As the righteous rage of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police continues to simmer, marches and other displays of solidarity have spread to places where it is least expected. Small, majority-white towns, typically considered antithetical to diversity and radical politics, are holding their own protests and calling for meaningful action against police brutality and systemic racism. Some smaller, liberal cities predictably showed up; however, collective action can be seen in even unlikelier places — places like the 24,000 person town of Norfolk Nebraska, or my own hometown of Casper, Wyoming – which is in the least inhabited state, and likely one of the most conservative, in the country.
As Jessa Crispin of The Guardian wrote earlier this year, the oft-neglected middle of the country is famous for bad casseroles and state fairs, not for revolutionary displays and left-leaning politics. People on the coasts, many of whom have never been anywhere that isn’t near an ocean, consider the states (with the exception of some of the larger cities) sandwiched somewhere between New York and California as big blobs of corn and offensive politics. But, as Crispin explains, our history is more complicated (and a lot more radical) than that. Socialism, intensive labor strikes, and working class action make up a hefty portion of our region’s history — not that anyone would ever guess that now, with Trump country and machine-gun wielding displays of “don’t tread on me” being the most visible kind of political might. But maybe, as protests spread throughout the country and even the most white-bread type of towns have residents shaking their heads in saddened awe at George Floyd’s death, a more radical tide can again turn.
The west and the midwest reclaiming themselves as sites of social struggle is long past due. The economies of many towns and cities have shattered, with sporadic downturns and economic recessions creating high rates of joblessness and despair. Industries upon which entire states were dependent have left communities with mass layoffs and no economic diversification. Waves of drug-related deaths have left communities grieving, and the suicide rate continues to climb.
As hard as life can be for people in the middle of the country, many of them white, it’s nothing compared to the anti-Black racism in which the country continues to invest and support. But just because the working-class white struggle is not rooted in systemic racism, a long history of anti-Black violence, and the pillage of an entire people, it doesn’t mean that the struggle for some level of stability for poor whites, non-Black, and Black people isn’t connected. When working class white people fight racism, their lives improve, too.
In 1969, Southern white migrants fled Appalachia’s failing coal industry to find greater economic prosperity in Chicago. Like many poor whites, they were portrayed as depraved, anti-intellectual rednecks lacking in refined “culture.” In response to persistent poverty and police harassment, a Tennessee native named Hy Thurman formed the “Young Patriots,” a group bent on self-determination for poor Southern migrants. These self-described “hillbillies” found an unlikely ally in the Black Panther Party, who were shocked at how middle-class, liberal whites so poorly treated impoverished “white trash.” The two groups formed an alliance, later to include the Puerto Rican Young Lords and Chicago’s Native American community, and formed the “Rainbow Coalition.” Their collective goal was to “throw off the shackles of racism” and “create a new society.” Together, they fought gentrification and police brutality through protest and occupation.
While the Rainbow Coalition hasn’t had much staying power, and President Trump has worsened already existing racial divides by pitting working class whites against people of color, it’s worth wondering if the wave of protests bubbling up in small towns are a show of solidarity that’s here to stay. And if so, if the wave of collective action in working-class white towns can transcend small shows of sympathy and grow into something much larger, more meaningful, and designed to shake off the system that keeps them and others perpetually impoverished.
Well-organized protests with demands to abolish the police have reason to be skeptical of small-town support. The gesture is rendered empty with their emphasis on police inclusion and lack of radical demand, with some marches even allowing officers to speak and participate. And maybe small-town folks are beginning to recognize and acknowledge Black suffering, but are they willing to realize they might play an active part in it?
In addition to learning about anti-Black racism, we need to learn about our long history of indigenous slaughter and ask, if everyone in our town looks like us, why? Why don’t people of color feel safe living in our supposedly safe communities and what did we do to make a once indigenous, non-white place looks so homogoneous? We need to question the notion that corporate conformity leads to comfort and ask, what kinds of violent erasure did our romanticized west-ward migration produce and how do we, or more accurately don’t we, currently atone for that?
Amidst the myth of overwhelming hospitality and 1950s-style small towns is a history of working-class radicalism. Those in big cities or people who reside on the coasts need to remember that “uneducated” does not equal unintelligent and that socialist politics are not digestible only by those with a college degree. There are farmers and coal miners and rig workers who no longer have jobs. We can spout Marx all we want, but they’re the ones who are forced to contend with the everyday notion of production and the harm it has caused.
Maybe the small protests in majority white, middle of the country towns don’t mean anything besides a small showing of empty sympathy. It’s worth noting, though, that the conditions in many of these towns are ripe for the seemingly long-gone radicalism that was once present. But for solidarity to be successful we need to remember that it isn’t just about our communities, it’s about recognizing suffering and striving to stop it. It’s about calling out injustice beyond the scope of what we know. It’s time for working class whites to do better.
The marches and vigils in these small towns are part of only one very shaky step towards reclaiming a region that was once radical. But at least they point to the power of protest and its ability to penetrate a seemingly impenetrable demographic with ideas that, thanks to organizers, no longer seem so far fetched.