The death of George Floyd, a black man who died on Memorial Day after he was pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer, has sparked outrage and protests in Minnesota and across the United States.
On Friday, June 12, the outrage and protesting came to Big Lake.
In what was promoted as a peaceful protest, more than one hundred people gathered at the Big Lake Park & Ride south of Highway 10 at County Road 43 where Rayveen Koha-Jallah and Rebecca Renslow stood on the roof of a SUV and talked about racism, equality, and how both apply to Big Lake community.
Organizers also collected supplies for people in need in the Twin Cities, which organizers said they delivered over the weekend.
With a megaphone in hand, Koha-Jallah and Renslow eventually led the crowd north across Highway 10 where it marched and chanted through business and residential districts. The march culminated with many members of the group defying orders from the Big Lake Police Department and staging a sit-in in the middle of the Highway 10/Highway 25 intersection, and later in the Highway 10/County Road 43 intersection, which brought highway traffic to a halt.
At 7 p.m. at the Park & Ride, Koha-Jallah kicked off the demonstration by saying that with four Minneapolis police officers in jail and charged in the death of George Floyd, people might be confused at why the group was gathering almost three weeks after the Minneapolis incident.
“It’s because, in this city, we are rapidly diversifying,” Koha-Jallah said.
The Big Lake High School graduate, who is a woman of color and current University of Wisconsin-River Falls student criticized the Big Lake School District for having no teachers of color.
“Black and brown people are filling our schools right now,” Koha-Jallah said.
She also said that there is no diversity in Big Lake’s system of leaders.
“Who are the allies for our students,” Koha-Jallah asked the crowd. “Who are the allies for people of color in our city?”
“We have none!” Koha-Jallah said. “It has to start with us!”
With that said, Koha-Jallah told the fired-up crowd that not only would they be marching for themselves later that evening, they would be marching for the young people of Big Lake who were unable to attend the march.
Koha-Jallah also said to a cheering crowd that they were also marching for the people who had once lived in Big Lake who were forced out by racism.
She was verbally critical of the Big Lake Police Department and its ability to protect the city’s citizens of color.
As officers rode by the protest scene on 4-wheelers, Koha-Jallah accused the BLPD of showing off its money- money that should have been given to the school system to educate the community about diversity.
Koha-Jallah raised the level of her concerns as she addressed the crowd.
She said that if the community refuses to change, Big Lake will not be “this calm” in five years.
“Someone will die at the hands of a racist or the police in this same city,” Koha-Jallah said.
“Then what,” Koha-Jallah asked. “Are we going to have to burn Coborns or gas stations to get people to listen?”
“When will they listen to us,” Koha-Jallah asked.
Addressing the crowd, Koha-Jallah said now is the time to make a change in Big Lake- that includes bringing to an end the harassment Koha-Jallah said all people of color face from the police department.
“We have all been harassed by police. I cannot think of one person of color who lives in Big Lake who has not been harassed by police,” Koha-Jallah alleged.
Rebecca Renslow, A recent Big Lake High School graduate who last year attended Minnesota State University- Moorhead, told the crowd that, as a white person, she knows there are lots of things that can be done better.
“We’ve been silent for way too damn long,” Renslow said.
“White people are discussing whether a person should live or die,” Renslow continued. “That’s not right. That’s what killers discuss.”
Renslow said we need to discuss what’s inside of us that has allowed racism to continue over and over.
“It’s not up to us to discuss who lives or dies. It is up to us to decide how we need to change ourselves,” she said.
We can’t be silent anymore, Renslow said. If silence continues, something real bad is going to happen in Big Lake, “And we can’t let that happen,” she said.
“We can’t let another person die while we’re standing silent,” Renslow said.
Before heading out on the march, the discussion took what looked like a peculiar turn.
Koha-Jallah and Renslow, two women who advocated for people having a strong voice against racism, encouraged march participants to take away the voice of people who might oppose their own message as they made they way through the residential neighborhoods of Big Lake.
“You might get some backlash from people coming out of their homes and yelling at us,” they said.
“Don’t let them. Chant louder. Don’t let them get a word in. They don’t deserve it,” they said.
The march then headed across Highway 10 in defiance of a plan the Big Lake Police Department says it worked out with protest organizers.
Big Lake Police Chief Joel Scharf says his department worked hard to accommodate the protest and provide a safe plan for the march- which included a strong police presence.
Specific routes were laid out to ensure the safety of the marchers and the gathering was directed to stay on sidewalks and off streets and highways. No aspect of the plan was carried through, Scharf said.
“They had no permission to shut down streets and they were told they couldn’t be on Highway 10,” Scharf said.
The local police department also didn’t expect “peaceful protesters” to get in the faces of officers while yelling loud, disparaging, anti-police statements.
One commenter on the “Justice for Black Lives March- Big Lake” Facebook page set up by event organizers stated, “Were you all the ones walking on Hwy 10 from the dollar store to Casey’s? Because that’s not the definition of “peaceful.”
“We hoped to get through this without injuries or property damage, and we did that,” Scharf said.
But Scharf said what the community saw was sad.
“That was not representative of what Big Lake is,” he said.
Reach Jeff Hage at email@example.com