amount of support they got not only from the protesters, but also from the police, the community all around them,” Morgan said. “I feel like organizing these events with the local police department can help strengthen the bond within the community and help prevent some of these injustices that people deal with today.”

On Tuesday, Spencer Mayor Kevin Robinson held a press conference during which he detailed how the March for George Floyd leaders have been in contact, communicating their plans and shared desires for a peaceful and safe event.

“I do believe that the intent of the activity on Thursday comes from a place of good-natured spirit to bring awareness to the incident that happened in Minneapolis and the general treatment of African-Americans by police in general in this country,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the protesters have “a constitutional right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to gather peaceably to protest.”

The city, he said, is working with the Spencer Police Department, Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Iowa State Patrol and the governor’s office “to ensure safety for the protesters, as well as safety for our citizens and business owners.”

“You will see a larger police presence than you would normally see in the downtown area,” Robinson said. “We’re not doing that because we think there will be a problem, we’re doing that to help prevent a problem.”

He noted that law enforcement would not tolerate vandalism, destruction of property, inciting crowds or disrupting traffic.

Robinson stressed that protest leaders want the event to be peaceful and safe, while also drawing attention to a number of issues, including racial profiling, racism and police violence.

“They are very diligent about saying that they want this to be a very safe event,” he said. “Public safety is also important, as it is to me as the mayor. They do not want violence. They don’t condone violence. They don’t encourage violence.”

Robinson said his biggest concern is keeping Highway 71 (Grand Avenue) open to motorists.

“We’re going to have people coming through Highway 71 and 18 that might have no idea that this is going on,” he said. “They’re going to roll into our town and they’re going to see a couple hundred people or more in the downtown area, potentially, and we want them to be safe, as well. Everyone needs to be extra cautious, but also be respectful of each other.”

In conversations with the Signal, march organizers emphasized their plans for a peace and safe event. They are asking people to avoid protesting in streets and march only on sidewalks.

“We don’t want to impede traffic,” Stephen said. “We don’t want to do anything that would basically cause disruption in the community. We just want our voices to be heard.”

The plan is for the protest to wrap up by dark, a step that officials hope will deter any unwanted activity.

“In order to help them with that effort, we’re going to close all the city parks at 9 o’clock on Thursday only,” Robinson said.

Organizers said they are on the same page as far as creating a safe environment is concerned. Stephen said he plans to bring his children to the march.

“The main reason why I’m bringing them is so that they can see the world for actually what it is,” he said. “But I also want the neighborhoods and the community to see that these are my intentions.”

The Macks both said that organizers will ask anyone acting violently, damaging property or suggesting that those activities take place will be asked to leave.

“We’ll be asking anybody with opposing intentions to leave,” Morgan said. “Because that is not our purpose. We will not associate with any rioting or violence.”

Organizers and city officials are asking people involved in the march to be mindful of social distancing. Face masks are encouraged, but organizers have said they do not want people wearing full facial coverings that could allow someone to conceal their identity and make it harder to identify disruptors.

“You have to of course follow your social distancing and all that, but I don’t want to see people out there with, like, a biker’s helmet on,” Stephen said. “We need to know who you are because I refuse to let anything like that happen.”

Rumors, misinformation begin to spread

For the most part, the march has been met with support, its organizers said.

“There’s a lot of people who are supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Stephen said.

Not everyone is happy that the march is happening Thursday, though.

Some have written posts on its Facebook event page, challenging why the event is happening in Spencer and suggesting it isn’t necessary. Others are concerned about the potential that damage could be done to businesses as has happened in other communities.

Stephen said he does not want that to happen.

“A lot of those are small businesses so these people have built from the ground up,” Stephen said. “I don’t want to see that destroyed.”

Weishuhn said she believes some people are intentionally spreading misinformation and stoking fear.

“We kind of feel like a part of this was sort of stirred up by people who really didn’t want our presence there,” she said. “So they were sort of using that fear to kind of push back a little bit.”

The city has heard its share of rumors, too, Robinson said at his press conference. He mentioned false rumors claiming people are going to be bussed in from out of town to start trouble.

None of those rumors have been found to be true, though Robinson asked citizens to keep in touch with officials about “legitimate leads” they hear.

“We’ve tracked every one of those leads down and have no reason to believe that those are credible,” he said. “I’m not saying that those buses aren’t coming. I’m saying we have not been able to validate those rumors. Any time that we do hear something, we follow that up.”

Organizers are happy that the city is helping squash rumors and support the march in general.

“We are really, really grateful for how Spencer Police Department and the city itself kind of handled the situation with all the rumors and helping us kind of organize our event and push it forward,” Weishuhn said. “Because we honestly felt that we might get a lot of flak even from the city and that did not happen.”

Protesters want to raise awareness in Spencer

Some of the flak protest leaders have received has focused on why the event needs to happen in Spencer when it is a smaller community than those that experience problems of racism and police violence that make national headlines.

Small towns still must confront racism, though, organizers said.

“Although we live in small communities, racism is still a problem everywhere,” Morgan said. 

It’s not just Spencer that organizers believe needs to hear the protest’s message, either.

“I feel like it’s important for all of the area to at least take a chance and listen to the message that a lot of these people are trying to pass on,” Morgan said. 

Weishuhn said she’s had friends of color in the area who have had negative experiences, which suggests the protest’s message could be of value to those who will listen.

By the end of the protest, Weishuhn said she hopes people have found “understanding and empathy” that they may not have had before.

“Whether you agree or not, at least have an understanding and kind of an acceptance that, yeah, (racism) does happen,” she said.

Stephen said he’s had both good and bad experiences in Spencer regarding race.

“I had a few things happen that shouldn’t have happened and I’ve had some things that should have happened and they never did,” Stephen said. “There’s a lot of people who would always look at me side-eye because I’m black or things like that. I know what it is. I don’t want to speak out on it. I have a lot of friends and became friends with a lot of people (in Spencer).”

Overall, the Macks said they had a positive experience in Spencer.

“We lived there and it was a very supportive, welcoming community,” Morgan said.

More than anything though, the Macks said they want to focus attention toward the message that they believe needs to be heard.

“We want (the community) to realize that the movement of Black Lives Matter is not stating that all lives don’t matter,” Morgan said. “It’s a fight against the injustices and the racism that people of color still have to face today. And then we also want to fight for justice for George Floyd.”

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