Thousands flooded the streets of Minneapolis on Friday to protest the death of George Floyd. The third precinct burned. Rubber bullets were fired. Tear gas was deployed. Screams were heard. Police cars plowed through crowds.
And, 1,200 miles away in a quiet town tucked into the Snake River, a small crowd gathered on a bridge. It didn’t even pretend to be a protest. It called itself a solidarity rally.
More than 70 people gathered on the Broadway Bridge on Friday in Idaho Falls; larger than expected. It was put together by the Bonneville Democrats. In conservative eastern Idaho, the group's events aren’t usually well attended.
The people hosting the event, like the majority of people at the event, were white. This is unsurprising in a place where just 0.8% of the population is black.
They waved signs, yelled in megaphones and received honks from cars.
A second rally was held Sunday. A candlelight vigil was held Monday.
On Tuesday, a "peaceful protest" for George Floyd was organized by local high schoolers. Their hair was dyed in shades of turquoise and violet. One strummed a guitar. They brought sparkly backpacks, puff paint, and a friendly husky named Bamm-Bamm (“You know, like the Flintstones.”).
Their youthfulness contrasted the messages they screamed. Sixteen-year-old organizer Cloe Peterman-Bronson's voice had gone hoarse.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot! I can’t breathe! What was his name? George Floyd!”
“This is beautiful. This is everything I’ve worked for,” said Allie Boyden. She had a red handprint painted across her face to represent the blood shed at the hands of police. Boyden is 13 years old.
Devonte Davis and Qwan Reeves both separately observed the Tuesday’s protest. As black men who moved to Idaho from southern states, they had mixed feelings on what they were watching.
“It’s good, it means people are noticing. If you’re black, of course you know about black discrimination, but if white people are starting to notice it too, that means it’s bad. You know it’s getting out of hand,” Reeves said.
Davis had a different take.
“I’ve been beat while in handcuffs. I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I know how real life is and these people out here, they can’t talk about something like that because not one time did they live that kind of life. What do they know about crosses burnt in your yards? About white people with shotguns? That’s how I grew up,” Davis said.
Tuesday's group eventually made its way to the lawn of the police station. They lay down to represent the position Floyd was in when he died.
Just over two weeks ago, when young Bonneville County Sheriff's deputy Wyatt Maser died in the line of duty, local law enforcement, including Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson’s office, received “overwhelming support from the community.” The scene taking place Tuesday on his department’s front lawn gave Johnson something along the lines of whiplash.
“It was like ‘boom.’ One day and it switched,” Johnson said.
Though Johnson was quick to point out “he doesn't have any problem with protests," he also believes implicitly in law enforcement.
“I will tell you, police officers make differences in people’s lives even when they don’t know it. … It is an absolute fact that people are alive today because of what police officers do," Johnson said.
Johnson does see room for improvement. He has seen more officers than he'd like suffering from PTSD and would like to see more done to help with that.
“Healthy police forces can do healthy police work in the community. Damaged police forces will do damage in the community," Johnson said.
The police chief spoke with pain about what he has seen happen to officers in his hometown of Salt Lake City, where he used to serve.
“Salt Lake City, I think they reported 21 officers injured. These are my friends. One got hit in the head with a bat; one got hit with an arrow, multiple injuries with people I know,” Johnson said.
The national outcry against law enforcement has emotionally affected some under Johnson's command.
“There is a lot of emotion, a lot of angst. … There’s a little angst with the officers that they’re getting painted with this great, big, broad brush. And I think some of that is justifiable and we will push back on that,” Johnson said. “No one looks at what happened in Minneapolis and says, ‘Hey that’s great, let’s do more of it.’”
Johnson said an Idaho Falls officer was recently grocery shopping in town when people “verbally accosted him” saying, "We hate racist cops.”
“And he’s kind of like ‘I hate racist cops too,’” Johnson said. "His wife, who happens to be Hispanic, ended up in tears saying, ‘We all hate racist cops.’”
David Snell is a technician at the Idaho National Laboratory, where he’s worked for 37 years. He also is the president of the Idaho Falls African American Alliance.
Snell holds the Idaho Falls police chief in high regard. When Johnson was asked to come talk at an African American Alliance breakfast, he left his daughter’s birthday party to spend more than three hours with the group answering questions and opening dialogue.
“He just made believers out of everyone that was there. He’s the real deal. I think in the African-American community, he’s really trusted here,” Snell said.
When the Idaho Falls Police Department was creating a new body camera policy, Johnson invited the African American Alliance to come review it.
“I call my cousins back in the city, and they say, ‘You’ve got to be joking,’” Snell said.
Despite all this, Snell said there is still work to be done in Idaho Falls.
Recently, Snell was pumping gas at an Idaho Falls gas station. He had his 5-year-old grandson with him when a “truckload of guys” pulled up and began yelling a racial slur at him and telling him to “go home.” Snell stopped pumping and left as quickly as possible.
“If you yell that loud at me … I’m not so sure you won’t turn around and physically try and harm me. And I didn’t want that to happen when I was with my grandson,” Snell said. “I hated that he heard that.”
Though rare, Snell says it isn’t the first time that word has been used on him in town. One time it came from a coworker at the lab. Snell went to Human Resources and the coworker never used the word again.
“But he never did apologize,” Snell remembered.
Snell is hoping that the city and the police will put together a task force to “spell out the standards that we want our police to live by.”
“People need to know, when these things happen, justice will be served. If they don’t believe in the system, the frustration spills over after so many years of this,” Snell said. “We don’t advocate looting, rioting, burning these streets down, but frustrations spill over. That’s why a task force is so important. Let’s sit down and talk. Let’s find out where our problems are in the community. … That’s how you enact change. It can’t just come from the African American community. It has to be our whole community.”
For its part, the Idaho Falls Police Department started the conversation Wednesday night with a community forum on the River Walk.