When Stillwater resident Alora Thompson stood in front of a crowded city hall on Wednesday morning, she witnessed something she’d never experienced in her town before.
“It’s so beautiful to see everyone here and see our community really come together like this,” Thompson said at the protest taking place in downtown Stillwater. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never really seen people fight for people that look like me.”
Thompson, an African-American woman, was one of the first speakers at the “We Can’t Breathe” protest. Hundreds of people showed up to recognize the killing of George Floyd that occurred in Minneapolis, and to speak out against systemic racism in the United States.
“Growing up here we have a very racist town, but we like to keep the racism here ‘hush hush,’” Thompson said. “For me, to see our community rally together, and we’re addressing the fact that we are not exempt from this just because we have a huge international student and international family presence. There’s racism alive and well here in Stillwater.
“(This protest) is something that I’ve never seen.”
Thompson was just one of many who spoke at the event, but all speakers had a similar passion to their message.
“You want to know the first time I was called American? It was when I was overseas, in another country where my land was more important than the color of my skin,” Oklahoma State University graduate student Uriah Davis said to the crowd. “You know what I’m called when I’m in this country? A thug, a monster, a villain, a reason.
“I appreciate that y’all are here, but I’m going to be honest, I don’t trust you. I hate to say that. I really do hate to say that. I’m an American just like you and I have to say ‘I don’t trust you.’ Because you’re here, praying with me, making Black Lives Matter be an important thing, but where were you when we were still going through this?”
The passion in the speakers’ messages inspired almost everyone at the rally, including Stillwater mayor Will Joyce.
“Thanks to the organizers for putting this together, it’s a great crowd and great event,” Joyce said in an interview with O'Colly TV. “This is a really healthy exercise of everyone’s rights to gather and to communicate and this is exactly why we have this clause in our constitution and I’m glad we're able to do it.”
But, as many speakers noted, this inspiration needs to continue on past this event.
“Don’t be comfortable putting a black spot on Facebook or posting one post and hoping to get likes because you want to seem cool that you’re with the movement,” Antoine Brown said in his speech. “This movement continues forever. Like I told all my white friends, black people can’t do it alone. We need everybody together in this.”
Similar protests have been taking place across the U.S., including in various cities and towns in Oklahoma.
In Stillwater, hope for reform was a key point noted by some speakers.
“I definitely think that today was a start,” Thompson said. “We're going to have to continue to have these very uncomfortable conversations where people are called out for being anti-black, or ignorant behavior. It’s not going to be something easy because this is hundreds and hundreds of years of oppression and built up anger.
“But I do definitely think today was a start because I would never have expected our community to even really support something like this.”