By June, Billy Harris had grown sick of his girlfriend’s stepdad watching Fox News coverage of the George Floyd protests and “spewing constant fucking hate.”
Neither the protests, nor Floyd’s death, directly impacted the stepdad’s life, Harris said, or the lives of other Laramie residents he heard grousing about the unrest.
“I wanted it to affect them,” Harris, who is white and 24 years old, said. “I wanted to do something here to let them know, let the middle-aged white people in my life and all around town know that there is a community that would stand in solidarity.”
So Harris made social media posts, asking people to march in downtown Laramie on June 2.
By June, Timberly Vogel, a 22-year-old Black woman, wasn’t interested in another march. The recent University of Wyoming graduate had gone to a few during her time in school. They were usually small, contained to campus and rarely echoed into the broader community, she said.
“They’ve just always been very performative and never lead to change,” Vogel said.
Instead of marching, Vogel was trying to fundraise for Black causes. Raising money seemed a more effective strategy in Laramie than marching, she said. After seeing the post for the march, she reached out to Harris, whom she did not know. Let’s meet and organize further, she wrote to him.
Vogel didn’t suspect that the march Harris proposed would be the first step of a sustained movement or that ensuing protests would consume Laramie for the next month.
Over the next three weeks, Vogel, Harris and others would lead a crowd of mostly young and mostly white Laramie residents to march every evening in a routine that evolved from a sidewalk stroll to a traffic-disrupting occupation of principal thoroughfares. The movement would draw armed opponents, spark dangerous escalations and result in arrests. It would test tempers in Laramie and drive a police reform discussion that could be historic for Wyoming.
The Laramie city council, facing ongoing disruption, voted June 30 to pursue a civilian oversight board for its police department. Though officials haven’t decided its shape yet, the oversight board, if it comes to fruition, will be the first of its kind in Wyoming.
A surprising showing
Harris and Vogel met in the middle of the first march. There were an estimated 150-200 people that night. The size of the marches would peak in the next few days.
By day three, the crowd streamed down Laramie’s sidewalks, occupying four or five blocks at a time and numbering over 1,000 by most estimates.
People of all ages and from all walks of life marched. University of Wyoming athletes and professors, families with young children and young people marched down the sidewalks and chanted for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans slain by police. UW football coach Craig Bohl, Wyoming’s highest paid public employee, even appeared one night.
In Laramie, people “just get consumed by this mega identity that none of this stuff matters here because it doesn’t happen here,” Vogel said. “But yeah the first few days it was like ‘whoa,’ people really do care about this stuff. People just came out of the woodwork.”
Though the marches began in reaction to a Minneapolis police officer’s brutal killing of Floyd, protesters quickly added Robbie Ramirez — a Laramie resident killed by an Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy in November 2018 — to their list of grievances. A local policy agenda coalesced as the weeks progressed.
The marches were at first lawful. Gathering at 5 p.m. each evening, marchers stayed on sidewalks, mostly obeying traffic signals.
Police officers kept their distance, Laramie chief of police Dale Stalder said, after it appeared officers had become “a source of [marchers’] anger.” There were “lots of slurs about ‘F the police’ and things like that,” he told WyoFile in a July 1 interview. Officers remained watchful but apart, staying off Grand Avenue, a major downtown artery, where the marches occurred.
“Our request was they stay on the sidewalk to demonstrate and that they cross with the [traffic] lights for their own safety,” Stalder said. “Over a period of days that started to deteriorate, but we kept our same plan in place every day urging them to please stay up on the sidewalk.”
Signs of opposition appeared from day one. Truck drivers revved their engines and “rolled coal” — deliberately spewing clouds of black exhaust from noisy exhaust pipes. The trucks flew American flags, along with Trump flags and “thin blue line” flags supporting police. But more passing drivers honked their horns in support of the marchers.
Speakers exhorted the marchers to keep showing up. “This is a marathon not a sprint,” Vogel said one night.
As the marches grew in number, the counter protests also increased their activity, honking and revving more frequently and displaying weapons. On June 6, a white pickup truck flying a “Trump 2020” flag and an American flag circled the marches. Two men surveyed the protestors from the truck bed wearing tactical gear and holding assault rifles across their chests.
Tyson Trabing’s truck was one of those tuned to “roll coal.” To blow black exhaust toward the marchers, Trabing would downshift the truck and then accelerate, he told WyoFile on June 5, speaking from the strip-mall parking lot where counter protesters gathered before and after the marches.
The counter protesters were showing up to “support our troops, support our cops and support our families,” Paige Hysong, who accompanied him, said. “A lot of our families are cops.”
