Leaders of Springfield protest share thoughts on the need for racial equality, community support

When Dorian Hunter started planning a peaceful protest in Springfield in response to the recent death of George Floyd, he did not expect the turnout he would see in just about 24 hours.

Hunter, chair of the Springfield NAACP Youth Committee, organized the “Demanding Justice for George Floyd” march through Springfield, which began at the Clark County Municipal Courthouse, went through downtown and North on Limestone Street. The protest was one of many across the country and around the world, in which participants have demanded justice for the death of Floyd, a black man in Minnesota who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes.

Protesters have been pushing for accountability and change. Nationally, there have been clashes between police and protesters and some have included or been followed by vandalism and looting, which has led city curfews. Locally, a few broken windows remained after a second group - separate of the planned protest - gathered in Downtown Springfield on Sunday night.

However, Hunter and Springfield NAACP President Denise Williams continue to emphasize the importance of standing up for racial equality while remaining peaceful. And the protest Hunter led through the city Sunday afternoon displayed exactly that.

I spoke with Hunter by email and Williams by phone, and they shared their insights on the recent events and their views on where, as a community, we go from here.

Dorian Hunter 

Why was the peaceful protest march in Springfield on Sunday so important?


Protests and other peaceful demonstrations have been effectively used by citizens to drive policy change. Protesting was
used in the late 1960’s to change voting and housing rights, which took away barriers and restrictions for black people looking to access some of these basic human rights. Fast forward over 50 years, and Americans are still marching for equality. This protest was important because it was a way to peacefully express our anger over the ever-too-frequent instances of police brutality toward black Americans.

 

We wanted to shine light on these injustices as well as honor the black lives that were taken from this world by police brutality. Another goal we set for this protest was to keep the peace and ensure safety. It worked out great because the Springfield Police Division blocked off streets for us to limit traffic. There were anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people marching together at one point. This event showed us that our local community, of all races, religions and backgrounds, can come together and be a part of the change we need to see in this world.

Why is it important to you that young people participate in these movements for change?

The youth were at the forefront of this movement. The group I am a part of that organized this whole thing are between the ages of 21 and 24, so it shows that young people can organize, demonstrate and lead within this community. There were also young people in the march with us. I saw a lot of recent high school graduates and current elementary, middle and high school-aged kids eager to let their voices be heard, as well.

By being a part of this, the youth are telling the world that they are invested in their future and are putting action behind their feelings. Hopefully this event inspires some of Springfield’s youth to be the next group that organizes a community event that’s even bigger than this one. We have to be an example for them and set the standard for the next generation to improve off of.

What personally did it mean to you to have support from city leaders, such as Springfield Police Division Chief Lee Graf and City Manager Bryan Heck, for the rally?

It was a great honor to have both of these great leaders behind this event. They were willing to do anything in their power to help and keep everyone safe. You need buy-in from these community leaders, especially the chief of police, to call out police brutality and racism and clearly emphasize that there is no place for that in Springfield. Their impact was huge, and I can’t thank them enough for their assistance.

What changes do you hope to see locally because of these marches and rallies?

Locally, I would like for this march to be a statement to all officers in the Springfield and Clark County area that racism has no place in police forces. No place at all. I also hope that this leads to a relationship between the chief of police and the black community to hear our issues and address our concerns. I hope this can move toward discussions about how we would punish bad policing/police brutality if we were to see it in Springfield and be swift and just in punishment. I hope that this also unifies all within the community so that we can make Springfield a better place for all of us.

At the press conference Monday, you emphasized the importance of protesting peacefully and reiterated the difference between the protest Sunday afternoon and the vandalism Sunday night. Please talk about why you feel protesting peacefully is so important?

