Politics

Protests against police brutality pop up in small towns in Trump-friendly regions

Key Points
  • George Floyd's death in the custody of police set off anger across the nation, manifesting into a series of well-attended protests in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. 
  • But the outrage quickly spread past cities and into conservative strongholds. 
  • Droves of people have been coming out to protest Floyd's death in small towns across the country, some where President Trump overwhelmingly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. 
Protesters rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Anna, Illinois, U.S., June 4, 2020.
BRIAN MUNOZ | REUTERS

George Floyd's death in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer set off anger across the nation, leading to a series of well-attended protests in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. 

The outrage quickly spread past big cities and into more sparsely populated conservative strongholds. 

Droves of people have been coming out in small towns across the country to protest the death of Floyd, a black man who was unarmed. Some of the protests have been in towns where President Donald Trump overwhelmingly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Trump has drawn criticism for his response to the protests, which included a threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would allow him to deploy military forces to contend with the unrest. Black Lives Matter organizers and leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union responded by filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration for encroaching on and endangering the right to protest. 

Many protesters in small towns and cities that backed Trump in 2016 showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and solidarity with Floyd and his family. 

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Protests against police brutality continue across U.S.—and the world

In the last week, protests also were held in smaller cities and regions including Wilmington, North Carolina; New Bern, North Carolina; Cedar City, Utah; Bend, Oregon; Crested Butte, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; Odessa, Texas; Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Chehalis, Washington; Bridgehampton, New York; Havre, Montana; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Wellsville, New York; and Grand Island, Nebraska. Trump won in all those municipalities in 2016, and they are represented in Congress by Republicans.

In Loganville, Georgia, a town of more than 12,000 that gave Trump 79% of the vote in 2016, more than 600 people came out to protest Floyd's death Wednesday, according to Mayor Rey Martinez. 

"This was really the first protest that has taken place in our city that I can remember, and a lot of our residents were concerned that what has happened in so many other cities would happen in Loganville," Martinez, a Republican, told CNBC. "But the organizers were very passionate not only about this event but about it being done the right way in the city they call home as well."

The turnout surprised Martinez, who said the "chants were the loudest" at the beginning of the demonstration. "It truly was a moving display of what our Founding Fathers likely had in mind when the First Amendment was written calling for the right to assemble peacefully," he said. 

Rep. Jody Hice, a Republican whose district includes Loganville, backed Trump in his condemnation of looting during demonstrations in big cities. 

Terrence Floyd (C) attends a vigil where his brother George Floyd was killed by police one week ago on June 1, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd called for peace and justice after his brother's death, thanking those who continue to protest and imploring people to cease the damage and destruction which has followed.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

Hice on May 29 criticized Twitter for flagging a tweet from Trump that "violated the Twitter rules about glorifying violence." Trump in this tweet, now hidden behind the notice from Twitter, wrote, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," an echo of a phrase used by a Miami police chief in the 1960s, widely interpreted as a violent threat against protesters. 

When asked for his thoughts on the protests in his district, Hice said he was "very happy" to see his constituents demonstrating peacefully.

"The tragic and horrifying death of George Floyd must never be repeated, and that requires Americans to demand systemic change," Hice added. "I view the problem of racism in America through the lens of my experience as a pastor of 25 years. I believe that America has a spiritual problem in our nation's heart. We must come together to restore our love for God and each other."

In Monroe, Georgia, about 10 miles from Loganville, protesters held multiple demonstrations last week, with each one doubling or tripling turnout from the previous demonstration. The first gathering, held last Monday, attracted about a dozen people, said attendee Ava Atkism. During another event that night, 40 or 50 people came out in support of the cause. And in an event on Tuesday, "easily between 100-150 people, maybe even more" protested, Atkism said.  

In 2016, Trump won the town, which has a population similar in size to Loganville's, with 68%, compared with 28% for Clinton. Still, protesters received support from law enforcement and community members who stood by and supported the efforts, Atkism said.

"It was very moving that some of the local pastors were out there for and with us. A few of them have actually walked with us every single day, and have prayed with us," she said. "Our police department has blocked the roads off for us so we can cross safely and not worry about people that might try to be funny and harm us." Several pizzeria owners donated food, water and snacks to protesters.

