‘Somebody is out here doing something’: Portraits of protest in Arkansas


Since George Floyd’s murder on May 25, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Little Rock’s Racial & Cultural Diversity Commission and other groups concerned with social justice have called for specific police reforms, including “community oversight with teeth.” Peaceful demonstrators have stopped traffic on major thoroughfares, shut down Walmart stores and faced arrest. 

Brian K. Mitchell, assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock, believes we are witnessing “the second modern civil rights movement.” A scholar who studies race and ethnicity, African American history and urban history, Mitchell is struck by what he is seeing now. “There’s a hopeful feeling that something more lasting will happen in this movement.” 

Across the state, from Bentonville to Crossett, thousands of Arkansans have taken to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest police brutality. Some are seasoned organizers. Some are first-time protesters. Some have served on task forces, met with elected leaders, received death threats. They are racially diverse, and they span generations. And they have decided, despite a pandemic that put them at risk when gathering, to keep coming out.

Here are a few of their stories.

Daniella Scott. Photo by Beth Crenshaw.

Daniella Scott

By Anita Badejo

As a young adult in San Francisco, Daniella Scott never felt a need to protest.

“You’re used to people protesting things all the time,” Scott said of her progressive hometown. “I never worried about it because [I thought], ‘I don’t have to protest because somebody else can do it for me.’ ”

Now a resident of Harrison, the 39-year-old is one of the most recognizable activists in her rural, conservative community. A protest she organized on Thursday, June 4, in response to the murder of George Floyd drew around 125 people to the town’s courthouse square.

“When I moved out here, I realized nobody was going to do the protesting for me,” Scott said. “I had to do it for myself.”

Growing up, Scott’s father, a white Army veteran who was married to a Black woman, taught Scott and her seven siblings that they couldn’t trust the cops, that most white people — including their own grandparents — were racist. Scott carried that knowledge with her as she made her way across the country, before settling in Harrison in 2011 on the recommendation of a friend. 

“She just said it’s just a quiet place to live and a nice place to live and a cheap place to live,” Scott remembered. “She said there’s no people of color here. And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve lived in situations like that before, I can handle that.’ ”

It wasn’t until Scott had already moved that her friend divulged that the town is also a haven for the Ku Klux Klan, whose national director lives only 15 miles away.

“And then I felt uncomfortable,” Scott said. “How do I know who’s Klan and who’s not?”

Scott eventually found her community: “the Democrats,” she said, laughing. She met her now-husband and started taking classes at North Arkansas College. She found that for the most part, locals were “really nice.” Overt racism was rare. It was the microaggressions that got to her, like when people would tell her “they don’t see color.”

“I absolutely hate that. It drives me nuts,” Scott said. “Because if you don’t see my skin color then you must not think of me as a human being.”

In late 2013, a rash of now infamous white supremacist billboards began popping up alongside the highway in town. “I didn’t hardly leave my house for two years because I was so scared,” Scott recalled.

Not long after, she was invited to join the Harrison Task Force on Race Relations, a volunteer group that meets regularly in service of repairing the town’s reputation.  

Then, Donald Trump got elected president, and meetings didn’t feel like enough anymore.

In 2017, Scott founded Boone County Indivisible, a chapter of a national movement that resists the policies of the Trump administration. Many of their early protests were aimed at racism. “When [the Klan] would have one of their hateful protests, we would do a peaceful, loving protest,” Scott said. “That’s what I call them. Peace and love protests to show that Harrison’s not this racist place that everyone thinks it is.”

Before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Scott’s largest protests drew around 20 people. On June 4, she knew something was different when she began getting calls an hour before the protest was to begin. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what are we gonna do with all these people?’”

By 7 p.m., a crowd of 125 had packed Courthouse Square. They held up signs. They chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.” They knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Floyd was pinned to the ground under Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee.

“We got so many honks and so many thumbs up,” Scott said. “People that couldn’t be at the protest were driving by with their own signs of support.”

Among passersby, agitators were few and far between. Rather, the most obvious sign of objection could be found on the periphery of the square, where armed locals had planted themselves in case there was a “riot.”

“There’s nothing to riot on the Harrison square,” Scott said. “It’s a bunch of secondhand stores. What are we gonna do, steal some thrift shop clothes?”

