TODAY'S PAPER
45° Good Morning
45° Good Morning
OpinionCommentary

Yes, even in small, single-stoplight towns they're saying his name

Vandessa Johnson, 48, shares a cheers with passersby

Vandessa Johnson, 48, shares a cheers with passersby during a Black Lives Matter protest in Taneytown, Md. on July 11. Credit: The Washington Post/Petula Dvorak

TANEYTOWN, Md. - The silver pickup truck with a passenger-side rust spot passed the railroad tracks, then slowed down as it rolled past the crowd of demonstrators in this tiny downtown.

"Black lives matter!" yelled a white woman in comfort capri pants - then she and her neighbors waited for silver truck's verdict.

"Honk! Honk! Hoooonk!" went the truck, and the driver's white fist emerged from his window, punching the air in support.

"Woo hoo! He's with us!" the woman yelled, and the other demonstrators cheered Saturday evening outside the Taneytown police station, still decorated for the Fourth of July in red, white and blue bunting.

Last year, Taneytown - population about 6,800 - was probably the only town in America considering a new Civil War memorial, complete with a portrait of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Jacob Jorge, 24, who is black, grew up in Taneytown hearing his public school teachers use the n-word. He saw Ku Klux Klan fliers circulated in town just a couple years ago. He's been stopped by police dozens of times in his life, from childhood on, because "I always looked like someone they were looking for."

So these things - the white fists in the air and the Black Lives Matter T-shirts and "I Can't Breathe" signs - were a shock to him.

"This is the most welcoming feeling I've ever had in my hometown," Jorge said, scanning the line of about 50 demonstrators, almost all of them white. "The town is only, what, like, 4% black? Seeing this out here is something else."

This isn't unique to Taneytown.

It's happening about 140 times a day across America. Every. Single. Day.

After the video of George Floyd being killed by police in Minnesota on Memorial Day shocked America, the demonstrations across the nation and even the world showed thousands of people taking to the streets in big cities. There were standoffs and tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, even some looting and fires.

But that's a small part of this story.

Because across America, in places like Taneytown, citizens continue going out into their streets - sometimes in small groups standing in their single-stoplight downtowns or in larger knots outside suburban strip malls. Their protests aren't covered on the evening news and they don't always make the local papers. Heck, most of these towns don't even have local papers anymore.

But they are out there, swelling what may be the largest protest movement the United States has ever seen.

An estimated 13 million to 26 million people in the United States have taken part in a protest since Floyd was killed, demanding justice for black Americans, according to research by data scientists from the Pew Research Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That's a huge number for something like this - between 4 and 8% of the American population. Which is even more extraordinary given that we're in the middle of a pandemic. A New York Times analysis of the protests estimated there have been at least 4,700 protests across America since May 26, an average of 140 a day.

The protests are sustained and they're different.

"At this point, it's clear that these protests are more racially and geographically diverse than we've seen perhaps ever," said Dana Fisher, sociology professor at the University of Maryland who recently published a book on American protest in the age of Trump.

And in many cases, like most of the people I talked to Saturday night in Taneytown, this is the first time these folks have taken part in a demonstration.

Holly Udy, 52, is one of them. She demonstrated with a group in Gettysburg, Pa. on Friday night, then stood with others on Taneytown's main thoroughfare Saturday. She said her years as a substitute teacher in central Maryland's bigger cities showed her the injustices that are part of daily life for black kids.

"There were so many times I saw that," she said. "And I knew it's just time to wake up."

Another car approached as we were talking, a white convertible. An older man who looked fresh off the golf course was at the wheel. "Honk! Honk!" and a wave. Then a thumbs-up.

"Awww," Udy said. "It just warms my heart when I see older people support this. You know, these are people who grew up when Catholics and Protestants wouldn't talk. And to see them supporting Black Lives Matter? They grew, you know?"

And then came an Americana parade of cars - a blue SUV, a Jeep, a beat-up, greenish sedan. No honks - just a middle finger, middle finger, thumbs-down.

"We still love you!" one protester yelled.

This was more like it was when they protested for the first time last month.

Meghann Puckett winced as she remembered a neighbor hurling a trash can at the small protest of about a dozen, hearing someone yell "White power!" and seeing "more middle fingers than I've seen my whole life" that summer evening.

But she wanted to try again. She asked police for backup, and on Saturday they watched from inside the station, after telling Puckett it was OK to protest on the curb outside. After spreading the word on social media, the numbers were about five times as big.

"It's so much better," she said, about two hours into Saturday's protest. "This group is bigger. And we're stronger."

A Prius rolled past them. Thumbs up! (Of course.)

A biker. Middle finger.

Another biker, with a long beard and a stars-and-stripes helmet. A wave and a hang-loose waggle.

Jason Officer, 35, spent three hours standing at the protest - to apologize.

"I have said the n-word in the past," Officer said.

But when he heard about Floyd and then learned that Eric Garner said the same words - "I can't breathe" - as Garner died in a police chokehold in New York in 2014, that convinced him there was something deeply wrong with the way police treat black Americans. And he finally decided to step up.

"That hit me," he said. "It's just not right."

And a big truck rolled by and Officer held his breath.

It was a muscle truck, black and shiny. The driver had his elbow resting on the window, road-trip style. What would he do?

A thumbs-up!

"Wow, the big tires and everything," Officer said. "You never know about people."

Columns