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"Inexcusable:" Candlelight vigil remembers George Floyd's death

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Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez, left, snaps her fingers in support while Jalissa Fletcher speaks during the candlelight vigil Friday, May 29, 2020, outside of the state Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The event, organized by Wyoming Equality, was to remember George Floyd and countless others who have lost their lives prematurely to police violence. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Cheyenne South student Isabel McClendon said when she saw the news that another black man had died at the hands of the police, she cried.

The story of George Floyd – who died Monday after being restrained by four Minneapolis police officers because he matched the description of a suspect in a forgery case at a grocery store – made McClendon think of her own family and the fear she carries for them.

“It’s horrible. If I was to bring a child into this world, I’d have to worry every day about what could happen to them,” McClendon said. “I’d have to worry about them just walking down the street with a hood on. It’s scary.”

Friday night, McClendon and her sisters, Elizabeth and Miracle, stood with about 125 others near the steps of the state Capitol for a candlelight vigil for Floyd and other Americans who have lost their lives to racism and police violence. Put on by groups like the local NAACP and Wyoming Equality, the vigil was crowded with signs that said “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for George Floyd” and “I can’t breathe.”

Similar demonstrations and more severe protests broke out across the country this week as a video of Floyd’s arrest spread on social media. Americans watched Floyd plead, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, according to the criminal complaint.

At the vigil, Paulette Gadlin said, “It was way back in ‘68 when we were marching for the same old thing. We don’t see it all the time, we don’t hear it all the time, but it’s here.”

In recent years, social media has fueled investigations into the deaths of citizens like Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, who also pleaded “I can’t breathe” with officers during his arrest. While Friday’s memorial was spurred by Floyd’s death, Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez reminded attendees that Floyd’s story is not an anomaly.

“There are plenty of stories that we haven’t heard, and do you know why? It’s because there wasn’t someone with a video camera. As a black person, as a person of color, you should not have to have a smartphone to feel safe,” Meadows-Fernandez said.

The rise of smartphones and police body camera footage have spurred both outrage and disbelief as more instances of excessive force are posted online for the general public to see.

For Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak, the officer’s actions shown in the video were “inexcusable.” Kozak said when a person enters into police custody, it is the sole responsibility of the police department to protect that person’s wellbeing.

“That person crossed the line and became a criminal, and as far as I’m concerned, any officer there that saw that happened and did not intervene is just as responsible,” Kozak said.

On Friday, Hennepin County, Minnesota’s prosecutor announced charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against Chauvin for Floyd’s death. Many protests and movements sparked after black deaths caused by police in recent years have called for accountability for the officers involved.

Jalissa Fletcher, who spoke at the vigil, said she would like to see criminal justice reform, where police are held accountable for their actions. For her, staying invested in these situations is traumatic and tiring, and she said a change is needed in the way the system operates.

“I would like to see justice be swift and not have to wait for a public outrage,” Fletcher said.

By Saturday morning, at least 230 businesses across the Twin Cities had been vandalized, looted or had doors and windows smashed, according to the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Protests, both peaceful and not, have broken out in more than 20 cities across the U.S., calling for justice for George Floyd.

“Nobody gets angry enough to burn down a building because of one or two bad apples,” the Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave, president of the Cheyenne Interfaith Council, said at the local vigil.

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After the protests in the Twin Cities continued Friday night despite an 8 p.m. curfew, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz authorized the largest National Guard deployment in state history, according to the Star Tribune. Tensions are still high in cities across the country, with protestors blocking highways in places like Denver, Houston and San Jose and setting fires in places like Atlanta.

At Friday’s vigil, Meadows-Fernandez said, “Even though we’re not burning buildings, our souls are burning.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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