By Dan Spalding
WARSAW – If anyone thought they could rile up and cause trouble at the second Black Lives Matter rally in four days, it didn’t work.
Days after two 26-year-old Hispanic organizers held a peaceful rally at Central Park that attracted about 90 people, a similar 90-minute demonstration brought together several hundred people at the Kosciusko County Courthouse square Wednesday afternoon, June 3, and it remained thoroughly peaceful.
While the first event was not well-publicized, news of Wednesday’s event left plenty of time for some to suggest there would be violence. Talk of outside agitators being bussed into Warsaw and social media speculation about Antifa stirred emotions in recent days and got the attention of law enforcement who again kept a low profile.
But there were no problems Wednesday.
Organizers, aware of the rumors, set strict guidelines and required the hundreds of supporters – many carrying signs and wearing pandemic masks – to sit in the grass on the east side of the courthouse lawn as speakers talked on a megaphone of their struggles with racial inequality and hopes for change following the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
Numerous precautions were taken. Benches and trash cans were removed from around the courthouse square. City and county employees were sent home ahead of the rally and police and a meeting was held hours earlier with organizers and local leaders.
A few times during the rally, motorcyclists drove past on North Buffalo and revved their engines in an apparent attempt to interrupt the event, but each time, the crowd started loudly chanting “I Can’t Breathe” to drown out the disturbance.
Overall, though, the rally was more somber than Saturday’s and included emotional stories about racial injustices.
Sara McNeal Strahan, who ran for Warsaw City Council last year, talked about the hardships she endured as a young student and the changes that have evolved.
“This is an enormous, positive change,” she said. “Today, we are making a better place for our children like me who had to suffer.”
Breon Jones told the crowd about how a peaceful protest in Fort Wayne Saturday turned ugly. He was kneed in the ribs, tear-gassed and spent two days in jail.
“They’re trying to scare us out of this, obviously. they don’t want us to have a voice … keep fighting and let’s make the change.”
Gabrielle Cretcher, 23, directed some of her comments to white allies. “Most important, keep lending your voice to shut down these anti-black sentiments that are happening right now. Just know that we won’t be backed into a corner … we are the change that’s happening right now.”
But what likely turned out to be a highlight was an address at the end of the demonstration by Sheriff Kyle Dukes who used the opportunity to call for cooperation in improving race relations.
Dukes thanked the crowd for conducting a peaceful protest and talked about a two-hour meeting he and Mayor Joe Thallemer and Police Chief Scott Whitaker held with organizers Wednesday morning.
Dukes said they need to “bridge that gap” between police, Hispanics and African Americans and called for everyone to “take the next step.”
He also applauded the efforts of two organizers, Ofelia Rios and Maria Medina. “If it wasn’t for you two, this doesn’t happen,” Dukes said.
He advocated for change.
“I reassure you … we are a team in Kosciusko County now and we are working together with all police departments, the mayors. I extend that invitation to you. Come join and work together,” he said as more applause broke out.
Pastor “Denny” Bollenbacher then led the crowd in prayer. “America’s got to wake up and serve the Lord. and if they’re serving the Lord, these horrible things we’ve heard today can be resolved.”
Medina said Dukes’ comments were unexpected and was overjoyed at the overall turnout, which was likely one of the biggest demonstrations in Warsaw in modern time.
“This is absolutely mind-blowing,” Medina said afterward. “We were not expecting this support – though we are receiving backlash, we are also receiving the support from our community.”
“We need to let people know we’re not going away. We’re not going back to normal. This is where change begins,” she said.