On Saturday, May 30, hundreds gathered in late afternoon to march along Little Rock’s Capitol Avenue downtown in protest of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The three young organizers of the peaceful march said they wanted to provide a healthy means of expression for a community reeling in the wake of yet another instance of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man.
On June 1, the three organizers, Tim Campbell, Oya the Poet and Drekkia Writes, all from Little Rock, met with Governor Hutchinson to advocate for more community engagement from law enforcement and support from police agencies at peaceful protests. Writes said the governor reaffirmed his support of peaceful protests. The three plan to lead another memorial march at 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 3, at the State Capitol.
Writes and the others say they want to be strategic and provide solutions. They’ve been working with other community activists, including Central High School teachers Ron and Stacey McAdoo (Stacey was the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year and has been a powerful voice in speaking out against the state’s takeover of the Little Rock School District). They helped put together a list of policy changes they’d like to see happen in Arkansas law enforcement agencies, including residency requirements for city officers (long an issue in Little Rock); implementing national use of force policy standards; and requiring training in de-escalation, implicit bias recognition and community policing.
After Writes saw the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes before he died, she worried how she could explain it to her young nieces and nephews in a way that didn’t make them afraid. “How do you make sure that they don’t start to feel that their skin is a curse?” she wondered.
Writes (her professional pseudonym), 26, teaches poetry and creative writing to address mental health needs in children. She contracts with schools, including the Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District, to “teach children to be better comprehenders and communicators.” She works especially with at-risk youth. “I tell them they can be anything they want to be, that their skin is beautiful, that their hair is magical because it can change forms. I sow seeds in kids,” she said.
After Floyd’s murder, Campbell, a second-year student in the Clinton School of Public Service’s master’s program, said he felt compelled to get people together and organize. He reached out to Writes, a friend he knew “had a strong community sense,” and she brought in Oya the Poet (also a pseudonym).
“People are looking for what is the solution right now,” Campbell, 27, said. “The main source of solution is expression. We’re coming in to make sure that that expression in Little Rock is as healthy as it can possibly be.”
On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, protests at the Capitol began late in the afternoon and stretched past midnight. On Saturday, protestors marched onto I-630 before the State Police dispersed the crowd by firing tear gas at them. Some property damage was reported late in the evening Sunday and Monday, but the majority of protesters were peaceful and again were targeted with tear gas and other shows of force.
Campbell, Oya and Writes all stressed that the event they organized Saturday officially ended sometime after 7 p.m. and was wholly peaceful. All three left before 8 p.m. and were not involved in organizing protests Sunday and Monday.
“Our peaceful part was based on the emotional and mental health of our people dealing with the circumstances,” Oya said. “That march was [about] devoting energy to healing us and learning how to direct our anger.”
Campbell led marchers in chants along Capitol Avenue. Outside the Capitol, Writes, Oya and others shared spoken word pieces and they and others talked about interactions with police.
“I know that sometimes there’s nothing you can do to de-escalate” interactions with police, Oya said.
In 2017, Oya said she and two friends were stopped by police in North Little Rock for an expired car tag. She said an officer told one of her friends to get out of the car and present his I.D. because he had the look of a serial killer. Her friend “got upset they would stereotype him as such,” Oya said. “The police got aggressive and put him on the ground and tased him. At this time, I panicked and asked why they were doing this. Another officer came and tried to put me in a chokehold. I dodged that and put my hands up and said I was compliant.” She said she was then pepper-sprayed and thrown to the ground, where an officer restrained her with his knee on her back. She and her two friends were arrested and spent three nights in jail. Oya said she was later found guilty of assault on a police officer and destruction of government property.
Oya, 29, is a poet and a native of Earle. She declined to share other details about her life.
Campbell grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s on Wolfe Street in Little Rock, which he said “was probably considered one of the worst neighborhoods in southern America at the time.” He has an early memory of Little Rock Police officers storming his house with guns. “I remember my mom yelling out, ‘Don’t shoot my baby!’ because I moved or something. I remember the militance.”
But he also has a different childhood memory of Little Rock police. “I remember seeing police officers on bicycles,” he said. They would stop and talk with him and other kids and give them some kind of snack or treat. “We felt like we knew police officers.”
That’s a key bond that needs to be restored, he said. “We want police officers to show up not just when they’re in their black and blue, but also when they’re in their casual wear, so we can feel a sense of community. When you approach a neighborhood in a militant fashion, that can lead to detrimental effects on the community and Little Rock Police Department.”
Campbell, 27, is the first in his family to graduate high school and college. Several of his family members have been caught up in drugs and violence. “I wouldn’t say that I had role models. I had people that were doing things that I knew I didn’t want to do.” He spent time after college in West Africa in The Gambia with the Peace Corps, where he said he learned community organizing skills. He called himself lucky to have traveled beyond Little Rock and to have gotten a broader sense of what police officers can be. For friends and family who never left Wolfe Street or other parts of inner-city Little Rock, Campbell said, they may only know the LRPD as a militant presence.
Campbell said he hopes to see more police officers join in on peaceful protest. “If we’re being peaceful and respectful, why not come out in a peaceful manner” and march or kneel with protestors? “I think that would be so powerful,” he said.
Campbell and the others said they didn’t condone violence and property destruction, but they understand that it’s coming from generational trauma. “That murder was the pebble in the water,” Campbell said. “The tsunami is coming from different places in the hearts of African Americans in this country.”
“I can’t tell anyone how to be mad,” Writes said. “I know my role in this situation. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Writes said it was important to continue to spread the message of empowerment in youth that she shares in her work. “I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to be in a black body,” she said. “The psychological things we deal with are next level. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a space and I’m questioning myself. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope they don’t think I’m bad, or I’m about to steal something, or I’m not smart.’ Those thoughts happen involuntarily to black people.”
She also said her group was promoting civic activity, encouraging black people to vote and to run for office. “We’re not represented enough, so we don’t have a voice,” she said. “We need more blacks and people of color to get in positions of power. We need people to continue to be the mayors, representatives, senators, policemen, prosecutors and DAs.”
Campbell plans to continue working in community politics after he finishes at the Clinton School. “We’re not just jumping on this trending moment and forgetting all about it,” Writes said. “We’re going to continue to unify and not just be reactive, but be proactive.”