Three days after organizers in Maryville announced plans to join demonstrators across the country in protesting against injustice and police brutality, the event, first planned to be held on the east side of the Nodaway County Courthouse, has been moved to a virtual setting.
Maryville was set to join more than 100 U.S. cities across all 50 states as a group of Northwest students and a University staff member planned the peaceful gathering for June 6, more than a week and a half after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd face down on the ground and pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck, sparking unrest across the country.
Instead, the event meant to help shed light on and combat issues ranging from overt police brutality to subtle microaggressions was forced online by a “concerning amount of threats” that were pointed toward potential participants in the demonstration and the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting the same prevalence of racism that the event was organized to address.
“It definitely is frustrating, but I don’t think there’s a word that could truly describe the emotions that I feel about it,” said Cayla Vertreese, a Northwest junior and one of the protest’s three organizers. “It’s disheartening, for sure.”
As some protests throughout the nation have escalated into violent events marred by militarized police and looters, the organizers — led by Vertreese, recent Northwest graduate Natasha Samudzi and Northwest Hope 4 All Coordinator Monica Ziegel — made it clear the demonstration would be peaceful. The organizers planned to march in circles around the courthouse block eight times at the event, in remembrance of the eight minutes Floyd spent suffocating pinned under the knee of Chauvin.
The protest’s original announcement, posted to the Facebook pages of both organizers and to the Nodaway County Sherrif’s Office’s page, was met with what Vertreese described as”an overwhelming amount of support” flanked by a slew of what first, to Vertreese, seemed like empty threats.
After issuing a news release on the protest via social media June 2, the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office deleted the post and its entire Facebook page for some time June 3. The page was reactivated by June 4 with the notable absence of the press release, and with it, the flood of threats in the post’s comment section, some of which seemed vaguely threatening and racially charged.
“I don’t buy it,” resident Jay Straub commented underneath the post in a reply to Samduzi, an organizer and an African student originally from Zimbabwe. “Here is a solution to the problem. If you don’t like it here then MOVE. this protest will get very ugly if they step out of line the Northwest rednecks will be there to make sure it don’t get out of hand.”
It’s unclear if the page’s deletion was connected to the flood of hateful comments. Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong, who the release mentioned as the public information officer for the protest, was unavailable for comment and several phone calls from The Missourian went unreturned.
The comment from Straub, which was screen-captured and shared on social media before the Facebook page was deleted, serves as one snapshot of the same racism organizers are now virtually protesting against. In a follow-up post on his page, Straub addressed “the bleeding heart liberal(s)” who planned to protest in Maryville, warning them twice to “not disrespect my flag in anyway.”
“If you do you will meet me and you won’t like what I do,” Straub wrote.
Vertreese said the threats had grown beyond angered community members in the days since the Sheriff's Office issued its release, with Maryville Public Safety and the Sheriff's Office receiving “concerning calls” from outside groups containing vague threats. After receiving threats from militia, white supremacy groups and members of the far-right Boogaloo movement, organizers met with Strong and University Police Chief Clarence Green before deciding to cancel the gathering at the courthouse, Vertreese said.
“What I perceived as empty threats may not be so empty anymore,” Vertreese said, before describing the types of groups who have made threatening calls to the local law enforcement in response to the scheduled protest. “The threats are kind of all over the place, but they’re concerning enough to be concerned about the safety of anyone that attends.”
For students like Northwest senior Summer Warren, who serves as the treasurer for the University’s Black Student Union and who scrolled through the comment section of the post before the Facebook page was deleted, the racism wasn’t much of a revelation. It’s what Warner said she has experienced for the duration of her time in Nodaway County.
“That is literally Maryville,” Warren said in a phone call. “I’ve been at this school for four years. From the weird eyes you get in Walmart like (they’ve) never seen black people before, to the smart comments from students … just disappointment, but never surprise.”
Representatives from the University Police Department, Maryville Public Safety and the Nodaway County Sheriff's Office with organizers, Vertreese wrote in her original post, though the Sheriff's Office didn’t mention its planned participation in a press release June 2.
While the University Police Department has vowed to take further steps to ensure the safety of black students in recent days, it’s unclear if other law enforcement agencies in the county plan on changing tactics or training in the wake of nationwide calls for reform. The protest’s organizers still hope to engage in an open dialogue with participants and law enforcement officers in an effort to help confront racism — now in a live broadcast hosted on the Sheriff Office’s Facebook page at 3 p.m. June 6.
Despite the hate organizers and supporters have received in the days since first announcing plans for the protest, Vertreese said she hopes the virtual protest could still be an engine of change. She’s disappointed by the cynical response to a peaceful protest, she said. She doesn’t understand why or how racism seems to be so deeply rooted in some of the county’s residents. But facing threats from white supremacists and grappling with the cancelation, Vertreese has vowed to keep going.
“I’m not going to take this as being defeated,” she said. “All it does is really light a fire up under my ass to keep fighting and do more.”