By Madeline Burke and Dustin Jayroe

Photos by Ebony Blevins, Ian Lyle and Jamison Mosley

 

On June 19, 1865, the holiday of Juneteenth was originated, which is now an annual commemoration of the emancipation of those who had previously been enslaved in the United States — namely, the freeing of African Americans after the Confederacy was defeated. Almost 155 years later to the day, in late May and through June of 2020, protests erupted across the country following the unlawful death of another Black American, George Floyd, at the hands of law enforcement. 

 

Over the past month, thousands of protests have swept across the state, country and world, those involved feeling outrage over the mistreatment and disproportionate killings of African Americans by police officers over the years. Protestors are demanding justice, police reform and an end to racial inequality. 

 

This movement might provide a sense of déjà vu to those old enough to have lived through similar events. It was only 56 years ago that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, on July 2 of that year. The legislation prohibited discrimination and enforced integration between races, and was accelerated into action after years of protests and demonstrations, with the late Martin Luther King Jr. most famously at the forefront of the cause. King would be assassinated on April 4, 1968, which sparked one of the largest protest movements the country had ever seen. Exactly one week later, after days of what were dubbed the “assassination riots,” the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed into law, on April 11. 

Officers carrying away a protester Little Rock

For Black Americans today, this recall is more than just a passing feeling. It’s a disheartening reminder that more work is still left to be done. 

 

The state of Arkansas has a long and significant history regarding racial inequality. Perhaps one of the most pivotal events was in September 1957 when a group of nine African-American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled and entered the former-all-white Central High School. It marked the formal desegregation of schools in Arkansas, even though the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal three years earlier. 

 

After the death of  Floyd and the subsequent protests, a few members of the Little Rock Nine spoke to CNN about their experiences from 1957 and whether they think it had any impact. 

 

“I’ve just been so sad about whether my life was worth anything because it doesn’t seem like things have changed, and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way,” Minnijean Brown-Trickey told CNN. “I got pushed back to Emmett Till [the 14-year-old African American who was lynched in the 50s], and growing up in Jim Crow, and Central [High School] and being arrested as an environmentalist. Every aspect of my life has just come forward, and it’s just sorrow.”

 

Brown-Trickey was only 15-years-old when she pushed her way through an angry, opposing crowd to enter the school.

Little Rock

According to another member of the group, Terrence Roberts, the protests of 2020 are not a surprise. Although the recent protests are being compared to protests of the past, all of them are part of the long history and progression of African-American issues in the United States. 

 

“You can’t separate it into time periods as if it’s changed. It hasn’t,” he told CNN. “Human beings have the capacity to choose to change. We could do it if we wanted; we just haven’t mustered the will to do it. If what you already know hasn’t moved you to change, then change what you know.”

 

Today, the faces in the crowd may look different, but the activities run largely parallel to the ones of history, events that led to an eventual move forward of the equality needle. Current activists continue to promote and expand ideals of racial inequality, shared with the previous generations, in an effort to make substantial changes for their future, as those who came before them did.

 

The first reports of organized protests in Arkansas was on May 30. AY About You was able to speak to protest leaders about their efforts and goals for change in the state. 

 

Tim Campbell, 27, is a Little Rock native who has been leading some of the recent local protests after seeing the gruesome video of the event that spawned the uproar, a Minnesota police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Campbell grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s on Wolfe Street in the capital city. 

Little Rock

“During that time, my neighborhood was probably one of the worst in terms of drug and gang wars,” he says. “I knew early that I didn’t have any role models. I had enough people show me what not to do. Instead, I did the exact opposite and became a first-generation college graduate.” 

 

Today, Campbell is a student at the Clinton School of Public Service. Prior to attending the school, he served in the Peace Corps in the West African nation of Gambia for two-and-a-half years, where he was a health education facilitator. 

 

“I teamed up with local community members and health-care providers to help resolve some of the health issues there,” Campbell says. “I knew if I could mobilize people in West Africa, I could do it here in my hometown.

