• U.S.
  • protests

Protests Are Being Held in Small Cities and Towns Across the U.S.—And Young People Are Leading the Charge

10 minute read

Jamel Burney—born and raised in Olean, N.Y.—knows you don’t need to live in a major metropolitan area to be heard.

As protests decrying the killing of George Floyd have raged across the country, Burney wanted to show solidarity. He expected just a handful of people to show up to a protest he helped put together on Sunday near Olean’s major intersection. But Burney was shocked to see at least 300 people turn up in the small city, which is located more than five hours northwest of New York City and has a population of nearly 14,000, 90% of whom are white. Hundreds more people showed up to another protest on Wednesday evening.

“This is a new thing,” Burney, 23, tells TIME. “It was the first time we all came together for something like this. It’s important because we live in a small city. We have a right that we get to exercise.”

Courtesy of Jamel Burney

Protests have grown widespread across the country—and, like in Olean, prompted a huge turnout in smaller cities and rural communities throughout the U.S. Demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter and calling for an end to police brutality have been held in all 50 states, from the boroughs of Pennsylvania to rural Texas. More than 580 cities or towns have held protests, according to a tally from USA Today.

Many demonstrations—like a protest held Saturday in Bend, Ore., or ongoing protests in Elmira, N.Y.—have been organized or driven by young people of color living in those areas who want to show their communities they won’t stand for racism or police violence. In sparsely populated—and mostly white—places, people coming out in large crowds is significant, according to Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies grassroots organizing.

“What’s striking is both communities of color are stepping forward in outrage and saying we can’t let this keep happening,” Putnam says. “But also, there’s a young generation of white people who see that vision and are being mobilized to no longer just treat this as somebody else’s problem.”

This show of solidarity tracks with a general shift toward acknowledging that police officers are more likely to use more force on black people than white people. A June 2 Monmouth University poll found that 49% of white Americans say police will use excessive force against a black suspect, a jump from the 25% who gave the same answer in 2016.

These protests in small cities and suburban towns are thanks to the quick organizing work of many individuals, who have flooded social media directing people to the next demonstration and held ongoing conversations about how to take action. Jessie Selph, 23, who organized the Olean demonstration with Burney, says a lot of the planning occurred on Facebook, where she was surprised to see an enthusiastic response. As with many organizers behind other protests, Selph, says she was focused on keeping peace during the protests so as not to take away from their central message.

“Smaller communities can lead by example,” Selph says. “It’s beautiful to see everyone come together in unity. Everyone feels alone, and you’re not alone in these situations anymore.”

‘This is in our own backyard’

Courtesy of Lisa Roberts

The widespread demonstrations also call attention to the racism and police misconduct that exists in smaller towns.

“We need to realize this is in our own backyard,” says Lisa Roberts, a biracial resident of Greensburg, Pa., a small city outside of Pittsburgh with a population of about 14,000, about 89% of whom are white, with just over 6% black people. Roberts cites a recent racist incident: in May, a councilman from Southwest Greensburg called another man the N-word during an investigation over a dog fight, an altercation cited in a police report and covered in local media. “It’s not just in big cities.”

Roberts collaborated with a teenager in the area to put together a protest last Sunday after she explained how Floyd died to her 13-year-old son, who is black and autistic. “He sat there thinking about it and he said, ‘What if I’m next?’ I didn’t have an answer for him,” she says.

Hundreds of people marched together in Greensburg and then laid face down on the ground with their hands clasped behind their backs for about nine minutes—to mark the amount of time Chauvin held Floyd down before he died. “Just laying there was tough to do. I didn’t have a knee in my neck, my hands weren’t cuffed. But it makes you realize what [Floyd] went through and what so many others go through,” Roberts says. “I know we’re just Greensburg and 200, 300 people is nothing. But for this area? It’s big.”

In central-eastern Pennsylvania, where counties that vote blue are often sandwiched between heavily Republican territories, police brutality and racism are nothing new. Ashleigh Strange, regional organizer with Lehigh Valley Stands Up, a grassroots group based in Allentown, Pa., says people have repeatedly come out to protest because they’re tired of officers killing and hurting their community members.

