MONTEVIDEO — Taking a public stand in a small, rural community can seem a very difficult thing to do, but don’t tell that to the Montevideo Area Peacekeepers.
“It’s encouraging,” said Vicki Poier, as she and 14 others took a very public stand on Tuesday evening. They lined up along Minnesota Highway 7 in front of the Chippewa County Courthouse to make known their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
They held signs and waved to passing motorists, who for the most part offered the encouragement of which Poier spoke. Many of the passing motorists honked in support and gave the protesters a thumbs up. Only rarely did anyone flash a finger at them.
The informal group known as the Montevideo Area Peacekeepers has been willing to take a public stand in this community ever since the invasion of Iraq. They resumed their twice-a-week vigils — from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays — just days after violence erupted in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
Group member Celeste Suter said her daughter, Emma, came home to Montevideo from her residence in the uptown area of Minneapolis after Floyd’s death and said it was time to do something. They’ve been doing something ever since, but with a difference.
These recent gatherings in the wake of George Floyd’s death have been attracting new people willing to take a public stand, and more of them are young people, according to Poier and others who are longtime members of the Peacekeepers.
As for encouragement, Suter said one evening an African-American man they did not know approached the protesters with a bag stacked full of hamburgers from McDonald’s for them. She said he told them: “I can’t thank you enough. This means so much to me.”
Many of those who joined the protest on Tuesday said the death of George Floyd has put a spotlight on racism that Americans can no longer ignore.
Rachel Rigenhagen and her son, Mars, were among those who said the death served as a wake-up call.
“We can’t keep ignoring it because it doesn’t go away,” said Rachel.
Mars said he was motivated by the death to do something and joined the protests in Fargo, North Dakota, nearly two weeks ago.
Ben Pieh, an attorney in the public defender’s office, joined the Montevideo protest in his suit and tie. He too pointed out that it can be easy to ignore racism and social inequities when living in a small, rural community. In day-to-day, small-town life, it just doesn’t jump out and smack you in the face, he said.
But what to do about it? “Living out here, in a small town, it doesn’t feel like there is a lot you can do,” said Isaac Koenen, who was among those joining the protest Tuesday.
He said standing along the highway gave him the opportunity he wanted to do something.
Eric Harker, standing next to him, concurred.
“I figured I’d do something about it instead of posting something and arguing with somebody on Facebook,” Harker said.
Like the others alongside them, Linda and Erin Huseby, mother and daughter, said they didn’t join the protest with expectations of changing the world overnight. Linda said her hope is for incremental change. She hopes that by taking a public stand, it will prompt some people to look inward and do some thinking.
Letting people who are oppressed know that there is support for change is important in itself, said Taylor Patton Holien.
“I think it is important to be an ally,” she said. “Even though we live in a small town, there isn’t much we can do except show people we support them and reach out to them.”
Hearing all of the honks of support and seeing the thumbs up matter too.
“It feels like you are doing something right,” she said.
Suter said she is hopeful that change will come. The death of Floyd and the protests are making people face the truth about the injustices that exist.
“People are awakened,” she said. “Once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee.”
The Montevideo Area Peacekeepers will be gathering from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. today — Friday, June 19 — instead of their usual Saturday in order to recognize Juneteenth. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger announced the federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved people in Texas were free.