 

“I’m a young Black male. I’m the only male in my family, and I have four little sisters that I have to look out for. I was raised by my grandmother because my mom was a victim of drug abuse. Also, all of my sisters’ fathers are incarcerated, so I’m raising them now. My youngest sister is four-years-old. How do you explain these racial issues to a four-year-old? You can’t. You have to change things.” 

 

Campbell reached out to one of his friends, Drekkia “Writes” Morning to help strategize and organize a protest. Morning, 26, is the education program manager at the Arkansas Arts Council which involves managing education grants and organizing events. In January, she led a free Art of Racial Healing Collegiate Poetry & Prose Workshop for college students in Central Arkansas for the Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College. 

Dickerson and Major Harris embracing.
Conway

She also works with at-risk youth to help them build confidence and learn how to communicate through performance poetry. In February, Morning organized the Poetry Out Loud high school program to help students learn about poetry and build public speaking skills along with self-confidence. 

 

“Having self-confidence is so important. I talk to my younger niece about it,” Morning says. “I want her to know that the color of her skin is beautiful and that her hair is magical. I want her to believe that she can do anything she sets her mind to.

 

“She asked me the other day if the color of her skin mattered and if she would be more beautiful with lighter skin. Nowadays, I worry about her seeing or learning about something that she shouldn’t from social media or one of her older family members. I’m going to be the one that has to explain it to her.”

 

Both Campbell and Morning have met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson to discuss possible solutions and support from local law enforcement at peaceful protests. Campbell was even named as a member of the Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement in Arkansas. 

 

According to Morning, the protests have not only been a platform for people to express themselves, but also to educate others. 

 

“There is value from protests. Someone can say something, and others can listen, which plants seeds. Or, I like to say, ‘Gives people jewels in their minds to think about things from a different perspective,’” she says. “We have to fight together in solidarity as a society for change. It has been incredible as well as interesting to see the response from others. At the end of the day, we want to work together to find solutions. We shouldn’t be fighting against each other. Let’s work with existing organizations who are already putting in the effort to make a difference in society.”  

Photo by Ian Lyle.
Conway

Campbell and Morning have formed “The Movement” with three other individuals, Darrin Kidd, Oya the Poet and June June, to continue efforts to reach out to the community and be involved in the state’s progress to improve policies. 

 

And the daily protests were not just limited to Arkansas’ capital city. Events surfaced throughout the state, such as in Hot Springs, Russellville, Fayetteville and more. 

 

In Conway, Wayne Dickerson, 30, was at the forefront of the demonstrations. The lifelong resident of the city was moved to action from his own experiences with law enforcement, some of which he feels were motivated by the color of his skin. 

 

“I’ve experienced some of the things that the people in the whole country are mad about,” he says. “I’ve seen it firsthand myself, so I know where they’re coming from.”

 

Dickerson is a local small business owner of K&K Tree Service, his own success a testament to how far the country has moved forward. But as a father of Black sons, he knows that there is plenty that remains unaccomplished. 

Officers kneeling at the feet of a protester.
Conway

“I want change,” he says. “And I know that we have to start in our own community. So I want to help be a part of whatever we have to do to help invoke change in my community with our officers. I know it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. I know it’s going to be a long process, but it has to get started somewhere.”

 

That somewhere was a similar place to his like-minded demonstrators around the country. On Sunday, May 31, he joined the crowds of Conway in peacefully assembling, marching and chanting in solidarity with one another. For hours, they gathered in the parking lots of shopping centers, marched across intersections and blocked traffic down Oak St. But as day turned to night, so too did the climate of the situation. Tensions flared between those in protest and the police officers monitoring the situation. 

 

On the corner of Harkrider and Oak Streets, a stand-off ensued. Protesters had marched for miles and settled at the heavily trafficked junction, but some remained in the middle of the road. Across the street, a backup brigade of law enforcement formed a line of riot-gear-toting personnel. Brawny vehicles of bluecoats began to cruise into the distressed zone. An officer’s voice bellowed over a megaphone, warning all persons to go home or they would be at risk of crowd dispersing techniques — tear gas. One man emerged from the crowd, pleading to speak with the commanding officer. It was Dickerson. 

