‘We’re making history’

Residents stand up for racial justice as Iola's "Black Lives Matter" rally brings more than 250 to downtown square.

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June 8, 2020 - 10:09 AM

Asaiah Lee, age 6, before he leads the crowd in cheering “Black Lives Matter!” Photo by Paige Olson

Over 250 people braved the heat Sunday to support racial equality, and to take a stand against racism and prejudice based on skin color.

The rally on the Iola square, which featured multiple speakers from the community, was designed to express solidarity with “Black Lives Matter,” a movement for race-based justice that is sweeping the globe once more in the wake of killings by police, especially that of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was suffocated by an officer in Minneapolis.

Helen Ambler passionately reads a poem by Langston Hughes during her rally speech. Photo by Trevor Hoag
Mack Davis holds up his protest sign in support of racial justice. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
From left, Vivian Pulley, Kija Williams, LaPrincia Pulley, Odell Pulley, Patricia Pulley, Keyira Williams, Taurus Pulley, and Zareona Pulley (seated), show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Rally participants lay prone for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to mourn the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Asaiah Lee, age 6, before he leads the crowd in cheering “Black Lives Matter!” Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Asaiah Lee, age 6, before he leads the crowd in cheering “Black Lives Matter!” Photo by Paige Olson
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Indeed, memory of Floyd’s murder pervaded the event, especially when, so as to highlight the horrific circumstances surrounding his death, those in attendance lay prone on their stomachs for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck with his knee.

The ominous silence in the sweltering sun was palpable, and many who participated wept.

AMONG those who spoke during the event was 88-year-old Helen Ambler — who wishes people recognized her as more than just the local “black lady” — began with a reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Mother,” which speaks of visions of freedom bound to a “dream that nothing could smother.”

Ambler described taking part in the rally as “doing what’s right,” especially as it relates to caring for one’s family, regardless of skin color.

She described protests taking place across the country as a “turning point,” opening up the possibility of a brighter future for everyone.

Ambler said she was especially hopeful about the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, since one is seeing “more whites than blacks” at events, that is, a movement by the majority.

This is vital, she said, because “it’s going to take all of us” to bring about positive systemic changes during a time she described as “Year One,” from when the first ship docked in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, with Africans destined to be sold into slavery.

“You can’t lose hope. You can’t become complacent,” Ambler said.

Following Ambler were speakers Mikki Herrera and her daughter Aliah, who shared a story about race-based bullying.

Herrera said that Aliah had been racially harassed by a group of boys at Iola Middle School, and that when she eventually retaliated, the legal punishment was not only severe (police came to her house), the boys were not held accountable for their actions.

Aliah expressed a fear of being killed for merely being black.

Several religious leaders from the community also spoke during the event, including Rev. Renne Godwin and Pastor Dan Davis.

Godwin, for example, provided biblical parables highlighting love for one’s neighbors, regardless of race or other differences, in an attempt to achieve “justice for everyone.”

She also suggested that grief and rage can be a path to such justice, saying “may God bless you with anger at injustice” in order to bring about change.

Iola attorney Daniel Schowengerdt spoke passionately about legal changes that can benefit social justice, especially among communities of color, and he shared a petition for residents to sign pledging to take a stand against racism.

Schowengerdt further issued a challenge, arguing that it takes more than simply attending a rally and posting about it on social media to bring about change.

Instead, it’s vital that one take a stand against racism every day, and to “call it out” whenever we encounter it, though it may be uncomfortable and difficult to do so.

One speaker, Jackie Evans, spoke about a frightening local encounter wherein she and her son Israel were verbally attacked with racial slurs and physically threatened. 

Recalling the trauma, Evans cried out: “[my son] shouldn’t know what hate is!”

She also highlighted the need to address racism in our own small, rural communities, and argued that there are “different rules” for white people and people of color, for instance, when being stopped by police.

“No one should be afraid to exist,” Evans said.

IN CONVERSATIONS with various people in the crowd, Janae Diviney said she thought Sunday’s event says “a lot about the community that [everything] was peaceful.” Diviney noted how friends of hers had wanted to attend but were afraid to do so.

Diviney also talked about the challenges of being the mother of bi-racial children, and how this is a “scary” time for her.

At the end of the rally, her son, 6-year-old son, Asaiah Lee, led the crowd in a “Black Lives Matter” chant.

Another family the Register spoke with were the Pulleys, who have lived in the Iola area for many years.

Patricia Pulley, age 77, mentioned experiencing racism when she was younger, recalling that, as people of color, “we couldn’t swim in the pool, couldn’t eat in a restaurant.”

Though she believes conditions have improved in Iola and elsewhere over the years, “there’s still a lot of prejudice here,” she said, especially in the school system.

Like Ambler, however, Pulley expressed increased hope for the future due to the Black Lives Matter protests.

“I feel like it’s going to be a big change coming on,” she said, especially because so many people from the white majority are getting involved.

Odell Pulley also seemed heartened by what he was seeing from social movements across the county and at the event in Iola.

“It makes you feel good,” he said. “I think things are gonna turn around.”

Pulley did, however, share multiple stories of racial injustice that he’d seen throughout his lifetime, including his tenure as an officer with the Iola Police Department.

Pulley also alluded to what one scholar has termed “the new racism,” which is more subtle and insidious than its traditional, physically vicious forms.

This is what makes it “hard to fight,” he said, and gave the example of being unconsciously wary of inviting someone over to one’s house for dinner, despite the fact that one is very friendly with that person in public.

Nonetheless, there are “different things we can do to improve it,” Pulley said, to make our society a more just one.

“We can make the scale even,” he noted — for example, ensuring punishments for crimes are the same regardless of race.

He also pointed to the Iola rally itself, saying “this is what we need,” especially when events are peaceful and promote understanding among people.”

Thanks to efforts of this kind, “it’s gonna heal up,” Pulley said.

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