Johnny Laine and Wendell Scales Jr., the educators who organized the Response to Injustice Education March in Little Rock on June 5, 2020, hosted a second event called “Tier 2: The Intervention” on Saturday, June 13, at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds. This event came with a homework assignment. Participants were asked to write letters to the governor about ways that social injustice and racism impact students and what they’d like to see him do about it.
A line of cars with balloons attached were parked in two lines just outside the entrance gate to the fairgrounds. A DJ and his young daughter were spinning records under a tent. The volunteer medics that have been attending protests showed up with bottled water and snacks. Again, voter registration was available.
The event started with Laine and Scales presenting 2019 teacher of the year Stacey McAdoo with flowers and thanking her for helping them organize the events.
“[McAdoo] has been a very important person in my life,” Scales said. “I met her when I was a recruiter in 2014, and she’s always had that passion for the young people, and she’s paying it forward by passing it forward to people like me and Johnny and you all as well.”
Laine told a story about jogging through his neighborhood the morning after the march on June 5. “I walk and run every morning in that neighborhood and when I’m out there, I don’t often see too many people that look like me to the point where, honestly, I am afraid sometimes.”
Laine saw a Black Lives Matter sign on a white picket fence. “In that moment, I stopped and I just felt the feeling.” Laine said it felt really good, like somebody is with the movement and they care. He saw four more signs on his walk that morning. They were at a house near the governor’s mansion. One of them was addressed to the governor asking him to “Please listen, Black Lives Matter.” The other three signs asked for justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. “I had to stop and sit down,” Laine said. “Because I felt safe. I felt loved. I felt like someone in my neighborhood — where I don’t feel safe — felt like my life mattered.”
Laine said he wanted to tell that story because “What those signs did for me in that moment, that’s what you all could be for our students every day. You could be the sign in one of our students’ lives that tells them that their life matters. You could be the sign in their life to let them know that they’re somebody. And they are going to grow and they’re going to remember those things.
“Be that sign for them. Because the impact that you have on our students is monumental. I don’t know how many of us would be here and where we are if we didn’t have the teachers that we had. So be that teacher for our students, be that parent for our students. Be that supporter and be that sign.”
Before the first student spoke, McAdoo came up, grabbed the mic and said, “OK, so here’s what I need you to do. After each one of these brave young people shares their soul, I need you to clap like that’s the best thing you’ve ever heard in your entire life. Can I hear what that would sound like?”
The crowd gave a pretty decent cheer.
“No,” McAdoo said. And then — in an unmistakable teacher’s voice — said, “Like it was the BEST thing you have EVER heard in your ENTIRE LIFE. WHAT WOULD THAT SOUND LIKE?”
A 6th grader named Ka’Leah Jackson said hello and introduced herself to the crowd.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.’ [When] George Floyd died, he was our strike,” she said. “We [have] to get everybody on the same page. We have to embrace ourselves and fight for our rights. Because even though it’s 2020, we still aren’t completely free in the land of free. We still have to do work. We still have to educate ourselves on our rights and stick together to ensure laws are put into place to protect every human being.
“Wrong is wrong.”
Janiya Dailey, a high school student, read her letter to the governor, excerpted here:
“Dear Governor,” she read. “Imagine the color of your skin being a threat. Have you ever had the fear of crossing the street, helping someone in need or just being yourself and doing absolutely nothing wrong and somebody feels threatened by you? Studies show that 1 in 1,000 black men and boys are expected to die at the hands of a police officer because they feel threatened. No African-American human should feel fear when they call the police for help. Yet, it is reality for many African-American people on a daily basis.
“Our current history has shown us today whether you are male or female, it doesn’t matter because the color of our skin carries the stigma of how we are treated. These situations can be changed, though. You as the governor of Arkansas have the power to institute change. You can start by extensive and thorough background checks for all police officers. Making sure they have longer training and interact more with the community to be better role models. Lastly, you can eliminate physical force when it’s not necessary. So today, we as a community and you all as citizens can change the black lives of humans. Thank you.”
Alexandria Williams, a North Little Rock graduate of the quarantined 2020 class, and organizer of the protest that took place at North Little Rock’s City Hall later that afternoon, also spoke: “We are the next generation dealing with the old generation’s injustice. I say we are the ‘now generation.’ We will find solutions to the ever-growing cycle of racism and inequality. We don’t need another town hall meeting or to have the tough conversation. We know what the issue is, and it’s time to address it. This no longer needs to be swept under the rug and forgotten until another incident happens. Another Breonna Taylor. Another George Floyd. Another Michael Brown. How many? How many deaths covered up by lies is it going to take for people to understand there is a serious problem? How many black children have to attend a school to deal with a system that is against them? How many black mothers have to die or struggle giving birth because doctors believe that black people don’t feel pain? How many black men have to be preyed upon, killed by police for people to understand and fix their taught fear. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of having to adapt to the white standard because I know I’m never going to be seen as human to them. We live in a world of technology, social media, fast connection, but it’s as if we are not being social and we are not learning. We are not moving forward, only going backwards. Let this not be a trend. We must continue to protest [with] our voices because our voices are stronger together.”
Ben Weaver, a sophomore at Henderson State University, spent most of his life in Mississippi where he experienced racial inequality both inside and outside of the classroom. He didn’t experience diverse classrooms until he moved to Arkansas. “While my experiences here were very eye-opening, I was reminded on the most important day in my life — my graduation — that I’m still a black man in America,” he said. “As I was getting dressed for my graduation rehearsals, I was feeling petrified as a police officer stood in my house. Not just for my future but because of the color of my skin. I almost didn’t walk that day. Governor, you shouldn’t just raise awareness, you should have cultural sensitivity training for the occupations dealing with minorities in Little Rock.”
Norel McAdoo, a Central High graduate and junior at Tennessee State University, performed a spoken word poem:
My people are resilient.
R – Rare. it’s rare to see my people quit. I come from generations of genius. A virus who showed no weakness and people who are reflectors of Jesus.
E – Everything. The world started with us. We are the first mathematicians, the first scientists, the first architects. Labeled archaic, but they’re still amazed by pyramids that haven’t faded.
S – Strength. My ancestry chest-pressed oppression. Built a country that doesn’t accept them while never putting God in the question.
I – I never cease to be amazed by our blessings. Forgiveness is our strongest weapon.
L – Loss. We’ve lost so many in this war but never any hope. And that strikes fear in the enemies’ hearts and they just can’t come to cope.
I – I know for a fact that I’m proud to be Black.
E – Excellence runs through my veins.
N – No one knows the pain, the constant struggle. The beauty and the ugliness. The creation of our brilliance, the reason for our resilience.
C – Capable. I wouldn’t put anything past our people. The underestimation makes us lethal. One day we will gain freedom from this evil.
E – Extra things we’ve gone through just to be equal. It’s 2020. We’re still fighting. They try to cage our spirits, but we’re free as eagles. We’re resilient.
The DJ played “2020 Riots: How Many Times” by Trey Songz. Balloons were handed out to everyone. “Each one of these balloons we want to represent a life that was taken from us too soon as a result of police brutality or racism or social injustice,” Laine said. “So as the song plays, we’re going to release these balloons to the sky.” After a five-second countdown from Laine, the balloons were released and floated off together to the south.
Before the line of cars paraded to the governor’s mansion where Laine and Scales dropped off the letters, Scales said, “Now more than ever is a time for us all to educate our respective loved ones, colleagues and others.
“This is a movement, and again, this is just one of the many steps we have to go, but this is a big moment for all of us.”