CHEYENNE – What could certainly have divided a community brought at least some of it together. Together in anger, together in exhaustion, together in forgiveness and together in hope.
This was the intent of a community meeting organized by the NAACP of Cheyenne, Wyoming Equality, the ACLU of Wyoming and Juntos, an immigrant advocacy group.
The meeting was called to discuss racist and homophobic flyers that were taped to walls and passed out by students Wednesday at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High. The flyers read, “it’s great to be straight it’s not ok to be gay,” “black lives only matter because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton,” and “Join the kkk,” with “the confederate kid club” in parentheses beneath it.
Students, parents, teachers, community leaders, business owners and more filled St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Friday evening to share their stories and discuss how to move forward in the shadow of the incident at McCormick.
It was a conversation with a mission and a purpose, Sara Burlingame said. Burlingame is the executive director of Wyoming Equality and represents Cheyenne as a Democrat in Wyoming’s House of Representatives.
“We are not afraid to say black students in Cheyenne have been disrespected, LGBT students have been disrespected,” she said.
How to move forward from that disrespect and the expressions of hate became the primary topic of the night.
At least two dozen church leaders, organizers, students and other community members voiced their support and demanded action.
“Hate can kill,” said Mohamed Salih, part of the Cheyenne Interfaith Council and Southeast Wyoming Islamic Center.
He invoked the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand that happened earlier this month, in which a gunman killed 50 people and wounded nearly as many.
“We have to reject hate for blacks, hate for LGBTQ,” he said. But he also said they must also forgive.
“We should forgive the children who did this,” he said. “We should teach them the beauty of love and the destructive nature of hate.”
The Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cheyenne said that as a queer woman living in the city, she felt worn down.
“I come to you as a special kind of tired,” she said. “But we are not too tired to get fired up and do something.”
It was a call to action repeated time and again by others who spoke at the meeting. Speakers called on Laramie County School District 1 and city officials to take tangible steps forward to both support the communities targeted by the flyers and to prevent and challenge future expressions of hate.
Members of the LCSD1 school board were on their way to a conference Friday night and so were not present at the meeting and could not be reached for comment on this article.
One tangible step came through donations – more than $2,000 in total – to Wyoming Equality and Cheyenne’s NAACP chapter. The two organizations will divide those donations evenly.
Another proposal was to adopt the “No Hate in our Town” campaign. The idea came out of Billings, Montana, as a way for the town to drive out white supremacists who had conducted a number of hate crimes in the city.
Laramie adopted the campaign after a Nazi flag was hung in Washington Park last August.
It’s a simple, grassroots idea. Businesses put posters in their windows that read “No hate in our town” to signal to hate groups that they are not welcome. Community members wear buttons and T-shirts with the same slogan. Community events and rallies gather support.
Burlingame said she would like to start No Hate in our Town efforts in Cheyenne after spring break, which is this coming week.
Other expressions of support have come online.
In a tweet Thursday, Mayor Marian Orr offered to sponsor McCormick’s Gay Straight Alliance club after its co-sponsor, Kaycee Cook, was dismissed as a substitute at the school after reporting the flyers to Wyoming Equality.
A former McCormick student, who now lives in Minnesota but heard about the events, wrote a letter of support to the students and asked fellow McCormick alumni to sign it. That letter has more than 90 signatories.
Another community event to discuss what came from Friday’s meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Allen Chapel in Cheyenne.