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Demonstrators tell personal stories of racism at Sylvester Park Friday evening

The city of Olympia prepared for a protest Friday night by encouraging businesses to board up storefronts downtown.

But the demonstration that manifested in downtown — the seventh in a week of protests inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody — was far different.

Protesters initially marched to Sylvester Park on Friday evening, where a microphone and speaker were set up so people could talk about racial justice, their experiences with racism, and what they hope to accomplish through continued action. Protesters cheered one another on as they took the mic and shared their stories.

A group of students from The Evergreen State College set up the forum outside of the park’s gazebo. Along with audio equipment, they brought hot food and water for all to enjoy.

“My favorite thing about this is that we’re getting to actually bond and hear from one another,” said Lyn Rogers, one of the students who helped set up the event. Rogers said they were tired of the marches in the streets and wanted to come together in this crucial time.

For Kayla Marshall, this was her first time going to a protest. She said it was important that she be there because “more black voices need to be heard and I just want to be one of them.”

When she took the mic to address the crowd, she expressed her discomfort at being the only black girl in her hometown of Tenino. She would do what all her friends did to try to fit in, while ignoring her own culture, she said.

Marshall hopes that the week of protests have made people more aware of the injustices that happen around them. “I hope people will stand together,” she said. She also urged those with privilege to “be a witness and be a voice when you see wrongdoings happening.”

Simeon Rivers, a 22-year-old musician, grew up in a predominantly white town in Kitsap County.

“Out of the 6,000 people there, maybe six of them were black, and five of them were my family,” Rivers told The Olympian.

He said he was tased by an Olympia Police officer outside Grocery Outlet in west Olympia when he was 11 years old.

He also addressed the racial demographic of the crowd at the park.

“Take a look at who is here,” Rivers said. “You see a lot of white people. You see the people that are in power here. They are here with us, to help us. I won’t lie to you, if it was just black people out here, I would be a little more afraid,” Rivers added.

Others spoke about experiencing police harassment firsthand.

Donald Anderson told the crowd he had grown up in Alabama where he saw churches and crosses burned by an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. He served in the Army for seven years, and said he was pulled over by police in Virginia even while in uniform.

“He said I was going 61 [miles per hour] in a 60 [mph zone]. He [the officer] searched my car and then said it smelled like marijuana,” Anderson recalled.

Others shared personal stories of experiencing anti-black racism. A middle school student talked about her friends at school using “the n-word.”

“The teachers will be like, you can’t say that, but then they don’t do anything else,” she said. “No one gets in trouble, and I think it’s bullcrap. People need to teach their kids not to say s--- like that.”

Miguel Lofland grew up in Mexico and moved to the U.S. when he was 7 years old. He drew connections between police violence and racism against Latino immigrants.

“I think these issues go hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter protests, particularly because my people, a year and a half ago, were having our protests for the kids in cages and concentration camps along the southern border,” he said.

Lofland, who is a member of the Olympia Democratic Socialists of America, also mentioned the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on black and Latinx communities.

“With coronavirus revealing the failures of capitalism, it has also revealed the deep inequalities that target communities of color,” Lofland said.

Melissa Cruz, who is Puerto Rican, works as a nurse what she called in a small “not very diverse” town in Thurston County. She came to Olympia to join the protests because she was concerned about reports of armed right-wing people at gatherings in her town. She was initially hesitant to come for fear of spreading COVID-19, but felt the moment was too important to sit out.

“It was a hard decision — that’s why I took a while to actually come out here. I want to protect myself and be safe, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices for long-term goals,” Cruz said.

Later in the evening, Anderson led marchers to the state Capitol Campus, where a few hundred people sat on the building’s steps and chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Five police SUVs were parked near the governor’s mansion. There was no police presence at Sylvester Park.

The crowd eventually marched back to City Hall, where employees at Well 80 Brewhouse handed out bottles of water. At one point, a disagreement broke out over tagging boarded-up buildings, and the two men were separated. The crowd quickly de-escalated the situation.

The crowd thinned out while it made its way down Plum Street and burned an American flag, before calling it quits around 12:30 a.m.

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