Olivia Moore’s mother tried to temper the 16-year-old’s expectations for the May 30 rally she had organized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Protests had begun in cities and towns across the country and Moore was hoping to engage her own suburban community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The high school student had only begun planning and organizing her rally the day before, but that Saturday morning her event flier was spreading like wildfire on social media. In two hours, it had garnered 1,000 likes across multiple platforms.
Moore’s mother had a litany of questions for her: “What if the police come and shut it down? Do you need a permit? What happens if a march starts? What are you going to do?” recalled Moore. “I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t have any plans, I don’t know. I’m working on it. I was just literally working on the plan as I went along, and I kind of just did it.”
By the end of the day, what began as a small rally at Winston-Salem’s Bailey Park had transformed into a full march with a crowd of about 250 protesters joining. As speeches were made, Moore’s mother, once a skeptic, thrust her daughter to the frontlines to address the crowd and assert herself as the event’s organizer. While Winston-Salem is only 30 minutes from Greensboro, a place which was the site of historic sit-ins during the civil rights movement as well as a community that has seen even more police violence during recent protests, Moore’s hometown has seen less political activity in recent years.
“It is rare, our city usually doesn’t have stuff like that,” she said. “That was actually the first protest that I’ve ever attended and it was my own.”
Winston-Salem isn’t alone in taking up protesting since the recent uprisings began. The past few weeks have seen many small cities, suburban neighborhoods, and rural towns engaging in the kind of political protest that usually only draws media attention when it occurs in large metropolitan areas. The widespread engagement of smaller, often less racially diverse American communities is among a host of other factors that set this uprising apart from past mobilizations against police brutality and racism. That engagement may make this moment a milestone on the path toward significant and lasting change.
Moore’s protest opened with a full circle where attendees were given the floor to share their thoughts and personal testimonies. She said she heard from a Black mother who has anxieties about the safety of her son. It was a fear echoed days later at another protest in the area where Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson shared that she worries about her 15-year-old autistic son interacting with police officers who may respond violently to his confusion over their commands. Largely, however, Moore said her rally sought to stand in solidarity with the rest of the country, particularly communities that are experiencing high profile, well-documented instances of police violence.
“I’m sure there are stories, there are absolutely stories of people having issues with police but there was none that was shared at the [protest] that I remembered,” said Moore. “It was just a lot of, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening in other cities, this is global. This is important.’”
Similarly, protests in other smaller communities from Alliance, Ohio, to Greenfield, Massachusetts, also aimed to draw attention to the type of police violence that largely white communities can easily remain ignorant of or complacent about. However, recent data challenges the idea that police brutality only afflicts large metropolitan communities.
According to an analysis from FiveThirtyEight, while protests and public pressure against law enforcement in urban areas like Philadelphia and Baltimore led to the adoption of policies that reduced police killings between 2013 and 2019, those decreases have been offset by increases in police killings in suburban and rural areas over the same time period.
Even the Winston-Salem Police Department (WSPD), which Moore describes as having a generally positive relationship with the community, has taken civilian lives in recent years. Between 2013 and 2019, the WSPD has fatally shot three people—all of whom were Black men. This includes the highly controversial shooting of 60-year-old Edward Van McCrae, for which the city of Winston-Salem was required to pay out $20,000 to McCrae’s family after a wrongful death lawsuit.
The rise in police violence outside of the nation’s biggest cities mirrors increases in jail admissions as well. Notably, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of people admitted to rural jails is significantly higher than the number of people arrested in those same communities. The gap suggests that many people in rural jails are detained for non-arrestable offenses like parole violations or unpaid court debts.
If policies enacted under the weight of public pressure and political protest have contributed at least in part to the decreases in police violence seen in urban areas, the current emergence of protest and organizing throughout rural and suburban America may produce outcomes that also reduce the power of law enforcement in those areas as well. Still, that may be contingent upon communities accessing and amplifying data that shows police violence is not purely a big city issue.
Moore shared that she and other protesters did not receive any pushback from the WSPD over the course of their march, but the event did speak to problems entrenched within the city’s criminal justice system. During the march, protesters were led to the Forsyth County Jail where they chanted outside of the building in support of their freedom and in recognition of how policing and incarceration are linked. Though this was Moore’s first venture into organizing, she describes Winston-Salem as being newly activated and said this protest was not a stand-alone event but rather the beginning of a growing movement to redress legacies of racism and inequality.
“There’s a big disconnect between [mostly white] East Winston, and our predominantly Black communities or predominantly Hispanic communities, there’s a huge disconnect between that,” Moore said. “It’s crazy. You just go over the railroad tracks and there’s infrastructure that is just falling apart. Teachers are underpaid, the schools are just falling apart, there’s not as near as many resources that there is when you go to places like my school and places with predominantly white people, and it’s not okay. It just keeps us in a cycle of disadvantage and I want to break that cycle. I want to make sure that our entire community is involved in doing so.”