As a precinct burned and cars were toppled in response to the killing of George Floyd and police brutality nationwide, smaller cities in America started conversations no less life-and-death than in Minneapolis or Detroit. They may be calm, silent, tumultuous or violent conversations outside U.S. major metros, but they all share something: black citizens driving them who say conditions have not been and are no longer tenable for everyday living.
How will things improve? Beyond the endless, sleepless national chyron and the drumbeat of L.A. and New York City alerts, smaller cities like Savannah, Georgia; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Greenville, South Carolina, are grappling with existential questions.
Where racism is blanketed by the relative calm of a quieter way of life, how does the urgent need for equality find a voice? Who will listen to it and how will people’s lives truly change? And what does protesting look like near and far, when a sudden seismic upheaval sends tremors throughout an entire nation?
USA TODAY Network journalists in towns all across the country spoke to citizens from May 31 to June 3 at protests and community centers to better understand the situation on the ground. Here’s what we heard:
GREENVILLE, South Carolina
Eric Connor, Greenville News
The line between peace and violence is in the smallest decisions that human beings make in the heat of the moment.
Taurice Bussey and Nikki Bowdoin found themselves in such a moment — human beings on either side of the battle lines drawn in the streets of downtown Greenville as the Sunday sun began to set on a contentious weekend of protest.
One a self-made small-business owner who thinks he had an easier time as a light-skinned black man.
The other a public servant and former high school basketball player who one season was the only white player on her team.
On this day on opposite sides of the line.
Greenville isn’t accustomed to mass civil unrest. This is a town regularly featured in the Top-10-best-you-name-the-accolade magazine lists, where protest more or less is a scheduled event to be managed as diners enjoy their meals uninterrupted along the sidewalk.
This, however, couldn’t be scripted.
A white man, seated on the overhead patio of a fancy downtown restaurant overlooking the crowd of protesters that had begun to thin, spit on a black man.
Bussey and Bowdoin found themselves in a moment. One where one wrong move — a water bottle thrown or a sharp word — could ignite kindling into a wildfire. Or one right gesture could deprive it of fuel.
Bussey, a black protester who says he enjoys an unfair privilege because he’s light-skinned and without effort presents a natural so-called “non-threatening demeanor.”
Bowdoin, a police investigator with 11 years on the force who two years ago made headlines when she was attacked by a man who broke her jaw, requiring extensive surgery.
“Please, will someone hold a Black Lives Matter sign? Show us you care?” Bussey asked the line of police using their shoulder-to-shoulder bodies and bicycles as a human barrier.
It took Bowdoin a few moments to seize this particular one.
Then she stretched out her hand and, looking ahead with the blank stare officers are trained to keep to maintain a presence of neutrality in protests, held the sign at waist level.
The crowd and news media took pictures. People cheered. Then Bussey and other protesters said, “They did their part. Now it’s time for us to do ours. Step back.”
At that moment, two sides took a step toward common ground.
“In that moment, I was looking for a sign that our city and county officers knew what our message meant — that we were looking for true change,” Bussey said.
Deep within the pleas and demands was an intimate, visceral culmination of years of frustration poured out in anger and sadness all at once.
Bowdoin saw it.
“The people whose eyes I was looking into were pleading their hearts out,” Bowdoin told USA TODAY in an interview. “It touched my heart, and I wanted them to know. I wanted them to know, ‘Hey, we’re not against you. We’re not against what you’re standing for and what you’re here for.’”
However, as with most everything involved in the protests erupting every day across the country, the matter isn’t simple.
The crowd ended up passing through and onto the next police line at Augusta Street, which throughout the weekend served as flashpoints of protest.
They marched, in one form or another, into the night.
And the moment was only one of many.
“I would say it’s a start,” Bussey said. “It’s a gesture. … While other police officers refused to take the sign, while they would just kind of stare me in the face and not acknowledge me, she took the time.”
But the police line blocking the protesters was inappropriate, he said — a matter of controlling rather than protecting.
Bussey, a 25-year-old University of South Carolina graduate, grew up poor and black. But as a protester, he said he brings the advantage of being educated and from a two-parent household that supported him through college. Now he owns his own business in financial services and real estate investment.
Unlike his brother and friends, his interactions with police have been mostly positive.
“I’m not a victim of unfair assumptions about my character, about my level of aggression or level of threat,” he said. “I’m not initially looked at as a threat just because of who I am, because of my demeanor and how I carry myself. That’s not to say that they are justified in looking at other taller, larger, darker-skinned black men as a threat, because they actually are not.
“That’s a privilege,” he said, “that I have no control over.”
