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New generation of civil rights leaders emerges in Wichita

Drone footage of Wichita Black Lives Matter protest-turned-barbecue

See protesting and barbecuing for change in Wichita's streets and parks last week from the view of drone. (Footage courtesy of Marco Jones. Editing and audio by Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle.)
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See protesting and barbecuing for change in Wichita's streets and parks last week from the view of drone. (Footage courtesy of Marco Jones. Editing and audio by Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle.)

In early July, the anger and pain, especially in Wichita’s black community, was rising.

On consecutive days, two new videos of black men killed by police had spread quickly on social media. Alton Sterling appeared to be restrained and helpless on the ground when he was shot in Baton Rouge, La. In Minnesota, Philando Castile’s girlfriend said in a live video that Castile had followed all the rules for how to act during a traffic stop before he was shot.

In Wichita, Djuan Wash had, once again, helped organize a rally in Old Town, to air grievances and demand change. There was a microphone, a crowd holding signs, a couple of politicians and TV cameras.

Wash and a few other activists had organized about 10 similar rallies about police violence and racial profiling since 2013.

Among those attending were Rob Nice, 37, and Caleb Mitchell, 24, black barbers at Twice As Nice barber shop about two miles north of Old Town. They had never been to any of the rallies. Nice decided to go after seeing Alton Sterling’s son, Cameron, break down in tears on TV.

“Everyone was upset. I was upset,” Nice said. “That kind of hurt. Especially when you lost your father, like.”

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Nice listened to Wash but wasn’t satisfied. He interrupted. “We’re done talking,” Nice yelled. “There is no more time to be talking.”

Instead of ignoring Nice, Wash turned toward him and another man who was yelling, acknowledged the anger and then reminded Nice that it needed to be channeled. “I appreciate the passion,” Wash said. “We all feel like that. We all feel like that. We’re angry, brother. I feel like that, too.”

“We want our policymakers to do something about this now,” Wash shouted. “… But guess what: If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu.”

A new civil rights movement is underway in Wichita – and the nation – ignited first by the 2013 shooting of Trayvon Martin and fed by the tense protests in Ferguson, Mo., following a police shooting there, two years ago. With every video of a police shooting, the Black Lives Matter protests grow, sometimes turning volatile.

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Locally, young black leaders such as Wash and A.J. Bohannon are taking an approach that is both bold and conciliatory, including public displays of resistance and private negotiations with public leaders for change. Their challenge has been to demand change while keeping the protests peaceful and the black community united.

In the 10 days after the Old Town rally, Wichita saw one of the largest and potentially most volatile protests it had seen in years, followed by one of the city’s most public displays of mutual support.

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, who organized a cookout for the protesters, was hailed for his “flip the script” approach and even received an invitation to the White House. But the media gave less attention to leaders such as Wash and Bohannon, who persuaded protesters to give the cookout a chance.

‘Understand the system’

Wash, 32, an organizer for the nonprofit Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, stands out at rallies and not just because he is one of the main speakers: He’ll often have on crisp slacks, a pressed shirt or a sports coat. He wears glasses and speaks with precision about the law. Wash took his first internship at a law firm at 16 and did administrative work at a civil-rights firm in Wichita when he was 19.

But if his appearance and diction suggest privilege, his upbringing was anything but. When he was 6, his father was shot on his front porch, he said, and Wash still remembers seeing the blood stains the next day. He spent a lot of time in Kansas City growing up because his mom was addicted to drugs and wanted him to be in a better home.

But Wash found a way to make a living by organizing parties through social media in cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles. These skills came in handy when in 2013 Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. Wash’s anger boiled over, so he started a Facebook page to bring justice for Martin, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

Wash’s mom became sick with cancer in 2013, and he returned home to Wichita. When she died, he took over the parenting of his 5-year-old niece, Laveah.

Wash’s friends and colleagues describe him as someone willing to sit down with the mayor or the most ardent critics of the police. He shares a lot of the same goals as much of the black community, but he’s also had experience trying to push through laws, protesting and taking legal action. “You have to understand the system in order to dismantle it,” Wash says.

Urgency

On July 7, the same night as Wash’s rally in Old Town, a black man in Dallas opened fire on police officers, five of whom were killed.

Undetered, A.J. Bohannon planned a march in Wichita for Tuesday, July 12. Protestors considered walking on the Canal Route to shut down the freeway.

