Nearly 200 people took to the Wichita streets on Tuesday night to protest police violence and support the Black Lives Matter movement, echoing the protests and activism that have erupted across the country over the past week.
At around 7:30 p.m., protesters began gathering near the Barry Sanders Football Field at 13th Street and Ohio. Many carried signs with messages such as “no justice, no peace, no racist police” and “black lives matters.” They carried pictures of loved ones who they said had been killed by police. The names of deceased cousins, nephews, brothers and husbands were shouted along with calls for justice.
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Valerie Mason was one of the protesters. Mason said she has had her own experiences with police brutality that she is concerned for the future of the black community.
“It’s almost like being on the verge of extinction, like animals,” Mason said. “It’s sad that one race that is continually being brutalized by the police and brought down in this world, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
After a brief prayer and directions from protest leaders in the parking lot, the crowd took to the sidewalk along 13th Street and began walking toward I-135.
The marchers moved east on 13th for about two hours, from I-135 to Grove. The protesters walked down the street chanting, cheering and shouting for justice.
Traffic was backed up almost a mile in both directions on 13th, with only a few vehicles able to make it through the crowd. A helicopter circled overhead. Although there were a few brief confrontations between drivers and protesters, most drivers were honking horns and shouting out of windows in apparent support of the marchers.
Initially, the group had planned to stand in protest along the interstate and at first tried to enter via an exit ramp on the west side of the overpass. However, the Kansas Highway Patrol had stationed officers along each of the four ramps, blocking entrance to the highway.
Eight officers and several patrol cars met the protesters on their first attempt to enter the highway. As they approached, an officer began to speak to the crowd and said that although it was within their rights to protest peacefully, they were not permitted on the interstate.
“This is the Kansas Highway Patrol,” one officer said. “You are free to peacefully demonstrate. Pedestrians are not allowed on the interstate system. If you proceed, if you proceed beyond this point, you will be in violation of state law.”
Leaders at the front of the protest group, some holding bullhorns, began to shout at the patrol officers. Many again called for justice, waving pictures of loved ones, while others shouted “our lives matter.” The officers did not respond to the protesters, and no one made physical contact.
After about 10 minutes, the marchers decided to back away from the patrol officers and return to 13th Street. The marchers then tried to approach the interstate via a different ramp, but officers once again prevented them from passing through, and they returned to the street.
Christy Lee was walking with her granddaughter in the march. She said that even for young children, prejudice is a reality.
“I have to teach my granddaughter, who is 5, that prejudice is started at a young age,” Lee said. “They look at their hair, their skin. They’re degraded because they are darker and have thicker, coarser hair, but they are just as beautiful.”
Many people in neighboring areas came out of their homes and businesses to watch the march or, in many cases, film it with their phones and cameras.
Djuan Wash, a local community organizer, said he wants to recognize the steps local law enforcement has been taking toward justice and equality but that the needs of the people still need attention.
“I’m appreciative ... but I have to stand with the community,” Wash said. “This is what the community wants, and I have to stand with them and stay convicted with them.”
Not all people were supportive, however. Samuel Barrientos said he came to watch the protest on his motorcycle, but just as the march began, he tried to drive his motorcycle through the protest back home. Several in the crowd surrounded Barrientos, shouting and arguing with him. Protest leaders were quick to break up anything that might turn into a fight, however.
Barrientos said he doesn’t think the protesters have a just cause.
“I don’t get how they think it is an epidemic, I don’t see it as an epidemic,” Barrientos said of the police shootings. “I think there were 112 black people that got shot by cops last year and that was justified and unjustified. I don’t think 112 people a year is an epidemic.”
Another motorcyclist kept driving toward the protesters, repeatedly circling back around, shouting and making explicit hand gestures to the crowd, who responded to the taunts with shouting.
“What’s going on here is ridiculous,” the unknown man said. “This is terrible. This is for no reason. We all know that in some cases, the police are unfair. A third of the cops out there have no business carrying a gun, but that doesn’t mean all cops are bad.”
The crowd, which had grown to more than 200 people toward the end of the night, traveled to Grove before stopping and turning around, still chanting, with fists held high: “Black lives matter.”