 

He and Major Chris Harris of the Conway Police Department met in the middle of the intersection and spoke intensely. 

 

“I was expressing to him that how we feel is the same as people all over the country,” Dickerson recalls. “We write letters; we don’t get answers. We do the ‘right thing’; we don’t get answers. It’s like, no matter how we approach it, we don’t get answers, we don’t get responses, we don’t get change. The only way that seems to get your attention is when we protest, and we protest in a magnitude of numbers.

 

“If we do it right it’s a, ‘Sorry it happened to you,’ and we go on to the next one, and nothing happens to any of these officers. That’s exactly what I was telling him. I was like, ‘What is it that you want from us to be able to get what we need? Because it seems like every time we try what they say is the right way we still get don’t get anywhere.’”

 

Major Harris says he told Dickerson that, “this wasn’t the right time,” but urged him to visit his office the following week so the two could speak with one another under more tranquil circumstances. Dickerson took the officer up on the offer, visiting him two days later. They spoke for hours that Tuesday, and have developed what both refer to as a “friendship.”

Photo of Lara Blume McGee. Little Rock

Dickerson says he spoke about a number of things with Harris that day, including changes that the department could make, and they discussed the subject of race. He talked about Tommy Norman, the North Little Rock police officer who has gained notoriety, with more than one million followers on Facebook. Officer Norman is white, and Dickerson says he used him as an example because it doesn’t matter to him what Norman’s skin color is, nor that he wears the badge. 

 

“It matters what’s in the person’s heart and how much they really want to be a part of change,” Dickerson says. “The community sees what you put into it — if you really mean it, or if you’re just doing a publicity stunt.”

 

What has since transpired in Conway could serve as a model for the rest of the country. After a night of turmoil on Sunday, where officers dispersed tear gas and Major Harris reports things were thrown at members of his force, things immediately turned toward harmony. In virtually every demonstration from then to now, both parties of the conversation have been able to coexist without issue. In fact, during many of the protest events that would follow, officers became involved with the movement, often seen kneeling with and embracing protesters like old friends. The next Saturday, protesters and the police department coordinated a community gathering at a local park with all the fixings: food, water balloons, slip ‘n slide and kickball. On-duty and off-duty members of the police force showed up and participated in what Dickerson views as one of the most fruitful days between police and community the city has ever seen. 

 

It just so happened that this day was also Major Harris’ birthday. The entire crowd sang the familiar melody of the “Happy Birthday” song to him, less than one week after outsiders watching live streams may have viewed the two groups as foes. 

 

But as Conway became an oasis, Little Rock’s strife continued. For days, peaceful assemblies continued — from the grounds of the Capitol to the gates of the Governor’s Mansion; at night, chaos was the headline, as reports of broken windows, flames and tear gas filled the air. 

 

Paige Cushman, a digital reporter, and Kaitlin Barger, a digital content producer, were two of the reporting boots on the ground covering Little Rock’s footprint in the national movement for the local news station KATV. Each reports a similar tale as most who were involved — when the sun was up, the protests were largely calm. But a lot changed around the 9 and 10 o’clock time slots. 

 

On one particular night, after protesters marched from the Governor’s Mansion to the Pulaski County Courthouse, the two found themselves in the middle of pandemonium, a familiar scene to Cushman, who had covered the protests nearly all week. 

 

Reports range but center around a water bottle allegedly being thrown in the direction of officers. As the force began to mobilize against the crowd, who were by then out nearly two hours past the 8 p.m. curfew, demonstrators scattered in all directions. As Barger and Cushman calmly followed suit, documenting the events live on Facebook, they found themselves corralled onto a small catwalk with protesters. Despite each telling officers that they were with the media, showing the necessary credentials to prove the point, they were told that “under arrest” was the fate that awaited, nonetheless. Out past curfew was the supposed charge, even though the two were working and thus exempt from the ordinance.

 

But Barger says she wasn’t worried about going to jail. “I was aware of our rights,” she says. 