Scott had met with the mayor and the chief of police the day before. She appreciated their presence, especially in the face of so many “guys with guns.” At the same time, she agrees with calls to defund police departments. “They’re too militarized,” she explained. “Even Harrison, Arkansas, has a SWAT team. Why?” (The Harrison Police Department has a Special Operations Team.)

Scott advocates community-based policing as an alternative. It’s one of the many hopes she has, for her country and her community.

“I probably will never get 125 people to show up to a protest again,” she said, “But maybe next time I’ll get 30.”

I just want people to see that, you know, this town doesn’t have to have the reputation that it has. That there are people out there who are willing to fight against that. Even if they don’t say it out loud, even if they don’t come up to me and personally thank me, maybe subconsciously it’s seeping into their brains that, ‘You know, somebody is out here doing something.’

Anita Badejo is executive editor and co-host of Pop-Up Magazine, a touring live journalism show based in San Francisco. She grew up in Mountain Home.

Shay Holloway. Photo by Kat Wilson.

Shay Holloway

By Stephanie Smittle

Shay Holloway once wanted to be an FBI agent — the kind of mindhunter she saw busting perpetrators on episodes of “Criminal Minds.” 

“I’ve always been interested in why people do things, the way that they do them,” Holloway said, “and how the mind processes the world and its experiences. What makes people do evil stuff? What makes people do good stuff?”

Now, you’ll find her opposite the law enforcement side of the protest line, demonstrating against police brutality across Northwest Arkansas. She was on the town square in Bentonville on Monday, June 1, for a George Floyd demonstration that, technically, had been canceled. Rumors of white supremacy groups threatening to counterprotest had led the event’s organizers to postpone. People went anyway and Holloway made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join them — in part, she said, out of a sense of obligation “to keep everybody focused on why we were actually there.” There was chanting and dancing. A sousaphone player undergirded the chants, its bell covered by a poster that read “BLM.” 

Earlier that day, news broke that the Arkansas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Bentonville Historical Society had reached an agreement to relocate the square’s Confederate monument centerpiece. Fashioned from granite in Barre, Vt., and shipped to Arkansas in 1908, the statue has been a point of contention for decades. For protesters that night, its planned removal to a private park was auspiciously timed. Despite the initial tone of the protest, the Benton County Mobile Field Squad, after issuing an order to disperse that Arkansas Times contributor Autumn Tolbert reported was inaudible from where she was standing, fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd. 

Holloway, 25, is a resident of Fayetteville, where she got a degree in psychology and criminal justice at the UA. She grew up in Des Arc and moved to Beebe after her seventh-grade year. Holloway’s American history classes put figures like Martin Luther King Jr. in soft focus — more “I Have a Dream,” less about Jesus being an “extremist for love,” as King wrote in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

“We aren’t educated for real in regards to our history,” Holloway said. “We get fed a story that has been revised. How did slavery get started? Who has helped push this country forward? Who helped build this country up?” She pointed to “pushout,” the disproportionate rate at which Black girls in high school are punished or criminalized. She noted, too, policing’s morally dubious origins. “The police were an organization that was created to catch slaves. That’s another thing. In school, they teach you, ‘These people are good people, these people are our heroes.’ But they don’t give us information to be able to make a discernment for ourselves about whether these are people who are working to help us.” 

Despite those gaps in her early education, Holloway said her time in Des Arc was comfortable. “But that comfort,” she said, “came at the expense of my ignorance about the reality of being a Black person in America.” 

Today, Beebe’s race demographics are about 90 percent white and just under 6 percent African American. “In school,” Holloway said, “sometimes I'd be the only Black girl in my classroom. It would be awkward for me to sit in class and hear my white classmates talk about the rap music that they listened to. They looked at me to validate them in the stuff that they were saying, and I wouldn't say anything.” 

She says her earliest memory of racism is from her elementary school years. She’d stayed at a white friend’s house overnight, and found out later that her visit was a topic of conversation between her friend’s mother and aunt, the latter of whom was ostensibly concerned about the two kids’ friendship. “Those experiences made me think about my little sister,” she said. “I don't want people to make statements for her that are, in essence, derogatory because she’s a dark-skinned girl.”