Bohannon, 28, was not always a protester: His cousin, Marquez Smart, was shot and killed by Wichita police in Old Town in 2012. Smart was one of five people killed by police that year in Wichita, which saw more fatal police shootings than much bigger departments such as Detroit. Three of the five men killed were black. Smart’s parents have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Wichita and the Police Department, claiming that the officers were negligent and excessive in their use of force.

Although he’d never protested before, Bohannon was arrested at Towne East mall in 2013. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a sign of solidarity for Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot. It is against the mall’s policies for shoppers to wear hoodies.

B.J. Jones, 27, a local father who works in aircraft manufacturing, had never been to a protest before and was planning a second march for a few days later, Saturday, July 16.

“I know I’m nobody special with no platform to speak on,” Jones wrote on Facebook. “I just want to see our city do something positive against all this negativity, and I want to be a part of it!”

Hundreds responded on Facebook that they planned to show up at the two events.

In places such as Minneapolis, protests on the freeways included low-level forms of violence against the police, which increased the tension. And even seasoned protesters in Wichita said they weren’t sure what to expect.

Two days before the march

“The temperature in the community around these issues was rising,” said Ramsay, the police chief. He had begun to hear about the planned protests, including a possible shutdown of the Canal Route.

Wash warned Ramsay that the police’s presence would only inflame the tensions.

The chief decided that he would have men nearby, out of view, at the July 12 march. Only the Highway Patrol officers at the freeway entrances would be visible.

On July 10, Ramsay e-mailed Jonathan Long, 34, one of the founders of Wichita Urban Professionals, whose goal is to increase representation of minorities in decisions about Wichita’s future.

Long gathered 10 members to meet with the chief a few hours before the July 12 march.

At the end of the meeting with Long, the chief posted a Facebook Live video that reiterated his support of many of the protesters’ concerns: Ramsay believed in cultural competency training for his officers, would support an independent investigator in police shootings and would, as he did in Minnesota before, help establish a citizens review board.

When Wash showed up at McAdams Park for the march that night, he told the protesters about the concessions the chief had already made.

Worries

The potential for violence at the march concerned Herman Hicks, pastor at the Greater Pentecostal Church of Christ.

Hicks sees himself in the younger protesters: He led a sit-in in the early 1970s at the University of Mississippi, which had integrated less than a decade before but whose faculty remained largely white.

He also worried that, because of how fast cars move on the freeway, a march there might be less safe than on a side street. So on the day of the protest, Hicks reached out to Bohannon.

“I wanted him to know, even though what he was doing was meaningful and necessary, just like in Dallas, there are always those rogue individuals that are going to do something to disrupt peaceful protests, that bring bad names on the community as a whole, like what they did to those five cops,” Hicks said.

One of the phrases that Hicks emphasized became a rallying cry for Bohannon at the march later that night: “Those in blue jeans as well as those in blue deserve to make it home safely.”

One of the phrases that Hicks emphasized became a rallying cry for Bohannon at the march later that night: “Those in blue jeans as well as those in blue deserve to make it home safely.”

On a T-shirt he would wear to the protest that night, Bohannon wrote “Black Lives Matter,” but he did it in blue ink, a nod to the respect he had for the police, he said.

Wash, who had already participated in a freeway march in St. Louis, was worried about whether there had been enough planning. No one had arranged for legal representation and bail money, like in St. Louis, so if anything happened, the protesters could get stranded in jail, which might inflame tensions.

The march

Bohannon, the son of a pastor, helped lead a prayer before the protesters set out. He said their preparations in the parking lot were like a child eating mashed potatoes, and as they set out toward the on-ramp, they were about to start eating meat for the first time. Those who weren’t ready to eat meat should stay behind.

Bohannon used a megaphone to speak to the protesters and Highway Patrol, which, he said later, may have looked a little over the top. But at the time, he said, he wanted to make sure all of the protesters could hear him.

A Black Lives Matter rally took place Tuesday night on 13th Street near I-135 in Wichita, Kansas, as protesters tried to get on the highway but were blocked by state troopers. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle)

“We are not out here to be disobedient, we’re not here to be violent,” Bohannon said, as the protesters faced a line of stone-faced Highway Patrol officers. “If you’re here to be violent, go home.”

After about 10 minutes, the hundred or so mostly young black protesters walked down from the I-135 off-ramp with chants: “No justice, no peace.”

