When rounding the corner of the Bonner County Courthouse last Tuesday, June 2, to see who was amassing to protest the killing of George Floyd, I said to my colleague Zach Hagadone, “Huh. It’s a bunch of kids.”
Indeed it was. Teenagers, some early twentysomethings, carrying hand-painted signs, some with calls for justice and equality written on their T-shirts in magic marker. There were a dozen or so when we showed up, which slowly grew to about 50 people as they began walking south across the Long Bridge. Some chanted “Black Lives Matter, and “Say his name. George Floyd.”
Two days later, a larger group gathered at the south end of the Long Bridge, the majority of the estimated 250 people showing up were young adults, between 20-45 years old. They carried signs that said, “Racism is dumb,” and, “No justice, no peace,” and “Make compassion great again.” A volunteer wearing a SHS Cedar Post student newspaper T-shirt handed out face masks to any who desired one at the entrance to the Long Bridge. He stood before a sign advertising that this was a peaceful demonstration, asking people not to interfere with traffic and to respect the public space. Teenagers and older citizens alike lined the rails, leaving space buffers between themselves down half the bridge, smiling beneath their masks and waving to the passing cars.
It was 5 p.m., so bridge traffic was heavy, but what a clamoring of honks there were. Truckers blasted their horns to cheering protestors, families waved their thumbs up and out the windows and others honked and waved to show support. There were also some haters — three or four black-cloud emitting coal rollers, one old biker who shouted “Go back to California!” as the crowd of locals chuckled in response.
It was a beautiful evening, the sun warm, but a breeze taking the edge off. Two Bonner County Sheriff’s deputies strolled the bridge at one point, waving and occasionally chatting with a few of the demonstrators. Some shook their hands, others nodded hello. There were good vibes all around.
One woman in attendance, Suzanne Tugman, said she’d been standing with a sign at the south end of the Long Bridge every day for the past seven days. Sometimes she stands with a friend or two, sometimes she stands alone. But Tugman said the honking support and love by passing vehicles was a lot less over the past week. She even based how long she stands out there by the amount of vitriol she received.
“Every time I get more hate, I stay longer,” she said.
She was overcome with joy at the sight of so many young people passionate about an issue that should matter to us all. Equality is a human right, no matter what political ideology you follow. To be treated fairly is what we all desire. No one is arguing for more rights, just equality as humans, no matter what color we are.
That’s why it’s odd to me when a passing truck farts a black smoke cloud on the line of people at the rail. In their minds, perhaps they think these protestors are against the police, or against law and order, or are just rioters in daylight hours. The riots and looting around the country have certainly put everybody on edge, and some react with more fear than others, believing bogus Facebook chatter and ignoring the reality that everyone on that bridge was united by love and compassion for their fellow human beings. It wasn’t fear that was driving them, it was love and concern for the direction we seem to be headed.
Saturday, June 6 saw another protest in Sandpoint, this one taking place at Matchwood Brewing Co. Prior to the protest, the 16-year-old organizer received death threats via telephone. Nonetheless, the protest at Matchwood and march through Sandpoint was again peaceful. At this protest, the organizers issued a statement specifically addressing the militia presence at prior protests:
“Black Lives Matter protesters do not accept protection from militia groups, especially those with a history of white supremacy. The BLM movement is about holding police accountable for killing and oppressing black lives. These militias are even less accountable than police and can be considered vigilantes. The KKK were vigilantes. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by vigilantes who made false claims that he was a looter. We reject the notion that armed militia members are here for protestor protection. It serves only to intimidate the free and lawful expression of speech.”
After I returned home and scrolled through the pictures of the protest on June 4, compiling notes from the day, I realized that normally we would post these pictures to Facebook to share with the community. There once was a time when spirited comments were somewhat constructive, or at the very least not inappropriate. That time has come and gone.
I decided, no, I wouldn’t put these pictures up, because I didn’t want to spend the next five hours of my evening monitoring the comments section for the inevitable vitriol and anger, the incendiary statements, intimidation and trolling personal attacks. I didn’t want to cheapen this moment we all shared, lining the rail of the Long Bridge, and feeling like — for maybe one moment — our collective voice might be heard. The voice of the young adults in Bonner County. The working professionals. The handymen and construction workers, the bartenders and landscapers. The small town business owners, massage therapists, stylists and restaurant workers. The people who serve the tourists that drive our economy and the locals that really drive our economy, when the shoulder season hits like a thud.
For the most part, this meaty center of Sandpoint’s beating heart — the young working adults — prefers to extract something more out of their time in this beautiful place. They aren’t involved with pedantic lawsuits and social media dog-piling over hot-button issues. They spend their time working and recreating, earning their right to do whatever the hell they want to do with their downtime. Biking out on Mineral Point trail, or hunting for morels at a honey hole they don’t even tell their best friends about. Tilling their gardens and building bonfires in their backyards, talking with friends and loved ones about life, about art, about music, about nature. About love.
This spiral of negative social media tirades has no place in the hearts of this working marrow of Sandpoint. There is simply not enough time, energy or desire to fit that into our own individual way of living in balance with this place.
The problem lies in the fact that for the most part these young, bright, talented people stay out of local politics. They don’t serve on boards or write to their local elected officials. They don’t volunteer as much as retirees because they’re too busy working two or three jobs. They work hard and play harder – and why not? Shouldn’t we spend our precious time on activities that promote this community instead of wading through the muck and mire of negativity?
We have to come to terms with the fact that there is a voice that is so powerful in this community, and that voice is yours. It is the voice of the young working heart of this town. It’s high time you start using it more. The older generation in this community needs to know that they are passing the torch of leadership and stewardship to the next young leaders, because they’ve shouldered the load for many years.
Write letters to your local city council members. Even better, show up to the meetings and testify. Run for local offices. Write emails and testify to your county commissioners. Write to the mayor, the city administrator, your state senators and representatives. Share with them your views on important issues, because many of them operate in an echo chamber of groupthink and have a distorted view that this city, this county, is all one type of person. It’s not. It never has been.
Having been born and raised in this beautiful town, I’ve watched it change over the years. Some of it good. A lot of it not so good. But I’ve rolled with the punches, and done what I could, which is to bring this newspaper back to life after my best friend and current Editor-in-Chief Zach Hagadone began it lo those many years ago in 2004. Back then, I was one of those young twentysomethings passionate about this town, yet unable to direct my passion into a purpose. Now, years later, I’ve done my part. I’ve taken on this burden for almost six years now, and I’m not looking for any sympathy, but this job can blow sometimes. The amount of toxicity and anger we deal with on a regular basis is mind-numbing. It consumes me, this cloud of negative energy. I try to find ways to relieve myself of it. Whiskey helps. Playing music helps. Hiking on a mountain trail helps. But it’s a burden, and I bear it because I feel what we do at the Reader is important to some of you out there.
I’ve done my part. So has Zach. So has our News Editor Lyndsie Kiebert. We are doing our best to give an accurate account of the news, arts and culture of this diverse region – which includes all voices, not just the loud voices on one side of an issue. Now it’s time for you to step up and do your part.
Don’t let your voices go unheard, because I heard you loud and clear on the Long Bridge. I heard a rumble of something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.
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