Today, she feels a responsibility to speak up. Holloway was at the protest June 2 in Fayetteville, too. Cops kneeled with protesters in silence for 8 minutes to memorialize the death of George Floyd. Police stood on the stage behind the demonstration’s speakers, hands folded at their waists, sans riot gear. They’d kneel again near the end of the protest, prompting a spate of Facebook photos with genial captions: “Exactly what we needed,” “This is where change starts,” “I’m so proud of my community.” 

Holloway, like many others that night, had a different reaction. “The first word that came to my mind when I saw that picture: skeptical. That demonstration was a demonstration for show.” The police were “saving face,” she said, doing “something to counter the feelings and energy that was swirling around in Bentonville.” 

Holloway worries that the core sentiment behind the Floyd demonstrations is being eclipsed by optics meant to garner favor for a law enforcement system that, seemingly overnight, appeared to develop a taste for community collaboration. 

“Colin Kaepernick kneeled because of police brutality,” Holloway said, “The Lady Razorbacks kneeled [in November 2016] and they got death threats. Kneeling is not gonna change who you are as a police officer and a person. How do I know that you think this is for real? What are you gonna do differently? How can I know for sure that I can trust you?”

Holloway works at a daycare now. She’s long abandoned the FBI aspirations; working with kids, she says, is the most impactful way to effect systemic change in society. She hopes to go to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist for juvenile delinquents. In the meantime, she said, she’ll be looking for ways to directly impact her community. For starters, she’s launched a fundraiser on her Facebook profile to raise $1,500 to be distributed to three Black families in the Fayetteville area for clothes and food during the summer months.

“A lot of people right now are really emotional about Black people getting killed, but Black people have been getting killed,” she said. “We’ve got work to do. We've gotta fix the system that has been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years, that was never designed for equality. We have to do more than just march.”

Stephanie Smittle is culture editor for the Arkansas Times and an advocate for The Natural State's rich history of musicians and artists.

Deairra Griffin. Photo by Ebony Blevins.

Deairra Griffin

By Delilah M. Pope

Young, Black and protesting, Deairra Griffin looks a lot like thousands of people across the U.S. who have taken body and voice to the pavement to protest police brutality after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March in Louisville, Ky., when police executed a no-knock warrant and stormed her apartment, shooting the 26-year-old unarmed emergency room technician at least eight times. At 23, organizing a march of about 300 protesters through Cabot, Griffin has distinguished herself as a leader.

As a Lonoke County native, Griffin, who is new to organizing, has an intimate knowledge of Cabot and the surrounding area, and she feels a specific calling to protest in small, rural communities like her own.

“It’s cool and all, protesting where the majority of the population is Black, and where the majority of the population will support you, but it’s a whole other ballgame to go somewhere you’re probably not wanted,” Griffin said. “It shouldn’t be that you’re not wanted there because of the color of your skin, but that’s just the reality of it. And it’s just the reality that a lot of people do not want to face.”

Cabot, the largest city in Lonoke County, is known for its schools, sports teams and its proximity to Little Rock. It has never shaken its reputation as a white flight town. For this reason, Griffin and her friend Brianna Perkins chose to protest there.

Griffin and Perkins attended the first night of protests in Conway, on May 31, and they felt that if a protest could happen there, it could happen in Cabot. On Thursday, June 4, they marched with protesters past the Cabot City Hall and police department, and through the main stretch of town they tried to replicate the same route the Ku Klux Klan took at a rally in 2017.

In the days leading up to the protest, Griffin says she and Perkins received death threats. They received Facebook messages from white men sharing pictures of large trucks, some boasting about their guns. Griffin told protesters that though it was her intention to have a peaceful march, she couldn’t guarantee that they would be able to pass through peacefully because she didn’t know who would show up to try to stop them.

“Nobody thought that the KKK was coming to burn stuff down, even though they have a history of burning stuff down,” she said. “But when I asked to peacefully march, everybody automatically saw a riot.”

What she and Perkins expected to be a protest of about nine people grew to more than 300, and when news of the protest spread and was dubbed a riot by a member of the Concerned Citizens of Cabot Facebook group, she reached out to the Cabot Police Department for protection for herself and for the protesters she intended to lead.

On protest day, she brought up the rear of the group when it became obvious that protesters were getting caught up reading one particularly inflammatory sign from a counter-protester. She made sure her group stayed focused and finished their route without incident. After the threats of violence on social media, the theme of the protest became, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a rallying cry that developed after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In Cabot, Griffin said, protesters marched with no specific demands of the city other than that law enforcement and citizens respect their right to be there.