Trabing wasn’t “against them protesting,” he said, but opposed rioting and looting — which took place in some U.S. cities but not in Laramie. “We’re out here to support our country,” he said. He had blown exhaust when some protesters had left the sidewalk and seemed in his way, he said. “It’s not to aggravate them,” he said.
During the interview, however, another pick
up truck flying American flags pulled up to Trabing and Hysong. “Are they still down there?” one of the two young men in the cab asked. At Trabing’s affirmative answer, they pulled out. They were off to “cause trouble,” the driver said.
On June 4, a caravan of the counter protesters found itself stopped by a traffic light at Third and Grand — a major intersection that would become a flashpoint as the marches continued. Protesters approached the trucks and a motorcyclist flying an American flag and chanted at them. The motorcyclist laid his hand on a gun on his hip.
The light seemed to take a long time to change. When it finally turned green, releasing the tension, protesters spilled into the middle of Grand for the last two blocks of their march. It was the first time a mass of protesters occupied the streets.
Why be lawful?
Early on, Vogel and Harris realized they did not want to just march. They wanted to create a disruption.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Harris said. “It’s bizarre, especially when you’re doing it for that many days in a row to not interrupt anything, not disrupt anything.”
“We had to reassess the point of us being out here,” Vogel said. At issue was the purpose of civil disobedience and political action.
“What is the point of a protest?” Vogel asked. “What does standing in solidarity really mean? Because I think it’s very easy to say, ‘oh, yeah … we organized these marches and stood in solidarity but like in a very complacent and passive way.’”
“When you have that mass of people, that’s where you have power,” she continued, “where you have the ability to disrupt and get people’s attention.”
Despite that, Vogel and Harris say they didn’t lead anyone into the street. On June 7, a pre-march speaker called for bolder action. Vogel and Harris had ducked for a moment into a coffee shop adjoining the plaza where the marches began. “We came back out, we’re like ‘oh my God, everyone is in the street,’” Vogel recalled.
“Rage cannot be contained within a sidewalk,” she said.
Laramie’s march had evolved into something new, for both the town and many of the participants. It was now civil disobedience.
“You have like 90% white people in Laramie,” Harris said. “We need to … have some sort of expectation on ourselves to be disobedient in a productive way and take a stand for something that could so easily slip between the cracks in the community like this.”
Laramie wouldn’t sit this one out, Vogel said.
“If the whole world is standing in solidarity and having these outrageous demonstrations, then we should too,” she said.
From June 7 on, marchers blocked one side of Grand or the other, sometimes both, each evening. At Grand and 15th Street, a major intersection, protesters would kneel and chant just on the safe side of the crosswalk, blocking all of Grand.
When the tone of the marches became more aggressive, attendance ebbed. UW coach Bohl certainly wasn’t seen again. University professors and others reached out to let the protest organizers know they wanted to show solidarity but couldn’t risk breaking the law, Vogel said. But the crowds continued to number in the hundreds most nights.
The counter protesting also escalated. Frustrated pick-up truck drivers advanced on the crowds and revved engines. Some bluff charged, like huge mechanized bears. Marchers stood their ground.
Harris, Vogel and other organizers called for calm during speeches before and after the marches. “Please don’t engage with them,” Harris asked the crowd one day.
There were dangerous moments.
On June 10, protesters were occupying the intersection at 3rd and Grand, blocking traffic and chanting “Black lives matter.” The driver of a red flatbed truck pulled out from the line of cars waiting at the light and advanced on the crowd in the opposite lane. A man stood in the bed and held a Trump 2020 flag, staring the marchers down over the truck cab roof.
Protesters swarmed the vehicle, trying to stop its progress by placing their bodies in front of it.
The truck advanced slowly, even as protesters leaned on its hood and some pounded their fists on it. At least one protester threw a bicycle under the truck’s tires, and others climbed onto the bed. No police officers were present.
Another day, when protesters occupied 3rd and Grand, a different pickup advanced on them. A car driven by protesters blocked its path and a heated confrontation ensued. The pickup’s driver got out of the cab holding a holstered pistol across his chest. “I’m scared for my life right now,” he yelled as protesters mocked him for carrying the gun.
Protesters pulled each other away and the situation dissipated. Again, there were no police nearby.
The lack of police presence was deliberate, Stalder said.
Officers investigated incidents, he said, and issued some citations. “There was a lot of provocation going on on both sides,” he said. The marches were tense for officers, he said, but for the first three weeks the department limited citations, avoided arrests and had conversations to try and keep both sides calm.