Such support in conservative Monroe demonstrated to Atkism that the sentiment against institutionalized racism transcends party politics.

"This is totally against tradition, but this isn't about political parties," she said. "This all falls back on what's wrong and what's right. You can only take so much until you say 'enough is enough.' You need to take action before it hits home or hits close to you."

Across the country in Red Bluff, California, up to 250 people came out on June 1, according to an estimate from attendee Kristin Hayworth. The town has a population of more than 14,000.

Organizers advised protesters to avoid obstructing roads and gave advice on how to remain safe in the event of violence, she said. The event remained largely peaceful, however, and Hayworth "was comfortable enough with the atmosphere to not only have my 9-year-old son with me, but to march with him."

But in a town like Red Bluff, where Trump garnered 58% of the vote to Clinton's 35% in 2016, and where liberal causes are denounced and shunned, Hayworth remained hyper-aware that most people "likely" wouldn't support the movement. 

"At no point did I forget that the crowd gathered across the street wasn't likely to be sympathetic to our cause and the police, who had been informed of the protest and talked to the organizers, were stationed on the roof and driving around in unmarked cars, following us with a drone as we marched," Hayworth said in an email to CNBC. 

People hold up their fists after protesting near the spot where George Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police, on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kerem Yucel | AFP | Getty Images

Some store owners anticipated looting and were prepared to react if it broke out.

"There was a guy in the doorway of one store who stood with his hand on his gun as we went past, like one of [us] was going to come at him out of the blue and he'd have to quick-draw gun us down like it was a show down at the OK Corral," Hayworth said. 

In Twin Falls, Idaho, where Trump defeated Clinton by a whopping 79% to 11%, more than 500 people of varying age and race came out to a vigil last Tuesday, said Winnie Christensen, president of the Culture for Change Foundation, which organized the event. The city has a population of about 50,000.

Demonstrators ranged from age 8 to 80 and included African Americans, refugees, Native Americans and members of the Latino and LGBT communities, she said. Additionally, law enforcement officers, city council members and local business owners were in attendance.

"This event was not about politics about who is on the right or wrong. This was a candlelight vigil, to mourn, to heal, find solace, stand together as one for what is right," Christensen said. "It was also about all of us standing against racism, and fighting [for] the cause that black lives do matter. More so an open safe space for us to express our feelings."

Officers stood by those attending the vigil, according to Christensen. She said the city's chief of police apologized on behalf of the law enforcement agency and vowed to "do better and work harder." 

"The most beautiful, sad and moving moments were after we lit the candles and almost every one took a knee for 8 minutes, 46 second moments of silence," she said. That's how long Floyd was pinned to the ground by former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin before dying during an arrest that was videotaped. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder in Floyd's death, while the three former officers who were with him were charged with aiding and abetting murder.

"And towards the end the church bells rang, as if on cue. The moment was so somber, those that held in their tears let go and one could hear the sniffles around the crowd. It felt like we were kneeling forever," Christensen said. 

Demonstrators confront secret service police and Park police officers outside of the White House on May 30, 2020 in Washington DC, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes.
Eric Baradat | AFP | Getty Images

Organizers and protesters say these small town demonstrations illustrate the gravity of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Protests have also erupted around the world, with demonstrations in countries including Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Spain and South Korea.

Following Floyd's death on Memorial Day, several lawmakers have called for widespread police reform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and members of the Congressional Black Caucus unveiled a police reform bill that called for restrictions in the amount of force officers are allowed to use. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on June 1 proposed a national ban on chokeholds by law enforcement. "There should be a national ban on excessive force by police officers. There should be a national ban on chokeholds. Period," Cuomo said in a statement released last week. 

Other lawmakers have called for some police departments to lose federal funding. 

"Every police department violating people's civil rights must be stripped of federal funding," Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said in a tweet.

The protests have also garnered the support of Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who marched in a demonstration Sunday.

The small town protests, meanwhile, have heartened organizers of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

"I think it's vital protests happen in towns like mine. It's very easy to write them off as lost causes when confronted daily with the ignorance, the weird love of firearms, the blatant sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia," said Hayworth in Red Bluff.

"I want them to know that hate won't win, and the people who disagree with them aren't just black or brown. Sometimes we look just like them."