Protesters took to the streets Tuesday night in support of Black Lives Matter. (Lara Korte / The Wichita Eagle)

Heading for home

Jones, whose march was still planned for Sunday, July 16, was impressed with how Bohannon had stopped marchers from responding to a motorcyclist who repeatedly drove toward the marchers, yelled racial epithets, he said, and kicked up dust in their eyes.

The Black Lives Matter rally was largely peaceful but protesters became angry with one biker who tried to drive through the protest and another biker who kept driving back. (Oliver Morrison/The Wichita Eagle)

One shirtless protester with a bandanna on his face had charged another motorcyclist, fists clenched.

Bohannon and Wash stood between the motorcyclist and the crowd, giving him space to drive home safely.

“I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if some people came up and tried to antagonize us,” Jones said. “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to control everybody.”

As the evening grew into night, Bohannon led the protesters back to their cars. “You are standing in the middle of one of the biggest civil rights movements in Wichita history. Give yourselves a hand,” he said to cheers.

Bohannon and a couple of other young protesters saw Mary Dean drive by in her car. Dean has been among the most fervent and consistent advocates for change among the older generation of black activists.

But when Bohannon and another young protester asked her to come out and walk with them, she demurred.

“No, this is y’alls thing,” Dean told them. “I’m going to leave it to y’all young folks.”

It felt like a passing of the guard, she said.

This is not your grandmother’s civil rights movement. These young people have taken it to a new level.

Mary Dean, activist

“This is not your grandmother’s civil rights movement,” Dean said. “These young people have taken it to a new level. They are not waiting for old people and meetings, they want to move.”

Some of the marchers had made clear that, at the most basic level, they just wanted to be seen as regular people who should be treated like anyone else.

“If they take the time to get to know me, I’m a college-educated black man that goes to work every day and pays my taxes and does what I need to do to be successful in society,” said Keith Wooden, a 6-foot-9-inch, 300-pound former college basketball player, at the march. “But every time I’m stopped by an officer, I’m deemed as a threat.”

So many people were shocked when, the day after Bohannon’s march, the police chief, Gordon Ramsay, offered to throw a barbecue so the police and protesters might talk to one another rather than shouting in the streets.

Meal plans

On July 13, the day after the march, Ramsay arranged to meet with Bohannon, Wash and Hicks, the pastor. They talked at a table in the back of TOPS Steaks and Hoagies, a popular restaurant, to work out the details. Bohannon laid out his complaints, which were not just about police violence but the underlying causes, including high rates of unemployment and poverty.

“Two men in a burning house have no time to argue,” Bohannon explained. “So myself and Chief Ramsay, we are two men standing inside of a burning house and we understood we can no longer try to do things separately; to be on the same page, we have to work together.”

Ramsay “introduced the idea of doing a cookout,” Bohannon said. “And I told him, ‘Let’s do it Sunday. I’ll cancel the rally and the protest.’ 

That night Bohannon explained the idea of the barbecue on Facebook, sprinkling every paragraph with exclamation points to try to get across the excitement of what a historic step this could be.

But the July 16 protest wasn’t planned by Bohannon: Jones, who wasn’t at the meeting with Ramsay, still planned to hold his march.

Shut up and eat

Jones found it suspicious that the day after the march, the police had proposed a barbecue.

“I’m not willing to shut up and eat,” Jones said he told Bohannon. “This does nothing for the movement. It’s not going to get us any attention.”

“This isn’t about the food,” Jones said Bohannon replied. “If you don’t think about the food, it’s really the chief coming out to answer questions and improve things in our community.”

Jones wasn’t alone in his reservations. Facebook commenters accused their leaders of having sold them out.

If Jones didn’t get on board, the barbecue might turn into a disaster, Hicks thought. “You could have had a protest going on, and you could have had a cookout going on, and the police would have to be pulled away to go watch that protest,” Hicks said.

Hicks called Jones and explained what he thought the cookout could mean.

Jones, still skeptical, put his ego aside and argued aggressively on Facebook that critics should give the cookout a chance.

“This isn’t a shut up and eat event, this isn’t a meet your police and be friends event,” Jones wrote in one post. “This is a clearly voice your concerns and come up with a solution to show the nation that Black Lives Matter in Wichita, Kansas.”

First step

The morning of the cookout, reports emerged from Baton Rouge of a black gunman who had shot and killed three police officers.

If Wichita’s officers were angry, they didn’t show it.

