Although some protests over the killing of George Floyd around the country have been met with opposition or dissent, area legislators and party heads are in favor of people using their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in Tahlequah.
Multiple demonstrations have been held at Norris Park since the death of Floyd. It began over a week ago, when a small group of locals started to “knee at noon” to remind people to be respectful of one another. Then, a local high school student gathered even more protesters to show up to the park June 4. By the time the weekend hit, another Black Lives Matter event was organized with even more local residents showing up.
Leaders from both sides of the political aisle applauded the efforts.
“There’s all kinds of things going on in our world today, and I think that everybody has the right to protest,” said State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah. “I’m with them all the way on that.”
Meredith, who worked in law enforcement for 10 years before getting elected, said he understands there are problems with the relationship between police and the public across the country, but said Cherokee County is fortunate.
“I support their cause and at the same time, we’re very lucky here in Cherokee County,” he said. “Our law enforcement are great. We have [Tahlequah Police] Chief [Nate] King and [Cherokee County] Sheriff [Jason] Chennault, who take care of our two departments, and they do a very good job at it.”
While protests in other cities have turned violent and looters have been seen breaking into stores, the protests in Cherokee County remained calm. State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said those types of actions “give everybody a bad name,” and that he was happy things didn’t turn hostile.
“Everybody has their right to be heard, and as long as they do it in a peaceful manner, they can continue to do that all they want to,” he said. “It’s when they start breaking windows, looting and rioting in the streets, throwing rocks at officers – we just can’t have that. I think in our area – in the rural areas – people are very respectful.”
Still, there were concerns among the community that the events could look similar to those in large metropolitan areas. Shannon Grimes, Cherokee County Libertarian Party Chair, said the “biggest concern” was that someone “with their own agenda” could have decided to stir up trouble.
“A great way to discredit the protests is to cause some trouble,” he said. “If you disagree with it, come in all masked up, cause some trouble, do some vandalism and break something, and the protesters get dismissed as violent thugs who destroy people’s property. The message gets ignored and it’s not even necessarily the protesters doing it.”
An organizer for one of the events said they had received “threats” on social media from people who said they would show up to the protests, wearing MAGA hats and toting firearms, but that never occurred. Justin Kennedy, Cherokee County Young Republicans chair, said those comments were blown “way out of proportion.” It should be noted he was not the person who wrote the comments.
“It wasn’t a threat,” he said. “It was just a, ‘Hey, we have opinions, too, and the same First Amendment right as everybody else.’ That aside, I’m glad people came out to show their support. Some people might not think I would have that opinion, but I do. I’m glad people are coming out to share their opinions and do it peacefully.”
For many, there wasn’t a big concern that violence and unrest could erupt at the protests. Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democratic Party vice chair, said he wasn’t surprised things went off without a hitch.
“Honestly, the only time I’ve been at something in Tahlequah and was concerned there was going to be violence was at Pride, when a guy kept buzzing by in a pickup truck with his Confederate flag,” he said.
Barnes thinks it helped that King attended and showed his support for the right to protest.
“I feel like Police Chief King did a really good thing by making the statement he did in support of their rights to do that,” Barnes said. “If they’re along side of them, I think that goes a long way toward the people feeling their voices are being heard. If someone feels like they’re not being heard, they’re being ignored, or they’re being abused, that’s when things seem more likely to escalate.”