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Small New York Towns Protest Police Brutality While Reckoning With Their Own Racism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, thousands gathered in major cities to continue protesting police killings of black men and women. And people marched in smaller, more rural towns, too. Julia Ritchey from North Country Public Radio talked with those at a peaceful vigil in a small town in northern New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please take a knee.

JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: Nine minutes - that's how long the bells chime across the main square in the tiny village of Canton, N.Y., population 6,400. Gathered in the village park, about 100 people kneel while the bells ring and ring, roughly the same amount of time a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck before he died. Jennifer Baxtron was there with two of her grandchildren. She's been organizing her own protests in the nearby town of Potsdam just down the road in the same county.

JENNIFER BAXTRON: I've been here almost eight years, and I've been called a [expletive], baboon, told to go home. My grandkids have heard it and seen it all, too.

RITCHEY: Baxtron is part of a small black community in St. Lawrence County, whose population is overwhelmingly white at 94%. She's been involved with activist causes for years, but this is the first time she's seen this many people come out.

BAXTRON: I think they're showing up because they're tired of it, too - the ones that are showing up.

RITCHEY: The ones that are showing up are young and old and cut across demographic lines. Canton is the home of two small colleges, and although its politics lean more liberal, the county as a whole - an agricultural hub - has been trending more conservative. It went for President Trump in 2016. Earlier in the week, a march in the nearby town of Ogdensburg drew a few hecklers who shouted all lives matter at protesters. And a Facebook post on the mayor's page was rife with speculation that the protest was organized by outsiders. But the three protests on Saturday across New York's North Country were peaceful.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Somebody take my family. It's gone on for too long.

RITCHEY: Michael Welch delivered mail for three decades in this community and says he's never seen anything quite this size. He's 60 years old and white and was just driving by when he decided to pull over and join Canton's vigil.

MICHAEL WELCH: I think people are coming around to the idea that this is not a matter of Republican or Democrat. This is a matter that affects everybody. Injustice is injustice.

RITCHEY: At the corner of the park, a table is set up for people to write down their prayers on slips of paper as part of a prayer tree.

WELCH: I would say, God, don't ever let us forget. Don't let this fade into memory.

RITCHEY: He takes the paper to a clothesline to tie it up next to the prayers of others, pleading for change.

For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Canton, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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