My Black Lives Matter Rally Experience

Black Lives Matter protesters kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time George Floyd was held on the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer, killing him May 25.
Black Lives Matter protesters kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time George Floyd was held on the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer, killing him May 25.

I had a rather remarkable weekend, connected to the Black Lives Matter movement and a rally in our hometown, Ada, Oklahoma.

It really kicked off late Friday morning when got a report that some camo-wearing  redneck-looking men were hanging out downtown, which fit the social media rhetoric about agitators and radicals bussing in protesters. I talked to them and even tried to bond with them. They interrupted my first sentence with “And you are?” despite my press pass in plain view, then declined to identify themselves, though they did say off the record that they were there to “guard” a local business. If they were armed, it was concealed.

My conclusion was that they were not from Ada, and were there as a provocation by racists. But there wasn’t really a story there. Sure, you and I know who these guys are, but what could I say? Men in a variety of clothing similar to hunting or military attire stand on a public sidewalk? Within a couple of hours, they were gone.

After talking to the camo guys and deciding they weren’t really a story, I walked next door to Gunrunners, our favorite gun store, to see if Darrel Teel, the owner, had anything to say about the situation. The guy behind the counter said, “Darrel passed away last night suddenly.”

I’d known Darrel for 15 years, and Abby had known him for 50 or more years. We liked him, and he knew his guns. Shocked and sorry to hear about this.

I went home and got lunch for Abby and me, and got a few other things done, expecting to work late.

I had some vague ideas about how our Black Lives Matter march would play out, and felt like I was prepared. In addition to my wide angle and telephoto zooms and my phone, I mounted an extra phone (from my office) on the hot shoe of my wide angle camera for video, which worked pretty well.

My Ada News video from last night's Black Lives Matter rally…

Posted by Richard R. Barron on Saturday, June 6, 2020

 

A lot of journalists have been caught up in violence connected to these recent events, and my wife and a couple of coworkers were nervous about my presence, but I could already feel in the air that it was going to be a positive, peaceful, and meaningful event.

My longtime friend Dylan Cunningham had "Fuck Trump" on his Rona mask. It caused quite a stir on social media with conservatives saying it "didn't create unity," and although I couldn't say this in print, I agree with it completely: fuck Trump.
My longtime friend Dylan Cunningham had “Fuck Trump” on his Rona mask. It caused quite a stir on social media with conservatives saying it “didn’t create unity,” and although I couldn’t say this in print, I agree with it completely: fuck Trump.

The march started at the “whittling tree,” but as I explained this to my coworkers, they all seemed dumbfounded. Am I the “old man” who remembers stuff from back in the day? You can see the whittling tree in the early parts of the video.

How I felt once it got going really took me by surprise.

It was very hot and humid out. I wore shorts and my “The Ada News” shirt with “PRESS” on the back. As I worked, I would stop and make photos and video, then, because the march was moving at a fair pace, I would run a block and a half to catch up and get in front of it, and do the whole thing all over again. Despite the heat and being loaded with gear, including wearing a Rona mask, I was very pleased with how easy it was, and how quickly my heart rate went back to normal. I’m about to turn 57, so this is significant.

Longtime friend Christine Pappas asked on social media afterwards, “Can I nominate Richard R. Barron for a Pulitzer for this photo?”…

The five young organizers of Ada's Black Lives Matter rally lead the way down Main Street.
The five young organizers of Ada’s Black Lives Matter rally lead the way down Main Street.

It’s a lovely and flattering sentiment, but the truth is that thousands of journalists like me are making great images of this bellwether moment in history just like I am, and I am honored and humbled to be a small part of it.

Thus the surprising part: at one point during the march, with thousands of human voices, many my friends, crying out in unison for justice, I felt like I was going to break down and cry. I had to take several long, keep breaths just to keep myself in the game. I was just so proud of Ada.

It was also a moment of self-doubt: am I getting to old, too emotional, too vulnerable to do the job of news photographer?

In the end, I found the experience to be one of the most moving and significant I have ever covered.

I look at this image and think of a day not all that long ago that this couldn't have happened. I am proud of my town and everyone here who had the courage to do this.
I look at this image and think of a day not all that long ago that this couldn’t have happened. I am proud of my town and everyone here who had the courage to do this.

8 Comments

  1. It looks like it was a beautiful, inspiring event and I wish I could have seen it. Arkansas responses have been few and far between and rather timid in comparison, I think. What is it about Ada as opposed to in other small towns where things are observed with as much passion and scale as in larger cities?

    I would say that, physically, you are probably in better shape now than ever to cover events of this magnitude, and that given your emotional connection to the town, Ada probably needs you now more than ever. People know that you’re there not just to move newspapers but to capture history and that seems to be important to them.

    As to the “Fuck Trump” mask, I personally believe that all the protesting is as much a response to his inhumanity and authoritarian posing as anything, but I guess that is a different topic. I’ll just say that everything we are seeing happening today was referenced directly in his appalling inaugural address where he talked about an “American carnage.” Who is responsible for the state of affairs in our country today? Trump is.

  2. Thank you for being there, Richard. And for sharing your thoughts regarding this experience. You are an awesome journalist, and I respect you a great deal.

  3. Really cool post and write-up, thanks. Sorry to hear about your friend’s passing.
    I’m not familiar with the Whittling Tree, what’s the story behind it?

  4. The Whittling Tree is the big tree in the parking lot at the old Santa Fe Depot on West Main, which for a long time was the Chamber of Commerce. It’s a big old tree (I don’t know what kind) that has two benches under it where old men would sit on sunny days and whittle. When I first came to Ada I heard the term all the time, but apparently it is dying with me.

  5. 1. When you said “whittling tree”, I was immediately reminded of the tree next to the Seminole County courthouse, which old people told me was called “the whipping tree”. Egad.

    2. “…break down and cry.” I don’t think it unjournalistic to admit this (or to experience it). Journalists are (one assumes) people too.

    3. I’m glad to see the youthful energy in Ada. As Dan noted, it’s curious that Ada showed such a big response; there must be incredible organizers in town. My city has about 150,000 people and I only know of one small demonstration, a week ago, with about 20 people.

  6. I would just like to say that I have watched you work since I was a young child and I never fully appreciated you like you deserved until now. For a man in such a public spotlight to confess your true feelings like you have is remarkable and encouraging to the ones who haven’t found their voice yet. Thank you for capturing the beauty of it all!

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