Hundreds gather for peaceful protest in Durant

Kevin Farr,
The Bryan County News
Hundreds of people take to the streets of downtown Durant June 9, carrying signs and chanting in protest over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

A massive gathering estimated in the neighborhood of 700 residents, as well as people from neighboring communities and beyond, took to the downtown area of Durant June 9 to rally over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Floyd’s May 25 death, which was captured on video, has prompted protests and civil unrest nationwide.

Organizers of the event here were admittedly stunned by the size of the crowd that packed the Bryan County Courthouse lawn.

Protesters listened to numerous people speak for almost an hour before beginning their march through the downtown streets with a huge assortment of signs and chants.

It was pointed out early on during the event that the rally here had been delayed somewhat purposely following the tragic deaths of four Durant teenagers in an automobile accident Memorial Day weekend. Their subsequent funerals concluded the weekend prior to the march.

The large crowd that assembled also prayed for the families affected by that accident.

“The turnout just blew me away,” said local resident Tyrone Stafford, who was among the speakers who addressed those attending the rally. “When we turned the corner and saw the numbers in the march, I was just floored.

“I can’t say enough about the white ladies that stepped out and got this up and running. They said, `We know people are hurting,’ (and) asked what they could do. They reached out to me and Craig (Andrus) and a few others with the idea. We talked about doing it sooner, but wanted to get the kids buried first and not disrupt any of that,” he said.

“I wasn’t planned to be the main speaker and don’t know what came over me, but I can stand in the gap for a bunch of people. I was expecting for a little push back from people counter-protesting, but it never happened. I’m just overwhelmed with all the support. From the police department and sheriff’s department and the escorts for the march, it really warms me with joy,” Stafford said.

“I was looking for about 150 people, to be honest. Then (I) started seeing all the social media responses and thought we might get about 300. And then it was more than double that. It was really moving. I saw Latinos, Choctaws, biracial people, whites. We even had people from Denison and Sherman here in support of this. I even talked to someone from Allen, Texas.”

About the only commotion to occur during the peaceful assembly was when a young woman fainted among the large crowd in the 90-plus degree heat. She received medical attention from EMS workers.

During the speeches, many supporters voiced their disapproval over the death of Floyd as well as others, including Southeastern Oklahoma State University basketball alum Corey Carter, who died in police custody in 2015.

The Durant gathering included people of different ethnicities who appeared to join together for one common goal.

Local police cordoned off streets and provided an escort as the crowd marched for roughly 14 blocks, with some participants chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd,” “Off My Neck,” “Justice Now,” “I Can’t Breath,” “Change is Here” and “I Am Somebody.”

Those marching were offered bottles of water by local businesses and residents along the route.

Andrus, who also spoke during the event, said it was encouraging “to see something like this happen in Bryan County of all places. ... It’s something that happened really quick. I thought this had all the great intentions, especially coming off a week of dealing with sadness of the four kids that died at the hands of a drunk driver.

“This group decided to hold back - even though protests were going on everywhere else - and wait until every kid was buried and the families could mourn before bringing the attention back to something that ... many, many people are passionate about,” he said.

“I’m very proud of this turnout. Every single representation was here. All of the world’s creations were represented. This is great. I know we are here to say black lives matter, but it just shows how much black lives matter to all of these people, so its super encouraging,” Andrus said.

“I put some very strong thoughts and passion into my words when I spoke. I was representing a lot of people and how they have felt around here. We bottle things in and this was an opportunity to express those things so we can learn and grow as a community.”

During the culmination of the event back on the courthouse lawn, organizers had voter registration tables set up and urged protesters who were not already registered to vote to do so and make their voices heard. Many complied.

Additionally, a petition was circulating to begin the organizational process for a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Durant next year.

“Now the real work starts in keeping this movement going because we have to get this worked out,” Stafford said. “Obviously the focus is black lives matter. The way the justice system was originally set up, it kind of kept black people in their place and slowed progress. As we have advanced and moved forward, we felt like some of these things were archaic and not the same for every race. That’s not fair, so we have to get on the same playing field.

“This is a movement. It’s not just a group of people. It’s spread out to 18 countries or more now. This movement lets us know some of the unjust laws and police brutality going on in different places. We’re going to have to reform the criminal justice system for equality for all,” he said.

“When black lives matter and we can get that worked out, its going to help our Latino brothers and sisters and our Native Americans and poor whites. All lives should matter. I know I’m going to fall short of the glory of God, but if I am making an effort to get everybody involved in this movement, he’ll understand.”

Protesters march in the street, escorted by law enforcement vehicles, during a rally in downtown Durant June 9.