This was originally published online on July 8, 2016. The protest actually occurred while I was driving to Colorado for a backpacking trip– I did the whole piece from the backseat of a van in New Mexico, using FaceTime, Twitter, text messaging and phone calls to contact sources. We managed to have the whole thing put together and edited in a matter of a few hours.
Less than 24 hours after a police brutality protest in Dallas underwent fire from a sniper that left five local police officers dead, a crowd gathered on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol to continue protesting brutality. The recent deaths of two black men, Anton Sterling and Philando Castile, during encounters with police officers have reignited a national discussion about police brutality, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Following the death of Castile, former Bryant student and 2016 eStem graduate Christian Taylor and 2015 graduates Michelle Wallace and Cody Jones began to organize the Little Rock protest with assistance from fellow 2015 graduate Mitchell Reeves. The event came to be known as “Hands Up, Guns Down.”
Planning for the protest began several hours before the Dallas shooting. By the time the shooting started, word had already spread across social media platforms such as Twitter, where the protest was first announced, as well as Instagram and Facebook.
The shooting created apprehension for the event, already underway. Senior Maya Jackson’s parents would not allow her to attend because the Dallas shooting made them nervous.
“I was really excited [about going to the rally],” Jackson said. “Fear shouldn’t deter a person from standing for what they believe in.”
Junior Emily Culbreath was also planning to attend until her parents did not allow her to.
“My parents heard about the Dallas shooting and were scared for me to go, which is understandable,” Culbreath said. “[Dallas] wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to be there to protest and to document it as a photojournalist.”
In a press release before the protest, Little Rock Police Department Chief Kenton Buckner grieved for the officers who died in Dallas and warned Little Rock about the dangers of the rising violence.
“If you think this could not happen in your city, you are naive,” Buckner said during the release.
While the Little Rock protest remained peaceful, the Dallas shootings affected the approach that protestors took during the event.
“In light of the shootings [Thursday], we just really wanted to preach peace,” Taylor said. “We aren’t an anti-police movement. I personally support the police, but that doesn’t excuse the actions of some of the officers recently.”
Officers from the Little Rock and North Little Rock Police Departments were invited, and while they didn’t attend, the coordinators of the protest were told that officers would be on standby in case of emergency.
The entire event was organized in about a day.
“[When I] woke up [Thursday] morning, I called Michelle,” Jones said. “We were just angry and full of rage about the tragedies lately.”
Jones and Wallace then connected with Taylor through Twitter.
Police brutality is a topic especially close to Wallace’s heart. Her cousin was shot to death after attempting to leave during an encounter with an Alexander police officer in 2012.
“[His death] made me bitter,” Wallace said. “His funeral haunts me sometimes, seeing his mom crying and screaming. I actually had to get up and walk out of the church. I wanted to share his story at the rally, but I didn’t think I could stand up there and keep my composure enough to tell it.”
The officer involved was later relieved of her position.
While Reeves does not have as personal a relationship with the topic of police brutality, his intentions behind helping with the protest were clear.
“Michelle, Christian, Cody and I want to set an example for our generation,” Reeves said. “You can scream, cry and shout all over the Internet for change, but until you step away from that screen, nothing will be changed.”
Jones estimated that between 200 and 300 people attended the protest, with activists coming from all over Arkansas. Taylor met with an activist who flew down from New York City.
Throughout the protest, individuals shared their own experiences with racism and police brutality through the open mic that was set up.
“It was heartbreaking and extremely moving to hear so many people share their experiences with injustice,” 2015 graduate Katherine Miller said.
The protest was largely deemed a success by the organizers, but for Taylor, his work as an advocate isn’t over.
“I fear for my life,” Taylor said. “I fear for my brother’s life. I fear for my friends of color. When I become a parent, I refuse to teach [my child] to fear the very people put in place to protect them. So I choose to make a stand, regardless of the consequences.”