Like millions of other people, Casey Bevel of Fort Payne watched in shock as anger filled the streets of major cities in reaction to the videotaped death of a Minneapolis man who died while he was being arrested. Bevel thought it was important to add her voice to the chorus of outrage and protest the actions of those officers. In several cities, protests turned into fiery riots and a dramatic show of force by police – but not in Fort Payne, where peaceful protest prevailed.
Bevel, who is white, said the treatment of African Americans by police nationally struck a chord with her because of her child.
“I have a mixed [race] child who is three, and right now, he’s a really cute, curly-haired little boy that everybody loves, but soon he’ll be a black man,” she said, explaining that when he matures, some people will instinctively deem her son as threatening based solely on the color of his skin.
She supports the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) activist movement speaking out against racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality in the nation’s criminal justice system. Participants have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous unarmed black men by police actions or while in police custody, claiming systemic mistreatment is a widespread problem.
Bevel said Sunday’s protest was sparked by a Facebook post in which she asked who might want to march with her along Gault Avenue with a sign. She was surprised when others, including Mercedes Gant, answered that call.
They claim this prompted death threats from others, which led to yet others joining in the protest in a show of support for their right to protest, along with solidarity for the nationwide BLM movement.
When Bevel, Gant and others arrived in the Dollar General parking lot as they had announced, they were met by Fort Payne Police Chief Randy Bynum, who acknowledged their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble as long as they stayed on the sidewalks and did not maliciously obstruct passers-by.
In the interest of public safety, Bynum asked them to work with city police officers who were positioned on every block to keep things peaceful and orderly.
The protesters invited Bynum to join them in a display of solidarity, but he declined to do so, citing the need to focus on protecting them, any counter-protesters, passers-by and surrounding storefronts from the type of violence that has spilled out in larger cities.
Bynum introduced former city council member Walter Watson, who is African American, to the protesters. Watson implored upon them to be peaceful and commended them for being empathetic about the treatment of all citizens and respectful in listening to the officers, who he had challenged to receive their message in a helpful spirit.
He led the group in prayer, asking the Lord for their protection and for demonstrations across the nation to be peaceful, then a group of about 40 people stood on the steps of the old City Hall, now housing the Fort Payne Police Department.
The protesters held signs with various messages and chanted slogans, led by Roderick Ford, while facing Gault Avenue.
Vehicles slowed to get a closer look, several drivers holding up their smartphones to record the demonstration. Presumed counter-protesters who had congregated in a nearby parking lot drove by repeatedly, revving the engines of their pickup trucks while displaying “Trump 2020” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags from their tailgates.
“Blue Lives Matter” was created as a pro-police officer counter-slogan, while others have rallied behind the slogan “All Lives Matter”.
BLM is controversial because it brings attention to alleged instances of police brutality and unequal enforcement of the law. The group alternated chanting all three slogans to avoid showing favoritism to one ethnicity.
Bevel said the backlash against BLM led to death threats online.
“I’m not just out here protesting the killing of George Floyd [the man who was killed in Minneapolis]. I’m speaking out against racism because it is 2020, and it’s a shame that anyone had to come here to protest today. I received threats that people with assault rifles were coming down here to blow us away. Nobody wanted violence today. Everybody saw that. There are more peaceful protests than there are riots. I love everybody, and it’s not okay to be racist,” Bevel said.
Some of the people criticizing Bevel’s Facebook post cited concerns that a protest might incite the type of looting and burning of stores seen in larger cities where initially peaceful protests got out of control. Others thought it would only attract negative attention to a racially homogenous community.
In terms of race, Fort Payne’s population is 70 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic and four percent black, according to statisticalatlas.com.
DeKalb County, as a whole, is 81 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic and two percent black.
Bevel said it was unfortunate that efforts to achieve racial justice had become politicized.
“I do not bash presidents, former or present. I do not bash religious beliefs, but I love Jesus. I am not a Republican or a Democrat -- I'm just me. I am trying every day to be a better and more understanding person, and I think I have come a long way. I try to remember Jesus taught us to Love, and he wants us to love everyone!” she said the next day in a Facebook post.
Participants in Sunday’s demonstration said the nationwide protests reflect frustration about how little has changed since 2014, when the death of Eric Garner touched off the BLM movement in Ferguson, Missouri.
They said changes are needed in terms of police use of force and other law enforcement tactics seen as targeting minorities and the poor.
After about 20 minutes of protesting, the group left without incident, making Fort Payne a happy exception to the country’s tragic headlines.