Floyd death prompts solidarity march in Ardmore

Michael Smith
De’Jour Lee, right, leads protesters down F Street Northeast during a march Sunday. The 26-year-old organizer was inspired after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minnesota on May 25.

After the death of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died while in police custody last week, protests in cities and towns across the country erupted in violence. Like other demonstrations in scores of other towns, however, the protest that made it to Ardmore on Sunday remained peaceful and drew an estimated 150 people.

The march lasted for over two hours and resulted in minor street closures Sunday afternoon. The protest appears to have also been at least loosely connected to the closure of the Ardmore Walmart on Sunday afternoon.

Chants of “I can’t breathe” and “no justice, no peace” filled the air as the march weaved through downtown Ardmore. Signs with the names of Floyd and other African American men were also on display as protesters called for accountability within law enforcement.

“I want them to stop police brutality, I want them to give their officers more training on what to do, and I want them to hold police officers accountable for the things they do that they know are not right,” said event organizer De’Jour Lee. The 26-year-old Ardmore woman said her online questions about a local protest went mostly unanswered.

So she took matters into her own hands. Lee said she reached out to friends and family to help organize the event with text messages an on social media. According to one Facebook post, Lee put out the call to action less than 24 hours before the event.

The march started and ended at HFV Wilson Community Center and stretched out to North Commerce Street and 12th Avenue Northwest. A brief rally was also held at Central Park where organizers used the pavilion to share messages of solidarity and remind protesters to engage in the voting process.

The peaceful nature of the Sunday march drew out some families, and many children were seen during the march and brief rally at Central Park. Javon Wright brought two of his sons and said he had never before been part of a protest or march.

“I knew I had to be here,” Wright said. “It feels good knowing that we’ve got people that are out here supporting, getting the message out of what’s going on.”

Wright said that he feels safe in Ardmore but knows now is a good time to talk about the uncomfortable subject of race relations. “The people I know I feel good about, but I know there has got to be some racism going on around here. It’s everywhere,” he said.

The march never went further north than 12th Avenue Northwest, but it appears to be somewhat responsible for barricades at the Ardmore Walmart on Sunday. Pallets of outdoor merchandise blocked at least three main entrances Sunday as lights remained on inside. Shopping carts were abandoned in the empty parking lot and no signs were visible to notify customers about the closure.

Multiple phone calls to the store Sunday went unanswered. A store manager confirmed Monday that the store was closed early Sunday but referred all questions to corporate media relations.

“As we continue monitoring the situations unfolding in cities across the country, we will keep our focus on prioritizing the safety of our associates and customers,” read an emailed statement Monday. “We’ll make the decisions to close or reopen stores in the area based on the needs of the community.”

Hours before the 2 p.m. march, the Ardmore Police Department posted to social media asking for organizers to contact them for assistance. Lee said she was not in contact with authorities before nor during the march, but police radio traffic indicated that officers were still able to conduct rolling closures of city streets as the march navigated through town.

Vehicles from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office were also seen blocking cross streets and preventing traffic from entering roads where protesters marched. West Main Street, South Commerce Street and North Washington Street were among the larger thoroughfares in Ardmore impacted by rolling street closures.

Ardmore police later thanked protesters and motorists for the calm during the event. “We are all Ardmore, and today is another example of how exceptional the people who live here are,” read a Sunday evening APD social media post.

Early in the march, Anna Schrader was seen handing out water bottles to protesters as they made their way to Central Park. The Ardmore native recently moved to Oklahoma City for work but decided to come back home when friends had the idea to hand out water to protesters.

“I’ve never had a problem, and I’ve always loved living in Admore. I moved for work and honestly I would probably still be here if it wasn’t for work,” she said. “It’s my hometown. I grew up here.”

Schrader said she was happy to see such a diverse crowd and hopes the movement will become even more inclusive. “I honestly wish more white people would try to stand up and support [protesters],” she said.

Mauree Turner also grew up in Ardmore, graduated from Ardmore High School, and is now a community organizer running for a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature. She said by phone Monday that, while unable to attend the march, she was notified over social media about the planning and asked to provide information and training.

“I was able to send her (Lee) some information, kind of do a quick run through on what you should look for when it comes to folks who are going to do the actual demonstration,” she said.

Among legal information and tactics to ensure a peaceful demonstration, Turner said organizers also had to consider health measures to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some protesters were seen wearing face masks during the event.

As the march neared its end, it seemed to have gained a few dozen more protesters on foot and in vehicles. Ardmore teenager Dre Chenault was seen marching with a crutch and his left knee immobilized in a brace. He said that was his first experience with a protest and was persuaded by family to take part.

“All people, all lives, we are all equal together,” he said.