This past week in Casper, a series of demonstrations against racism and police brutality filled the city’s streets.
On Wednesday, a crowd of hundreds walked silently to the city’s Hall of Justice. Speakers from the building’s steps addressed the crowd. When large portions of that group dispersed, a segment marched east on Second Street occupying lanes of traffic before kneeling in one of the city’s busiest intersections.
Then, on Friday, more than 700 people walked again to the Hall of Justice. Speakers there made a series of calls for unity, reform and political accountability.
Similar demonstrations are happening in cities large and small across the United States, prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.
Larger cities have experienced destruction and violence. Buildings have burned. In some cities, police have indiscriminately attacked protesters and bystanders. Meanwhile, some of the country’s smaller cities and towns have been largely insulated from violence or property damage.
In Casper, crowds gathered at the police department’s steps — and took acts of civil disobedience the same afternoon — with purpose. The Star-Tribune talked to Casper residents about the demonstrations. This is what they said.
Meeshla Bovee led the list of speakers organized during the first demonstration in Casper Wednesday. She spoke again on Friday.
She’s a dancer, and an experienced one at that. She knows half a dozen different styles, including ballet, hip-hop and jazz.
She wants to be a lawyer, “to really help people,” or a teacher, to mold future generations. She wishes more people would consider those things in their initial opinions of her.
“My blackness speaks for me before I can,” she said.
On Wednesday, she made her own introduction. Before the 300 people who had gathered around the steps of the Hall of Justice, after marching through downtown Casper, this is what she said:
“Hi my name is Meeshla Bovee and I am a 15-year-old, young, black woman in the United States of America,” she said twice, to raucous applause. “I’m here because I’m mad. I’m not even mad, I’m angry. And not only am I angry, I’m pissed.”
In an interview Thursday with the Star-Tribune, Bovee said despite that anger, she wants to try to communicate with those who disagree with the statement “black lives matter.” That’s why she spoke Wednesday. To be heard.
“I didn’t really notice how I was not like everyone else until like fourth grade,” she said. “It was the first time someone said the N-word to me.”
During her speech Wednesday, she referenced walking into a store with a white friend, knowing the clerk would be watching her and only her. She’s fed up. But she said it was comforting to hear so many people feel connected to her message, though now she wants to hear more voices.
“I really want to hear how the police feel, here in Casper. I want to hear stories from them on how they feel in the job,” Bovee said. “And I want to hear stories of people who have been through police brutality (in Casper) and what they were thinking.”
Charles Ledbetter was coming home from a madrigal feast hosted by the Casper College Choir — an example of his nerdy personality, he said.
This was about 20 years ago. He’d been driving home after what was basically a medieval-themed party, with singing, mead and costumes, meant to raise money for the choir. And suddenly there were lights in his rearview mirror.
The officer pulled Ledbetter from his van and had him lay on the ground. He kept thinking about all the people he’d just been having a great time with and how none of them would likely ever be in this situation.
“They may have been out having a beer, they may have been at the coffeehouse, they may have been home with their families, but I was on the side of the road with a gun in my back because of an out taillight,” Ledbetter said.
“I thought I was dead.”
This wasn’t the first time Ledbetter was targeted for his appearance by Casper law enforcement, he said, or the first time he felt the criminal justice system work against him.
When he was 13 years old, Ledbetter was in gym class and someone sucker-punched him in the back of the head, knocking out one of his front teeth, still missing today. His family took the issue to court, where Ledbetter thought it would be an open-and-shut case.
His mother wasn’t as hopeful, but Ledbetter didn’t understand why. Not until the judge told him why he wouldn’t be ruling in his favor.
“The judge looked at me and he said because of my size, and the way I looked, I looked intimidating,” Ledbetter said.
“I felt at that moment the authorities in my life, the teachers, the principals, the police, were not there to protect me,” he said. “They were there to protect from me.”
There have been other instances since. Brief interactions where cops pulled up beside him on a walk, thinking he matched a description of a suspect. Or where they showed up at his house, looking for someone else. Ledbetter said he doesn’t resent the police, and he has tried to communicate with them. He had a meeting with an officer earlier this week, and he said he felt the officer listened to and empathized with his concerns.
But the news of George Floyd’s killing tore open old wounds.
“It brought back those memories of being told that I was intimidating, that I was someone who needed to be protected from, not protected,” Ledbetter said.
He did not participate in the protests himself, he said. Not because he disagreed with them. He walks with a cane, thanks to a decade-old work injury, and he’s seen how these events have escalated. But outside of safety concerns, Ledbetter said he thinks the police department in Casper is accessible, even without large demonstrations.
Kerry Wells, a 32-year-old black man who marched Wednesday, told the Star-Tribune that he thinks complaints about civility and requests for peace — that have come in response to property destruction elsewhere in the country — are missing the point.
“Peaceful back (during the 1950s meant) my ancestors was getting spit in the face. Even if you locked arms: attacked by dogs, beaten with batons, sprayed down,” Wells said. “So they call it peaceful. It’s only peaceful ‘cause someone let you stand there getting beat up to death. I mean, that’s still not peaceful.”
