Until this week.
As cities across the country swelled with anguish over the death of George Floyd, we in Norwood watched the demonstrations unfold on television, rural spectators to urban rage. But then, on Wednesday morning, a Facebook post appeared on a Norwood community site. It was an invitation: That evening, there would be a sunset walk and candlelight vigil outside the local library — social distancing and masks encouraged — to let “the family of George Floyd and the entire United States know that Norwood, Colorado is listening.” I was gobsmacked.
Sure, there had been a march in nearby Telluride, the upscale resort town where voters chose Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 10-to-1 margin. But Norwood? And with such little notice? Who would show up?
About 40 people, as it turns out. Which, in a town this size, is no small thing. Under a dramatic sky painted with virga clouds spitting out shafts of rain that never quite reached the ground, the library grounds began to fill. The two young women who had organized the vigil began with a statement: “Tonight we gather because we agree that George Floyd’s death was brutal and tragic. In Norwood, support for police and Black Lives Matter are not exclusive.”
Folks were invited to walk along a path where “notes of contemplation” had been placed, one suggested that people “consider how a tragedy like this would affect you if you lost a family member to this kind of violence.” A strong wind gusted over the mesa, blowing away some of the notes and snuffing out candles. No matter. People seemed grateful to the organizers for bringing them together. And for keeping politics out of it. “I don’t think this is a political matter,” said Candy Meehan, a member of the town board of trustees and a Republican. “Wrong is wrong.”
What do predominantly white protesters in a tiny, predominantly white town hope to achieve with a protest such as this one? Norwood’s mayor, Kieffer Parrino — a Republican recently turned independent — told me: “I really do believe the people of our town think this is terrible, what happened. We want to show support and hope there is some justice.”
One of Norwood’s two law enforcement officers, Deputy Marshal Travis Hardy, explained his reason for joining the protest: “No life is less important than any other.”
“As isolated as we are,” said Norwood resident Craig Childs, “we don’t want to be isolated. Especially when something this big is happening in the world. We want to have a connection to it.”
If our vigil connects Norwood to the cause of justice for Floyd, it also connects us to other small, predominantly white towns across the country staging similar protests. In Sandpoint, Idaho, a throng of high school students marched down a highway, calling for an end to police brutality. More than a hundred protesters lined the streets of Harlan, Ky., supporting Black Lives Matter. In Ontario, Ore., organizers of a protest in a grocery store parking lot demanded police reform and the inclusion of “black and brown artists” in the town’s beautification plans.
The organizers here in Norwood said the fact that rural, mostly white communities would take a public stand on racial injustice should not be seen as odd. “Rural Americans are just like all other Americans who are anguishing over this,” said Jaime Schultz.
Her co-organizer, A.J. Crocker, agreed. “I think the brutality of this case was just so blatant that people from all backgrounds and beliefs could see something was wrong.”
The idea for their vigil, they said, was inspired by a book they had just finished in their book club: Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
Of course, it’s easier for white people to talk about racism when there are so few people of color in the community to take part in the conversation. But librarian Carrie Andrew pointed out that discrimination wears many faces. “Even though we are separated from some of it, I do know kids who have been bullied in our schools for being brown or for being different. We can find ways to discriminate against anybody,” she said.
At one point during the vigil — as the sun set behind Utah’s La Sal Mountains to the west, casting a brilliant alpenglow on the clouds over Norwood — Minneapolis still felt a world away. But then a young boy wearing a red hoodie and navy-blue mask walked by, holding a sign that read “Remember George Floyd.” And suddenly the world seemed much smaller — for all the right reasons.
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