Griffin said the town set up numerous water stations along their route, and the group, which included a number of white allies in addition to members of the Jacksonville NAACP, was accompanied by the Cabot Police Department. Cabot’s mayor, Ken Kincade, spoke to the group. In a statement released before the event, he said: “If we take an honest look at our town’s past, we have to acknowledge the fact that we were labeled a racist community at one time in our history and part of that stigma still lingers today.”

Marching that day, Griffin said she left feeling “powerful ... it was amazing.” Moving forward, she plans to join her local NAACP. She wants to empower Black communities and oppose the non-inclusivity and racism of many rural Arkansas towns. Rather than calling herself an activist, she said she is just a person with a message: “It is impossible for all lives to matter until Black Lives Matter.”

Delilah M. Pope is a writer in Little Rock. She is a former Harding University Ronald E. McNair scholar and Oxford American intern. 

LeRon McAdoo. Photo by Ebony Blevins.

LeRon McAdoo
Little Rock

By Frederick McKindra

Speaking before a crowd on the Capitol steps on Sunday, June 7, LeRon McAdoo demonstrated the abilities he’s honed over the past 30 years as a hip-hop MC and radio personality, as an educator, and as an activist and community organizer. When he called on protesters not to again press “snooze” in the wake of America’s latest national outrage over police brutality directed at Black men, the crowd full of high school and college-age youth, wearing cloth masks in the battering 90-degree sun, raised their voices to offer shouted affirmation that Black Lives do indeed Matter.

McAdoo, 49, a seasoned veteran of community organizing and activism, seemed ready for whatever the circumstance called for. During the recent protests, McAdoo has been a participant, an organizer and an adviser as new activists have stepped forward to organize rallies and demonstrations. Of the younger organizers he’s talked with, McAdoo said, “One, I want to recognize them and tell them how proud I am that they’ve engaged with the struggle against the system, and two, I want to show them that it just didn’t start with them.”

His first brush with working collectively to channel outrage at a system of power came during his junior year of high school, when Pine Bluff High refused to allow students to stage a Black History Month assembly because it hadn’t been scheduled far enough in advance. McAdoo remembers school officials relaying this announcement during an impromptu assembly and feeling confused by the hypocrisy. “This announcement made all of us say, ‘If you can call this assembly, then you can call an assembly for us to have a Black History program.’ ”

That incident sparked a passion in McAdoo for community organizing. He was involved with drug-and-gang-prevention programs in Little Rock through the ’90s; the Million Man March; protests for the Jena Six in Jena, La.; Hurricane Katrina relief; and Black Lives Matter efforts, both in 2014 and today.

McAdoo said the most significant changes he’s seen throughout his organizing career have been the methods of spreading information to people. “The first thing that happened was the advent of hip-hop music,” he said. “Another turn was when emails and things started circulating. The next was the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. I noticed a change, or an uptick, at those three points.”

Networks of organizers have also become more sophisticated. McAdoo has long received training and insight from organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, the National Association of Black Social Workers, Highlander Research and Education Center and Alternate ROOTS, a collective that explores intersections between activism and art. His activism has been inspired by local organizers like Robert “Say” McIntosh and Rev. Hezekiah Stewart, as well as the Little Rock Nine, Janis Kearney, Daisy Bates and the NAACP.  

Because he sees himself as an experienced protester today, he works to make sure a throughline exists between generations of community organizers and activists. McAdoo has the unique ability to offer insight and advice, perhaps most importantly on creating a concerted response once the initial emotional fervor cools. On Sunday at the Capitol, McAdoo reminded protesters that one of the most important steps in their protest was recording their demands and joining them to those of other like-minded efforts. “What will have to happen is a stepping back and an assessment. It’s something we definitely have to be more intentional about. And this is just the first leg, this particular leg of the continuum, this particular leg of the race.”

Frederick McKindra was born and raised in Little Rock. He was a 2017 BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellow.

Latoya Garza. Photo by Matt White.

Latoya Garza

By KaToya Ellis Fleming

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck — Latoya Garza stood before a hushed and kneeling audience at Riverside Park in Batesville and recited the names of Black men, women and children who have been killed in recent years due to acts of police violence or racially motivated shootings. There were nearly enough names to fill the time.

