BISMARCK — As a crowd of 200 marched from east Bismarck to the Capitol on Tuesday to protest the death of George Floyd, a pair of friends reflected on why they made the drive from Minot to join the group.
Two days earlier they took part in a similar protest in their city.
“It wasn’t enough to get our voices across,” 20-year-old Htet Hnin said.
She carried a sign that read “I can’t breathe,” some of the last words spoken by Floyd, the black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after police pinned him to the ground for several minutes, one pushing a knee into the man’s neck.
Hnin made the sign along with another that read “Black Lives Matter” carried by her friend, 19-year-old Purity Nyabochwa. On it, she had painted a fist, the symbol for black power, which the group of protesters displayed numerous times as they shouted chants such as, “No justice, no peace, prosecute the police!”
“It’s taking back the power that black people deserve,” Nyabochwa said of the fist. “When non-black people do this, it’s also showing solidarity.”
Nyabochwa was born in Kenya and moved to the United States in 2011.
She said she has never experienced police brutality personally, but viewing video after video of black people unjustly killed by law enforcement has taken a toll on her.
“You get this anxiety that you shouldn’t feel,” she said. “It’s scary. A simple stop can lead to people dying.”
Hnin described the past week as hectic.
She’s found interactions with co-workers at the group home where she works particularly tough, as some of them seem to be “on the other side.”
“They just think these protests aren’t going to do anything,” she said.
She’s found support, though, through an ongoing group chat with friends who share videos and observations, just as so many people are doing throughout the country right now as they reexamine or speak more vocally about their views on race.
Born in Myanmar, Hnin said she has not encountered much racism in the United States. But she has felt uncomfortable, at times, when she’s overheard speaking Burmese to her family.
“Sometimes I see people stare at us a certain way,” she said.
She’s not sure if it’s because the language simply sounds so different from what Americans are used to hearing, or if it’s because the people think she ought to be speaking English on American soil.
Both followed the saga that unfolded Monday at the White House, in which law enforcement used force to push protesters back to clear the way for President Donald Trump to walk to a nearby church, where he held up a bible and posed for photos for several minutes. In an address to the nation before he made the walk, Trump called himself the “law and order” president and an “ally of all peaceful protesters” while saying he would deploy the U.S. military if governors did not call in the National Guard to “dominate the streets.”
“I just think he’s a hypocrite,” Nyabochwa said. “All the times people protest in other countries, he’s like, ‘Let them speak.’”
She noted that when protesters gathered outside state capitols in recent months to rally against restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, “no one got tear gassed, and no one got maced.”
Law enforcement did not use any force at Tuesday’s protest in Bismarck. They maintained a presence as protesters marched on the sidewalk toward downtown and then to the Capitol, but they did not engage.
Protest organizers had been in touch with the police department prior to the event and encouraged participants to remain peaceful. The protest followed other demonstrations in Bismarck, including one that lasted several hours on Saturday.
The Bismarck Police Department said in a statement ahead of the protest that the agency has “had a productive dialogue” with organizers. The department had no substantiated information about rumored “outside agitators” joining, and no one appeared to cause trouble at the event.
“We understand there is a great deal of concern amongst the public due to escalated violence and riots across the country, but we ask the citizens of Bismarck to be the exception,” the department said. “We fully support the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.”
A few tense moments occurred at times as vehicles drove by displaying Confederate flags and gunning their engines. A person in one of those vehicles yelled, “All lives matter!” at the protesters. That phrase is seen to be critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For as many of those moments that occurred, there were others in which cars honked to show their support. Downtown, one protester quickly darted off the sidewalk to bump fists with a driver stopped at a light with her window down after she had hit her horn in solidarity.
The event coincided with Cruise Night, in which classic cars cruise up and down Main Avenue on the first Tuesday of the month. Cruise Night organizers decided to postpone their event and will hold it in another week or two once they coordinate a new date, said Pat Heinert, the former Burleigh County Sheriff who is a member of a Chevy car club.
The protest ended after the crowd finished walking 2.5 miles to the Capitol, where they kneeled in a moment of silence. That moment was powerful for both Nyabochwa and Hnin.
“It was honoring (Floyd’s) memory, and that’s the reason we came to protest,” Hnin said.