Montevideo vigil to remember George Floyd puts spotlight on endemic racism: 'This isn't who we want to be'

Smith Park in Montevideo was the site for a quiet gathering of more than 50 people on Monday evening. They gathered to remember George Floyd and to recognize the racism exposed by his death. "This isn't who we want to be," said one of the participants.

More than 50 people gather Monday evening in Montevideo's Smith Park to remember George Floyd and hear speakers on racism in our country. The Rev. Okogyeamon (Herbert Perkins), with back to camera, is speaking. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

MONTEVIDEO — In the amber light of a hot summer’s evening Monday, they gathered quietly in Montevideo’s Smith Park to remember George Floyd and to recognize the racism exposed by his death.

“To a lot of white people, it’s like a veil has dropped,” said Malena Handeen, of how the May 25 death of the 46-year-old black man — after a white Minneapolis police officer restrained him by the neck for nearly nine minutes — has put a spotlight on racism. Handeen offered her comment after she and more than 50 others had listened to speakers decry racism they described as endemic in our country.

We can have a voice here in the hinterland, even if we are far from the scene of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, said Robin Moore to those who remained after the speakers had their say.

“Bring your bodies, not to do harm, but to be physically present to acknowledge that this isn’t who we want to be,” said Moore of the racism that was the subject of those who had spoken Monday. "This isn't where we want to live. This isn't who we are."


As for racism in rural communities: “It should have been talked about long, long before,” said Maggie Kluver as she welcomed those who joined for the informal gathering in the park. Kluver, who helped organize the event, pointed to local history and racist events that are no different than those that are the source of so much rage in the large cities where protests have been occurring since Floyd’s death, which was ruled a homicide.

The police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck while the man was handcuffed and facedown on the ground has been charged with murder. The other three officers at the scene had not been charged as of the deadline for this story. All four officers were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department.

The story of racism is more than 500 years old on this continent, according to Chris Mato Nunpa, who spoke to the gathering. The Dakota man is a member of the Upper Sioux Community, a retired associate professor of Indigenous nations and Dakota studies at Southwest Minnesota State University, and author of “The Great Evil.” He spoke of the injustices done to the Dakota and other Indigenous people, including massacres, land theft and cultural suppression.

At age 80, Mato Nunpa said he doesn't know if it is going to get any better.

The Rev. Herbert Perkins has seen a lifetime of racism as well. He is better known by a name given him while in Ghana: “Okogyeamon,” or “he who awakens a village in danger.” He is currently serving as pastor of the First Congregational Church and United Church of Christ in Montevideo.

He has worked as an educator in Bangladesh and Africa, and also has educated farm workers in the U.S. He can trace his family history in America to an ancestor’s bill of sale as a slave.

He cited the racism evident in the death of George, but said he has also seen some reason for hope in the aftermath. “I’m seeing people now who seem to get it. That’s heartening,” he said.

At vigil’s end, Emma Runyan asked all of those attending to consider donating medical supplies, food, baby care items and other essentials to those in need in Minneapolis. She has organized a donation drive and will be collecting the donated items from 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday in the courtyard of Java River in downtown Montevideo.


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