Devon Bray, a black photographer and videographer in Wichita, hadn’t planned to attend the barbecue, but when he drove by, he saw hundreds of people, including some of his clients, hanging out with the police. Even some of the critics of the cookout showed up.

Devon Bray, a photographer and videographer in Wichita, was driving to a photo shoot when he saw friends at the First Steps Community Cookout from the highway and decided to stop to make a video. He didn’t have his good microphones with him. So in

This was something entirely new and beautiful, Bray thought, so he made a music video with the lyrics “Can law enforcement get better? … Can we really come together?”

“I saw a lot of smiling and a lot of laughing, and I’ve just never seen anything like that, period,” Bray said. “When there is marching going on, it’s more yelling at the police. There was none of that, just a totally different atmosphere.”

After the event was in full swing, Ramsay took the microphone and hundreds crowded around.

One young man questioned the concept of the cookout. “We’re sitting here having this barbecue … but what is really going to change? … How do I know if I get pulled over I’m not being racially profiled by a law enforcement officer?” he asked.

Ramsay reminded everyone of the purpose of the barbecue, and told them about his personal history. “My whole career I’ve worked on racial justice issues, social justice issues,” Ramsay said. “And I’m going to continue to do it.”

Every officer will now wear body cameras, Ramsay said, and everyone can take their complaints straight to him if they are not satisfied by the response from others.

“What good is that if you are racially profiling as well?” the young man retorted.

Ramsay paused. “Yeah, that’s a tough one,” he said, and the crowd laughed.

And then he invited young black men to become officers because Ramsay said the department wants to be more diverse. “If you want to make us better, join us,” Ramsay said. “Be a part of the solution.”

“Join so I can be a sellout,” the man said, as he handed back the microphone.

“That is not a sellout,” Ramsay said.

Community policing is not just the police doing things. It’s a two-way street, it’s a relationship.

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay

“Community policing is not just the police doing things,” Ramsay said later. “It’s a two-way street, it’s a relationship.”

Dissent

Many young black people in Wichita have said they feel unrepresented, according to Michael Birzer, director of the school of community affairs at Wichita State. During a study he conducted in 2011, he heard young people say they didn’t feel like they had a voice, even if they knew well-intentioned black leaders who were speaking on their behalf.

So it wasn’t a surprise that five men at the barbecue who described themselves as pan-Africans saw both the march and the cookout as manifestations of white control, they said.

The mostly white officers knew about the protests in advance and dictated where the marchers were allowed to go. And a white motorcyclist, carrying a gun, used racial epithets and kicked up dirt in their faces. It didn’t feel like progress to them.

When they showed up at the barbecue, they said it felt like some police officers crept closer, as if keeping an eye on them. They didn’t like that the police had worn their uniforms: More relaxed attire would have set a more friendly tone, they thought.

“All of the people we have seen sharing the (cookout) story like it’s a good thing,” said Antar Gholar, one of the five. “We’re like, no it’s not a good thing, nothing has changed, no policies have changed.”

Jesse Rice, another one of the five who attended the barbecue, said the black community could police itself.

“We have guns now to carry,” Rice said. “What’s the need of the police? They don’t do nothing but cause more problems in the community.”

The center

The national black media portrayed the cookout as a joke, Gholar and Rice said. And indeed, a national Black Lives Matter chapter said the organizers of the cookout didn’t speak for the national movement.

Although they shared the same aims as Black Lives Matter, Wash and Bohannon emphasized that they had never considered their protests or the cookout official events. A co-founder of the national Black Lives Matter organization, Patrisse Cullors, sent an e-mail to Wash showing support but also stating separate goals.

“We don’t disavow any of the many ways Black people in this country seek their freedom,” Cullors wrote in the e-mail. “But we know Barbecues won’t stop brutal policing. Only de-funding police departments and passing real police reform can do that. The Black folks of Wichita aren’t our enemy, brutal policing is.”

The day after the cookout, Ramsay called on other police departments to hold their own cookouts. But when the Oakland, Calif., police department offered something similar, activists there rejected the olive branch.

The national media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, wrote about the barbecue, and even early skeptics, such as Jones, whose march was canceled, and state Rep. Gail Finney, who has seen a lot of empty gestures in her eight years in the Legislature, were won over by the cookout.

It felt, for a moment, as with the Dockum Drug sit-ins and Brown vs. Board of Education, that the center of the country had become the center of racial progress again, said Dean, a longtime activist.

“Once again,” Dean said, “Kansas is setting the standard.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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