“Man, it hit home for a few people,” said Garza, the event’s organizer. Batesville’s Peaceful Protest, which featured a diverse panel of presenters who offered prayers for unity and speeches advocating for people of color, looked more like a picnic than a protest. A mixed but mostly white crowd — Batesville is a mostly white town — gathered on the grass around the pavilion. Some carried homemade signs, their messages ranging from heartbreaking — “Am I Next?” — to uplifting. One brightly decorated poster declared that “Color is Not a Crime.”   

The feel-good atmosphere of the rally was precisely what Garza was aiming for. “I can’t look at the feedback [on social media] without tearing up,” she said. “It has been a roller coaster of emotions.”

Garza, 38, is a nurse who often works 16-hour shifts at a local nursing home. A month ago, she wouldn’t have imagined she would be organizing a protest in her hometown in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She was pushed into the spotlight when a friend spearheading the event dropped out unexpectedly and delegated the planning to her.

Though the role of leader is one the busy mom fell into by chance, Garza fully embraced the opportunity, taking the reins and garnering an immediate outpouring of support from the community. She is grateful, she said, for having been put in the position because of the broader insight she gained in the process. “We’re all very sick and tired. We have to make a change, so if that means I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone to do so, then that’s what it means.”

It also didn’t hurt that there was so much enthusiasm from the people in town. By the time Garza got word that she was in charge, the original event post had been shared more than 40 times and 100 people had signed up to attend. More than triple that number would show up at the Saturday, June 6, protest. The encouragement was overwhelming, but Garza hopes the event touched the more close-minded folks, too. “I really hope that this opens up their eyes to see why we feel the way that we feel.”

It was important to her that the Batesville protest was a nonviolent, peaceable occasion not driven by anger. “I want Batesville to lead by example,” Garza said. “Great strategy will always overcome physical force. We’re going to be little David and we’re going to defeat Goliath. With one stone.”

Her passion to protest, Garza said, is fueled by the countless victims of police brutality in the United States. “This is our home,” she said. “This is ridiculous. This is injustice. And it needs to be fixed.”

KaToya Ellis Fleming was the Oxford American’s 2019-20 Jeff Baskin Writers Fellow. She is currently at work on her debut nonfiction book, a bibliomemoir titled “Finding Frank.”

Terry Engel. Photo by Matt White.

Terry Engel

By Heath Carpenter

In 1978, Terry Engel watched from a Burger King in Tupelo, Miss., while a Ku Klux Klan motorcade passed by on its way to burn a cross in front of a Ramada Inn. More than 40 years later, he carried this memory to the Searcy courthouse, where he and his family protested racial injustice June 3-4.

Growing up in Tupelo, where he attended segregated schools until the fifth grade, Engel, 59, says he was “sheltered” from the racism around him; he never heard the names Emmett Till or Medgar Evers, never learned about lynchings, never knew of the civil rights workers murdered just down the road in Philadelphia.

“My friends and I used pejorative terms and told jokes with watermelon and fried chicken punchlines,” he said. “At the time I wouldn’t have thought of myself as racist, but looking back on it, I was.” He describes his parents as “regular” Tupelo lower-middle class white people. His father was a handyman. “We were taught to not do harm, but to be separate. We didn’t associate with Black people.”

When he was in the eighth grade, his football team integrated and he started to make friendships with Black schoolmates. Church was also a catalyst for a broadening worldview. In junior high and high school, he began pondering biblical teachings more closely and questioning the willful segregation of churches. 

His senior year, the Klan motorcade competed with counter rallies and a Black boycott of white businesses. He recalls finding a Klan tabloid in the school library advertising paramilitary camps to train Christians for the fight for racial purity. A Black student caught him looking at the pamphlet in the library. “I made eye contact with him, and the expression on his face ... I can’t describe it, but it was clear that to be associated with this, or even to be curious about it, was a bad thing.”

After graduating with a degree in forest resources from Mississippi State University, his first job was as a foreman at a factory in Georgia. There, he refused to fire two Black union employees on false pretenses and was demoted to the graveyard shift, where he made friends with a Black colleague. “We had conversations late at night about how our kids would grow up without all the racial baggage,” he said. 