For Bowdoin, the gesture pointed to something deep within her.
At Berea High, Bowdoin was a rare white girl who didn’t flee to private school. People of color were her friends. She’s a godparent to two mixed-race children.
She said she’s aware of the cliché of saying, “That’s just who I am.” But she said it’s true — not just for her, but for the colleagues she knows among the police department’s force of more than 200.
In the end, Bussey said what will come of the moment and many others that will happen in the coming days and weeks depends on action.
“It’s not just about race,” he said. “A huge part of it is a power issue and an ego issue. Police officers have been allowed to act with largely unchecked power. They have harassed people they feel don’t have power to hold them accountable.”
The way forward will require fundamental, systemic change, he said.
SPARTANBURG, South Carolina
Dustin Wyatt, Spartanburg Herald-Journal
During a peaceful protest in Spartanburg, a white man confronted a crowd of black men about the “Black Lives Matter” sign they were holding. “It should say ‘All Lives Matter!’”
The Rev. Joseph Parks just happened to be nearby and stepped in. “All of my bones matter. But if my wrist is broken, the only bone that matters at that moment is the one that’s broken.”
The exchange ended in an embrace, even though they disagreed. “It was a person who had a different thought. I understand and respect that,” Parks said. He referred to Proverbs 4:7, “In all thy getting, get understanding.”
— Jeff Schwaner and Patrick Hite, The News Leader
The police presence at the silent march is Lt. Kauffman.
He spends about an hour directing traffic at the corner so marchers can safely cross on their way down the hill to the Augusta County Courthouse.
“Just doing my job,” he says, then jogs out ahead of another wave of walkers carrying signs saying BLACK LIVES MATTER. From the northeast corner of the intersection the lone cop facilitating a march of hundreds protesting police brutality is framed by a giant mural of two cardinals holding a banner aloft reading “You Belong Here.”
The silent march that has traveled over a mile from idyllic Gypsy Hill Park is emblematic of the quieter corners of our country where it’s been years since a cop shot another human being. Where the only police presence days earlier at a vocal rally at the courthouse was a press release from Chief of Police Jim Williams excoriating the police behavior that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and pledging that it would not happen here.
Behind every officer’s decision to not engage in violence is a mix of conscience telling them what not to do and hundreds of hours of training giving them options for what they should do. Likewise, years of experience are behind the decision of citizens to take up with their fellow residents and march in a peaceful town that until last year still had its high school named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Ciara Brown was a cheerleader at Lee. She felt strange wearing a uniform with the name of a Confederate general. Ciara’s mom is white and her dad is black. Brown is dark-skinned. When she was 8, her mom went into a local store with Ciara to buy cigarettes.
The cashier wouldn’t sell them to her, telling Brown’s mom that the little black girl with her wasn’t her child. Brown remembers telling the cashier that it was her mom, but they wouldn’t believe her. The Browns eventually left, without cigarettes.
Later that night, Ciara’s mother talked to her. “Before anyone even gets to know who you are, they’ll judge you by your skin color,” her mother told her. “I’m sorry you’re going to have to face that.”
Experiencing those types of incidents made Brown want to make a change and be part of a solution. “Be a part of something way bigger than myself,” she says on the day of the march.
They meet at the park’s bandstand. A handful, then a dozen, then several dozen, finally well over a hundred walk in from various parts of a park full of shade and trees.
The soundtrack to the silent march begins with magic markers squeaking against poster board. Then of shoes and sneakers moving forward against the paved sidewalks underneath the lush June foliage of Thornrose Avenue. A few cars and a bus honk their approval. One woman slows her car down and shouts, “Stand up for your rights! Yeah! Stand up!”
As they walk in a flat part of town, Trasonya Crawford remembers the once-thriving black business district that was razed in the 1960s for downtown “progress.” Later she will have to sit down with her daughter, 9, and speak frankly, just as Ciara Brown’s mother did, about the things you don’t always see.
“I never taught her color,” Crawford said. “I teach her to love people for who they are. But I do teach her history.”
Christa Gleaves stands on an elevated stage, looking out at the crowd who had just finished an almost two-mile journey. Gleaves tells those gathered by the stage her own story, of how she didn’t even recognize some of the racism inherent here until she left for college. She’s proud the name of her school was changed to Staunton High School.
“In Staunton we don’t experience it as much,” she said. “It’s easy to be in this place where there’s a lot of peace and we can ignore the underlying systems of racism.”
She remembers being called the n-word while delivering food to a white fraternity at the University of Virginia, where she has been studying and will graduate in December with a degree in African-American studies.