Wells — who on Wednesday wore his hair with the phrase “I can’t breathe” shaved into it — said he has seen more violence and malfunction at Casper bars than he saw at Wednesday’s march. And complaints about manner, method or tone of expression, he said, don’t address that at least some white people will be opposed to addressing any black grievance. In the same way, Wells said, more direct counterprotest rhetoric is not made in good faith.
“Never have I have seen an all lives matter protest. It’s just a protest of a protest, just because we’re doing something,” Wells said. “It’s not that all lives don’t matter ... It just so happen at the point in time — for a long time — is (there’s) one life that don’t matter as much as everybody else’s. It’s not to say that we want people be bowing down or nothing like that. Just start treating us the exact same as everybody else. That’s it.”
Isaiah Dobbins was one of a number of people early Wednesday afternoon who spoke on the steps of the Hall of Justice to a crowd of more than 300 against police killings and brutalization of black men in the United States.
When a smaller crowd — mostly numbering between 50 and 100 — began to march east along Second Street, he was among its leaders. And he was among the more visible and confrontational of the demonstrators.
On Thursday, Dobbins told the Star-Tribune that police failures to confront counterprotesters exemplified the reason for the protest. Marchers were largely unarmed, and white onlookers, who carried rifles and sometimes shouted racist epithets, were an actual threat to peace, he said.
A number of the onlookers chambered rounds in an attempt to menace marchers, Dobbins said. If a crowd of black men were openly carrying, police would ask to review their registration or would ask for identification to see if their gun rights were still in place, he explained. But officers didn’t approach the white counterprotesters.
That’s indicative of a bigger problem, the teenager said.
“I don’t hate cops,” Dobbins said. “I just hate what they’re doing. I hate how they’re doing it wrong. I hate how they’re training these cops. I hate how they’re not prosecuting these cops. I hate how they don’t do anything — no actions — to make sure that they don’t do that s—t again. It keeps happening. It happens so frequently and it happens so repetitively that people lose sight of that until it’s a big case. Like George Floyd was caught on camera. But how many weren’t caught on camera?”
Dobbins is familiar with Natrona County’s criminal justice institutions. Last year, police accused him of involvement in the shooting of an empty house in Paradise Valley. Though he was then still 17, prosecutors charged him as an adult. He pleaded not guilty.
A judge later moved the case to juvenile court, which is closed to the general public. Court files are therefore sealed. Dobbins, though, said he was on probation in connection with the case.
During a conversation on Thursday with the Star-Tribune and five other marchers, Dobbins said that black people in the United States protest against injustice regularly. For decades, he said, black people have marched in the street. This time, he said, he won’t stop short of equality.
“You know how much respect a cop has for another cop. Imagine if a cop treated every human being out here like a cop,” Dobbins said. “I say violence is never the answer. War, hate that. But … look at the history. We’ve been getting our asses whupped. Handed to us. And we’ve been protesting. We’ve had sit-ins. We march. We’ve done it for so long. And now they’re mad at us for fighting back.”
Paul Hendricks, a white teenager who marched on Wednesday, told the Star-Tribune during the same conversation that he had designed a Black Lives Matter flyer that initially circulated on social media stating the noon start time and calling for a protest of “the murder of George Floyd and other fallen people of color.”
Once the flier began circulating, Casper Youth for Change spokeswoman Rhiannon McLean took over organization of the event, she told the Star-Tribune. The group initially formed in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
White people in Casper have been unwilling to speak out against racism, Hendricks said, because doing so could result in social and professional censure. He said he was heartened by the size of the crowd marching on Wednesday but concerned that he didn’t see any white supporters much older than him.
Wednesday’s march, Hendricks said, opened some eyes.
“Personally it’s not my suffering. It’s not my pain. But I think it’s my fight, because we have to act as a human race. As one,” Hendricks said. “But I just think a lot of people were shook — just to see people with guns flipping us off for walking in the street. I don’t think people thought it was right here in Casper.”
Willow Dymond Wagner marched down Second Street on Wednesday with a friend from Casper Classical Academy, where she goes to school. Wagner is 13 years old. Most of her friends are white, and, to be honest, “that was the most black people I’ve seen in Casper,” she said.
“It was really moving,” she said. “It made me feel better to know there are a lot of people of color, like me.”
She’s felt isolated in Casper. But not only isolated. She’s been called the N-word by her friend’s parents. Kids make racist jokes to her. When school was in session, she said someone made a racist remark to her at school at least a couple times every week.
Her teachers, she said, “think I’m the person who starts it.”
About a month ago, Wagner received a marijuana possession ticket. Her friend had been smoking, she said, but when officers drove by and saw them, one of them pointed her out, saying “I know her.”
Police cited Wagner but not her white friend.
This is why marching was so important to her, she said, so that those who had said or done racist things to her could see how many people in the community weren’t like that.
“They could see how many people were there, and how many people were doing the chants and taking time out of their day just to support,” she said.
Wagner is hoping for another march. She said she thinks people were forced to pay attention, and that’s a good first step.
“I want to see a change, and I didn’t just march because I’m black,” she said. “I did that because I care.”
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