Engel eventually quit the job after refusing to fire another Black employee under similarly dubious circumstances. For a time he ran a crew maintaining power lines, working and living with an interracial team. Later, building power lines for the Tennessee Valley Authority, he listened to older Black men who worked for the TVA in the 1960s talk about being bused out of sundown towns in Alabama and Georgia to places that would house them safely. He had a “gradual awareness,” he said. “I learned to accept that I was raised in a racist community.”

Engel eventually left the TVA to begin a graduate program in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he read Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. He was in a cohort of liberal-minded students from other parts of the country who would ask probing questions about race and Mississippi. For the first time, he had to “explain to outsiders, here’s how people down here think, how I grew up thinking, and wrestle with how it’s not right.”

He joined the faculty at Harding University in Searcy in 2001. Today he is chair of the English Department. He decided to participate in the Searcy protests for several reasons. “I wanted to support my daughters, who felt strongly about Black Lives Matter and who wanted to express a voice,” he said. He also felt it was important for white people in Searcy to support the Black organizers. “I don’t think of myself in any way as a white savior, that my being there validates their voice — I don’t think that for a moment,” he said. “I wanted to be an encouragement.”

He added: “Part of it was seeking forgiveness for my past in a very deliberate way.”

Heath Carpenter is the author of “The Philosopher King: T Bone Burnett and the Ethic of a Southern Cultural Renaissance.” 

Kymara H. Seals. Photo by Joshua Asante.

Kymara H. Seals
Pine Bluff

By Micah Fields

When activist Kymara H. Seals decided to organize a demonstration in her longtime home of Pine Bluff, she proceeded with equal parts caution and commitment. She was determined to lead a response to the systemic racism and police brutality that affects Black lives throughout the United States, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.

“I wanted to get a pulse on Pine Bluff,” she said. “I wanted to see if people were ready. And they were.”

After posting a call to action on social media, Seals, 50, received overwhelming support from community leaders — namely, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, Democratic state Rep. Vivian Flowers and attorney and advocate Michael McCray. On Thursday, June 4, Seals’ planning resulted in a peaceful assembly of well over 100 attendees, most of whom arrived and remained in their vehicles throughout the event, parked in orderly rows outside the Pine Bluff Civic Center. Participants covered their windshields in signs and sounded their horns for the impassioned conclusions of speeches and chants, “honking applause.” Some listened from the open air of their cars, while others — whether they were present or not — tuned in to a livestream of the rally that was broadcast on Deltaplex News’ KDPX-FM, 101.3, the “Voice of the Delta.”

Just over a month before the gathering, Seals had buried her grandmother, the matriarch of her extended family, who died in a Pine Bluff nursing home from complications caused by COVID-19. On the evening of the Pine Bluff Solidarity Rally, Seals ascended the front steps of the Civic Center feeling the swirling emotions of grief, anger and hope. Wearing a shirt that read, “LEGALIZE BEING BLACK,” she hosted a series of dynamic speakers, from teenaged spoken-word performers to local officials.

Seals inherited her activist ethic from her mother, a career educator and equity coordinator who dedicated a lifetime of service to her community of Hamburg. Seals fondly recalled her first act of public service at age 9, which began when she was roused early one morning after a tornado had ripped through their town, leaving many of her neighbors injured and homeless. “Wake up,” her mother said, ordering a young Seals to get ready. “The Red Cross is in town. We’ve got work to do.”

In addition to both of her parents, Seals cites a host of iconic leaders as inspirations, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Harriet Tubman and Barbara Jordan. She has kept these women, among many others, in mind throughout her fight for equity and justice, from her role as an NAACP voter fund staff member to her current position as policy director at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. Most of all, she is committed to battling racism and fighting for justice on a local scale, in her own community of Pine Bluff, which she has called home for more than 30 years.

“Before I began planning this event,” she said, “I knew there were others like it around the state. But I told myself, ‘I can’t march with them in Little Rock until I march in Pine Bluff.’

“I wanted to be very careful, both in our messaging and our precautions due to the virus. Our demonstration had three objectives: to join the national outcry for justice for the murder of George Floyd, to speak out against police brutality in the Black community as a whole, and to stand with the movement arguing that you cannot achieve social justice without economic justice.”