 

For Cushman, it was another night she will one day reminisce upon as living through history. She had already been tear-gassed on a previous night, and notes that each of her days reporting this story taught something to better prepare her for the next. But, it was still hard to shake a sense of astonishment at being face to face with the law for doing her job. “I was surprised,” she says. “I didn’t anticipate that.”

 

They were eventually released, along with most of the protesters on the bridge that night, but the event would become one of the most talked-about on social media in the days that followed. Fellow reporters spoke out in solidarity with the pair in a way that fit the motif of the very events they were covering: speaking out against injustice. As consummate professionals of the business, each remains neutral on the situation and harbors no ill will; “no harm, no foul,” as Barger puts it. However, some observers have used their story as an example of why the protests were necessary: Sometimes, law enforcement gets it wrong, and something should be done to mitigate such instances.

 

Not unlike the protests of years past, this movement has not gone quietly into the night. 

 

On June 10, Sheriff Eric Higgins from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office signed a duty to intervene policy requiring deputies to stop other sworn officers from using excessive force. Higgins announced that he had signed the policy at an event organized by The Movement at the Arkansas State Capitol that evening. 

 

The event was called, “The Big Step: Memorial Walk in Solidarity with Local Law Enforcement,” where protestors and local law enforcement officers came together to talk about social cohesion. 

 

“We are here to serve the community, be part of the community and empower the community by working closely together,” Higgins says. “We are trying to make changes from within, but also we have pressure from the outside to make sure things change and I personally embrace that pressure. 

 

“The duty to intervene policy is the expectation both the administration and public have. We want to recognize any gaps or misunderstandings of what the expectations are to serve communities. This is one of those steps to remove any doubt.”

 

According to Higgins, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office is working on creating an accountability policy and an online database that will harvest information on complaints against officers. 

 

“While names will not be listed, information about the complaints will be available to the public,” he says. “We have been working on it for a few months to update the web page and enter the data.”

 

Furthermore, the office is working on partnerships with organizations to build relationships with the community and help provide resources.

 

“While we do make arrests, it is not the primary way to make a safe environment,” Higgins says. “That is through relationships, intervention and addressing other issues that may be occurring in the community that creates a negative environment. If we come across a need that we can’t meet, we want to have other resources and partnership available to provide.”

 

Higgins also notes that he supports a citizen review board. “Some of those are needed and it is always needed if the community wants it,” he says. “I’m not opposed to a citizen review board because it is important to have input from the public, but it should be validated by the community.

 

“We also review the actions of officers or other employees. We look at the incident itself and then the history of the officer. The internal affairs unit has software designed to help professional standards units track the history of incidents and look, over time, at how many they have had.”

 

According to protest leader Tim Campbell, the duty to intervene policy is a move in the right direction. He says, “It’s a step. I love steps since they are the only way to get on the road to progress.” 

 

In Conway, amid the waters of serenity, Major Harris continues to lead from the front, not content or complacent in the recent success stories of “both sides” coming together in his city. 

 

“Everybody says they want to have real talk, real conversations, but I don’t think that ever happens,” Harris says. “We need to understand, from law enforcement, where the Black community is coming from and listen to their concerns — and really listen and really hear them. And in that sense, people in this country need to understand law enforcement, where we come from and the stresses that we’re under. Now, if both sides come together, I think that’s a start. 

 

“I can only speak for Conway when I was talking to some of these organizers, but I said, ‘You know, we always have these cookouts, or we always have these talks, or we always have these marches after something bad happens.’ And I’m asking, ‘Why can’t we have these when nothing bad has happened? Why can’t we just have a community picnic once a year or twice a year?’”

 

At that, Harris looks back on his 21 years in law enforcement, at all the ways it has adapted during that time. A lot has happened to prompt previous examples of change, of police reforms. But even still, he sees where the “other side” is coming from, that enforcement is a moving target in need of constant attention and renovation. 

 

“There’s always something that can change for the better, as far as best practices on how law enforcement works,” he says. 

 

This article was updated on Aug. 13.