A Nation On Edge

Protestors chant and wave signs Sunday evening at the corner of Fourth and Broadway in downtown Yankton. The demonstration was part of a nationwide response to a Minneapolis policeman’s kneeling on the neck of a black man, who later died.

Growing up as a black man in Mississippi, Dennis Welch said he was used to racism and tension between the police and minorities.

Welch said he found a far different atmosphere when he moved to Yankton in 2005. While he sensed racial tension between whites and Native Americans, he didn’t find major issues of police brutality against blacks in South Dakota.

“It’s totally different here, nowhere like down South,” he said. “We grew up with it, and it’s still down (South), big time.”

For Welch, those memories prompted him to join Sunday’s protest in downtown Yankton. The march was part of nationwide demonstrations against Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin’s kneeling for nearly nine minutes on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, who died.

Yankton’s peaceful protest drew an estimated 30 participants. By the end of the night, an estimated 50 demonstrators had taken part at some point in the march.

Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Floyd’s death has since sparked protests — a number of them leading to rioting — across the nation.

The rage reflects the long-standing anger that minorities, particularly the black community, hold toward the police and other authorities, Welch said.

When watching the Minneapolis video, Welch said he was just as disturbed by the other police officers who didn’t intercede on Floyd’s behalf.

“The other cops just stood by and didn’t do anything to stop it,” Welch said. “Not one of them told (Chauvin), ‘Hey, man, get off him!’”

In contrast to rioting around the nation, Welch commended those who peacefully protested Sunday in Yankton.

“The way this protest is going — no foul language, nobody throwing things — is the right way to do it,” Welch said.

However, Sunday ended far differently in Sioux Falls. The city’s peaceful protest drew an estimated 1,000-2,000 participants. However, rioting later erupted in separate incidents in the southwest part of the city.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken declared an overnight curfew for a portion of the city, and the South Dakota National Guard was activated.

The Yankton and Vermillion police departments prepared for potential protest activity Monday after monitoring social media chatter indicated the Sioux Falls rioters planned similar attacks in Vermillion, Yankton and Mitchell.

Yankton Police Chief John Harris told the Press & Dakotan Monday that they first started hearing the social media claims around mid-afternoon.

“We started picking it up around 3:30- 4 p.m.,” he said. “We started making preps and talking to Vermillion (law enforcement) and other people as well to see what’s going on with it.”

Harris said that there was no way of telling whether Monday’s social media chatter was authentic, but it was best to be prepared.

“We don’t know the veracity of it, but we don’t want to sit on our hands and let it get out of hand,” he said.

In a joint press release, the two police forces said destructive behavior won’t be tolerated.

“The Vermillion and Yankton Police Departments respect the rights of citizens to protest, which is protected in our Constitution,” the release said. “Riotous behavior that is focused on causing damage to property or injury to others is illegal.”

As of Monday night, there was no indication of any protests or riots in Yankton.

In contrast, Yankton’s protest Sunday went off without incident.

The demonstrators gathered near Discovery Bridge and marched up Broadway Avenue. After one brief stop, they spent a longer stretch of time at Fourth and Broadway, one of Yankton’s busiest intersections.

In the wake of the pandemic, most of the participants wore masks as a safety precaution. They chanted phrases and held signs in what remained a peaceful protest.

Members of the Yankton police force drove past the demonstration at times, but there were no signs of problems. Some passersby honked or showed other signs of support.

The protestors of various races and ages chanted during the demonstration. While some placards said, “Black Lives Matters,” at least one participant held a sign, “Red Lives Matter,” in reference to Native Americans.

The march continued down Fourth Street, stopping across from the Yankton County Jail. At one point, many of the protest dropped face down on the sidewalk and chanted, “I Can’t Breathe!” — referring to Floyd’s cries for help while on the ground.

Floyd’s death resonated even in small, mostly white communities such as Yankton with its 15,000 residents, Welch said.

“This incident brought everybody together today,” Welch said. “It ain’t on my front porch, but (Floyd) was a human, a man. It means that no matter what color the person is, if it can happen there, it can happen here.

The Yankton demonstration was a statement on the national scene, not against the Yankton Police Department, Welch said. He noted his own family member had served as the police chief of his Mississippi hometown.

“The police have got a tough job, I understand that,” he said. “It just takes one to make the rest of them look bad.”

However, police brutality does exist in all sizes of communities across the nation, Welch said. While he hasn’t encountered problems in Yankton, Sunday’s protest remained important, Welch said.

“No matter what color the person is, it can happen here,” he said.

Welch expressed particular concern about his multi-racial son’s future and the suspicion young black men often encounter by both police and the general public.

“People ask, ‘Is he up to something?’” Welch said. “We got these kids coming up, and they shouldn’t have to worry about going out and being seen with their friends.”

Yasmine Montgomery, one of the protestors, said it was important for Yankton to hold its own demonstration and to make a statement.

“The reason we did this was to show even a small town like Yankton can come together in unity with the rest of the nation during these trying times,” she said. “We all want the same thing. We’re here on the same common ground.”

When Montgomery first announced the protest plans on Facebook, she expected a small crowd.

“But as we moved to Fourth and Broadway, we started drawing more people. We had people watching in the parking lots, and we had a lot of support in the streets,” she said.

“It was really touching. It was awesome the way people showed up as a community. We showed all lives matter.”

Montgomery said the demonstration wasn’t against local authorities, and law enforcement contains many good officers. She contacted Harris about the intentions to hold a protest, and the cooperative effort went well.

Harris said his department wanted to provide not only for the protestors’ safety but also prepare for anything that may have threatened public safety.

Peaceful protests can become infiltrated by those from outside the area who want to use the event for looting, rioting or other purposes, Harris said.

“We don’t need outsiders coming in and tearing up our community,” he added.

Protestor Carter Demaray believes Sunday’s demonstration played a major role in bringing the issue of race and equality out into the open.

“Firstly, we got a lot of people in our community to at least think about the issue and also realize that there is a real issue in the first place. I think people recognizing and understanding that an issue exists is the first step to meaningful change,” he said.

“Secondly, we peacefully showed solidarity with the cause and all those protesting injustice across the nation. We showed that even little ol’ Yankton, South Dakota, has a voice. We obviously have some deep structural issues as a nation that we need to deal with. If we didn’t, then there wouldn’t be rioting across the nation.”

Those who remain silent contribute to the problem, Demaray said.

“We need to look in the mirror as Americans and ask ourselves if we can continue to live in a society where such injustices continue to happen,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of understanding, healing and time to effect the change that needs to happen. As a young person, I’m ready for that journey.”

Montgomery saw Sunday’s protest as an important first step.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m realistic,” she said. “As a community, we’re showing what we can do here.”

The current wave of protests shows people are tired of hearing and talking about racism and injustice, Welch said. Now, they’re expressing their outrage and frustration, he added.

“It’s time for a change, it’s time for a change,” he said. “And it’s got to start somewhere.”

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Press & Dakotan City Editor Rob Nielsen contributed to this report.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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