When Seals speaks, she carries the penetrating quality of a seasoned organizer. She also displays moments of optimism and levity. You can hear her smile, for instance, when she lists the tracks she hand-picked for the rally’s playlist — her “movement songs” — recordings like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and Common and John Legend’s “Glory.” In the next moment, though, she transitioned into the unflinching tone of analysis:

“Let me be very clear,” she said. “There is racism here. There is a power structure in Pine Bluff that does not want us here. But Pine Bluff is silent no more.”

Since the June 4 rally, Seals says she’s secured meetings with Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant and other city officials who she hopes will lend a patient ear to the community’s demands for systemic change. She emphasizes the importance of challenging more white allies to stand up, to listen and to empower those around them to do the same. She wants more Black and Brown people to show up, too, and enter the discourse for equity, to hold their cities and towns accountable for injustice. She knows there is a long road ahead, but she is confident in the momentum building across the country.

“We want to turn our pain into power,” Seals insists. “We’re frustrated, we’re tired, we’re hurt and we’re angry. And we’ve got work to do.”

Micah Fields received the Oxford American’s 2018-19 Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship. His book about Houston’s story of development and storms is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

Drekkia Writes. Photo by Brian Chilson.

Drekkia Writes and Tim Campbell
Little Rock

By Lindsey Millar

After Drekkia Writes saw the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, she worried how she could explain Floyd’s death to her young nieces and nephews in a way that didn’t make them afraid. “How do you make sure that they don’t start to feel that their skin is a curse?” she wondered.

Writes (her professional pseudonym), 26, teaches poetry and creative writing to address mental health needs in children. She contracts with schools, including the Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District, to “teach children to be better comprehenders and communicators.” She works especially with at-risk youth. “I tell them they can be anything they want to be, that their skin is beautiful, that their hair is magical because it can change forms. I sow seeds in kids,” she said.

After Floyd’s murder, Tim Campbell, a second-year student in the Clinton School of Public Service’s master’s program, said he felt compelled to get people together and organize. He reached out to Writes, whom he knew “had a strong community sense,” and together with another friend, they organized Little Rock’s first peaceful demonstration in the wake of Floyd’s death, on May 30. 

Campbell, 27, grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s on Wolfe Street in Little Rock, which he said “was probably considered one of the worst neighborhoods in southern America at the time.” He has an early memory of police officers storming his house with guns. “I remember my mom yelling out, ‘Don’t shoot my baby!’ because I moved or something. I remember the militance.”

But he also has a different childhood memory of Little Rock police. “I remember seeing police officers on bicycles,” he said. They would stop and talk with him and other kids and give them some kind of snack or treat. “We felt like we knew police officers.” 

A graduate of Little Rock Central High School and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Campbell is the first in his family to receive a high school or college diploma. Several of his family members have been caught up in drugs and violence. “I wouldn’t say that I had role models,” he said. “I had people that were doing things that I knew I didn’t want to do.” He spent two and a half years after college in West Africa in the Republic of The Gambia with the Peace Corps, where he said he learned community organizing skills. He called himself lucky to have traveled beyond Little Rock and to have gotten a broader sense of what police officers can be. For friends and family who never left Wolfe Street or other parts of inner-city Little Rock, Campbell said, they may only know the LRPD as a militant presence. 

Tim Campbell. Photo by Brian Chilson.

It was in that spirit that Campbell and Writes and others, who have taken on the name The Movement, hosted a second rally, “The Big Step,” in solidarity with local law enforcement officers. Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey and Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins, both of whom are Black, marched in the June 10 event.  

Campbell and Writes have been sought out by city and state leaders. They and other organizers have met with Governor Hutchinson twice, and Writes has met with Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Campbell was appointed to Governor Hutchinson’s Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement in Arkansas, which will review state law enforcement practices and procedures and make recommendations to the governor on how they can be improved. 

Writes said her group is promoting civic activity, encouraging Black people to vote and to run for office. “We’re not represented enough, so we don’t have a voice,” she said. “We need more Blacks and people of color to get in positions of power. We need people to continue to be the mayors, representatives, senators, policemen, prosecutors and DAs.” Campbell plans to continue working in community politics after he finishes at the Clinton School.

Writes said, “We’re not just jumping on this trending moment and forgetting all about it. We’re going to continue to unify and not just be reactive, but be proactive.”

Lindsey Millar is the founder of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and the editor of the Arkansas Times.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.