Protesting peacefully is important to me because it takes a great amount of individual discipline to stand in peace against violent oppression. Black Americans have been in this country for more 400 years, and it would be easy to give reasoning why breaking in and looting is a consequence of centuries of mistreatment in this country. It has been done to us in the burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where black wealth and businesses were burnt to the ground by racists less than 100 years ago. So, there is some level of justification behind the “eye for an eye” mentality, but that isn’t how we wanted to approach this situation. Showing anger in destructive actions is easy, but protesting peacefully speaks louder because the focus was clear, and everyone understood that. Thinking of all of the years of oppression could raise hate, but love is always stronger than hate.

Denise Williams

What is the role of the Springfield NAACP?

The purpose of the NAACP is to defend those who are being discriminated against – for example, unfair housing, unfair eviction, denial for housing based on same sex marriage. We also defend wrongful termination. We also have a committee that's called WIN – Women In the NAACP – and that takes care of women and children. We also promote voting registration. We are definitely hitting the ground hard on getting people registered to vote because that’s how their voices are heard – by voting. The list goes on and on and on.

In 1909 the NAACP was created by a group of white people, and the mission for them was to help and protect the black people who were being beaten and abused at the time. That was in 1909. So here we are now, we are now defending everybody – white people, Hispanics, everyone. There are a lot of different communities that are being discriminated against.

What was the NAACP’s role in helping to organize the protest Sunday?

The NAACP’s role was to stand in solidarity Sunday with the Floyd family – the family of the young man who was murdered in Minneapolis at the hands of several police officers. We are marching also for changes in our police and sheriff’s department. It is important for the NAACP to take a stand to make sure, in the city and the county, that our communities are protected. We do not want to be in that situation that we have a police or sheriff incident here like the one in Minnesota.

When I think about Sunday, I get chills because the protest brought out all races, and that’s what we stand for. We should not have to wait for a catastrophe to stand together as one. But if this is what it takes, we hit a home run on Sunday.

What was the feeling or energy of being a part of the march on Sunday?

When I saw the multitude of folks, I just wanted to start crying because I didn’t expect – I really didn’t expect a turnout like that. I didn’t expect to see our white brothers and sisters. I didn’t expect to see my Hispanic brothers and sisters. For everybody to come together like they did – they didn’t look at the color. For a couple of hours, I felt as if we were all the same – all one color. I felt as if a color didn’t exist in those few hours because everyone felt the same way. Everyone was there for the same reason.

To see the community come together like that – that’s exactly what we’re working toward. We need that to be our every day.

How important was it for Springfield to choose to show support and participate in Sunday’s protest?

Since Sunday, I have had a list of folks to call back who were expressing their concern about what happened and expressing their feelings about how wonderful the march was and expressing their interest in joining – they want to join, they want to help. Largely the calls I received were from our white community, and I let them know "Absolutely you can join," and I welcomed then with open arms.

This was exactly what our community needed. It has really opened my eyes for the needs of the community and how they are hungry to be as one – to see that, I can’t even put it in words. I was so excited.

How important is it to have good relationships and support with city leaders and local law enforcement when you organize a protest like Sunday’s march?

That is absolutely important. Chief Graf and myself and Bryan Heck have such a great relationship. I brag about my community at every state meeting for the NAACP because of the relationship that I have with our emergency responders and our city managers. Often times we may disagree, but we disagree respectfully, and we pick up and keep going.

What next steps do you see for your organization to help Springfield start moving forward from here?

I am not the person to sit in meetings and have no action. I’m don’t mind marching, I don’t’ mind sitting in. But when it’s all over – when the marching dies off and the doors are closed and the streets are unblocked, when the microphones are silent – where do we go from here? As for me and Springfield – county and city – my job is going to be education. We need to educate our white community on the black community. We need to educate the black community on the white community. Because I don’t like that separation. My job is to get with the mayor, with the city manager, with all the pillars of the community and say – "OK, now, we’ve got to take action." And in my opinion it starts with education. There’s a lot of folks who don’t understand the NAACP and who have heard a lot of bad things, and I think after Sunday that has changed. Folks are gradually gravitating to join the NAACP, and my expectations are to make sure the NAACP looks like the community and that is my first step.

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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