“This is happening in all of our cities. Just because somebody doesn’t become a hashtag doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Strange says. She notes several incidents from recent years in Allentown and surrounding areas where police officers have fatally shot and tased citizens. “We’re out here because of what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade—not just for them but because we’ve seen it here.”

‘They were telling us to go back home’

These protests—largely peaceful demonstrations—have received less national attention than some of the larger gatherings, where violence has broken out. Still, smaller town protests are frequently fraught, with members of the community opposing demonstrations and some local police departments using violence with protestors.

For Adriana Aquarius, whose voice has gone hoarse from protesting every day since Saturday throughout central Oregon, demonstrating means showing up in areas where black people and people of color are often in the minority and don’t feel supported. After organizing a protest in Bend on Saturday, Aquarius, 21, was moved the next day to bring people to the nearby town of Prineville—a more conservative area of the state—where a local organizer was trying to put together a small protest despite receiving multiple death threats.

Aquarius says a group opposing the protests showed up armed in Prineville, shouting racist slurs at the nearly 200 people who showed up—reminding her of what it was like to grow up in the region, as one of the only black kids in school.

“They were telling us to go back home. Telling us we were thugs,” she says. “I live in central Oregon. There aren’t many people of color here. My allies were white, Mexican and Native American—we were all races. But they still decided to attack black people.”

At the protests, Aquarius has made an effort to have conversations with the people who don’t want her on the streets, to varying degrees of success in getting them to understand why it’s important to call attention to the continued effects of racism in the U.S.

“I am just sick of seeing all this violence and all this pain go on,” she says. “Why is this necessary? I’m listening to my community and I’m projecting their voice.”

‘That hits a different way’

That people are banding together against racism in rural areas and small cities—particularly in places where black people and people of color often live in isolation—signals a willingness among a new generation of white people to fight for everyone, according to Putnam. While many of the protests have been organized by young black activists and people of color, the gatherings springing up in smaller communities typically reflect the majority white demographics of the 18-to 22-year-olds in those areas, she says. In communities where people tend to be more tight-knit, the impact of protestors can go far, Putnam says.

“If you only see protests through the lens of Fox News or whatever sensationalized broadcast, maybe you’re only going to see mayhem and violence,” she says. “But when it’s kids from down the block who are standing out alongside other kids in your community, that hits a different way. Having someone local say Black Lives Matter … that’s powerful because it keeps the most polarizing effects from kicking in.”

Seeing white demonstrators help out the movement gives Aquarius some hope. And when an opposition forms at demonstrations, it helps to have white allies around to protect black protestors.

“If my voice isn’t loud enough, a white person’s voice is going to be because it has been for the past 400 years,” Aquarius says. “I almost expected people to say we should chill out, because that’s how it’s always been, but instead they were hyping us up.”

Danielle Michel, 33, an Olean resident who attended Sunday’s protest, says white people need to show up, especially those in less populated areas.

“We’re doing this as an act of solidarity,” she says. “And in a rural community where people are going to live — that lie that racism doesn’t happen here — it’s important that other white people are holding the citizens of that community accountable.”

‘We have to fight this every single day’

Protests are continuing in cities everywhere. More than 10,000 people have been arrested in demonstrations, according to the Associated Press. Teenagers and young adults, particularly queer people and people of color, organizing protests are doing so to right the wrongs they have seen or experienced for years, according to Strange, who has helped various college students in the Lehigh Valley region channel their anger and pain into action. Young activists, she says, are tired of everything: the violence, yes, but also having their demands about reducing the power of police ignored by politicians for years. They want to continue the fight on the streets, Strange says, rather than become hampered in discussions and debate over what’s right.

“For people of color, it’s just Groundhog Day. We have to live this, we have to fight this every single day,” Strange says. “Something’s gotta give. These kids, if they hear someone shouting in the street, they run out. They’re being heard.”

Aquarius is moving ahead at full speed, helping to organize protests in other parts of Oregon for the coming weekend. She wants people who oppose the protests to think about what they would want for their children, to consider how her parents might feel about having a black child out in the world and to take a step back from being the center of attention. She has two younger sisters and nieces and nephews who are children—the time to stand up for their futures has come.

“Now is our moment,” she says. “Let us use our voice.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com