“We had concerns on a daily basis about what was happening but we also felt that our approach was appropriate because we didn’t want to overreact against either side,” he said. “The overarching goal of any police department is to ensure the safety of the community they serve. That’s been our goal in this ever since the beginning.”
Vogel and Harris disagreed that the response to the counter protesters was appropriate. There is little equivalency between the gun-toting and exhaust-blowing counter protesters and the sign-carrying marchers, they said.
Out of the public eye, residents delivered cakes, cookies and flowers to the police station. “There is widespread support for the police in this community — there always has been,” Stalder said. Just last week, residents gathered to rally in support of police, the Laramie Boomerang reported.
For the marchers, however, the civil disobedience was paying off. Within days of the Grand Avenue occupation, Laramie’s city manager, Janine Jordan, set up a meeting with Harris, Vogel and other organizers.
By mid-June, the protesters were organizing politically. On June 15, they marched to the Albany County Courthouse, where they held discussion groups on the lawn and crafted demands for city officials.
City council held a contentious special meeting on June 23, taking testimony from protesters asking for changes to police use of force.
Two days later, a police department spokesperson issued another press release. “Beginning today, demonstrators are placed on notice that if they enter the roadway illegally, either to walk or to sit, they will be subject to citations,” the release said. Police would first warn, and then cite protesters who didn’t obey the warnings. The release did not mention arrests.
The department had to act, Stalder told WyoFile. Officers could only tolerate so much lawbreaking. The protesters’ consistent blocking of 3rd and Grand, including lying down in the intersection for nearly 10 minutes, had also drawn complaints from the Wyoming Highway Patrol. Though labeled as 3rd Street through downtown, the road is in fact Highway 287, a thoroughfare under WHP’s jurisdiction.
“We’d asked them for three weeks to please follow [the laws],” Stalder said. “They made a decision not to, and we finally made a decision that if you’re not going to do what we’re asking, we’re going to cite you for it,” he said. “You’ve made your point. We understand it, the council understands it, everybody in the community understands your point.”
Seven people were detained that evening by police, while five more were cited. Protesters say the police made a show of force to intimidate them.
Local defense attorney and state representative Charles Pelkey is contesting the cases in court, pro bono. Pelkey and his law partner are prepared to push the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court, he told WyoFile on July 17, though the crimes were misdemeanors with relatively low fines.
“They did nothing wrong,” he said. “They were exercising First Amendment rights.”
More marchers showed up the day after the arrests than the day before. This time, protesters rollerbladed, cycled and skateboarded down the street — a lawful way to occupy the roadway. They still blocked traffic, but no marchers were detained.
Stalder didn’t mind the new method, he said, describing himself as “very happy” with the evening’s modified protest.
A June 30 City Council resolution called for the city manager to draft options for a civilian oversight board for the Laramie Police Department — the only law enforcement division under the council’s purview. The resolution also allowed the manager to investigate areas “in which mental health professionals may be appropriately utilized in place of, or in combination with, Laramie Police Department officers.”
The resolution also directed the city to identify funding in its public safety budget that could be used for crisis intervention training for officers. This approach aims to equip officers to deal with mentally ill subjects or others who might be in crisis who wind up the subject of police calls.
The resolution passed unanimously. One councilor, Jessica Stalder, the police chief’s daughter, recused herself from the vote.
The idea of a civilian oversight board isn’t new to Laramie. Albany County for Proper Policing, an advocacy group born in the wake of the Ramirez shooting, had pushed for one for nearly two years without success.
Councilors began working toward an oversight board a week before the protests began, Brian Harrington, the city councilor who introduced the resolution for the civilian oversight board, said. Councilwoman Erin O’Doherty texted him late one night following Floyd’s death and the protests that followed. “We’re elected officials, we have a responsibility,” was the gist of the text message, Harrington said.
“I was ready to move,” Harrington said. “I knew other members of council were ready to move forward with this.”
But initially, Harrington found the protesters uninterested in working with officials. “I talked to the protesters for a while. It became pretty clear that they weren’t really interested in working with people on council,” he said. “I sort of felt like ‘the man,’” said Harrington, a progressive politician who at 32 is the youngest council member.
When the resolution was up for a vote, some protesters weren’t satisfied. In public comment to the council, a few called it “hollow” or “the bare minimum,” because it advanced the intent of a board without creating one.
It would take time to establish, Harrington said. “It wasn’t an appeasement measure,” to quell protests, he said.
Despite the doubts, “we were obviously stoked to see it pass,” protester Harris said of the resolution during a July 20 phone interview. The marchers wanted to use their momentum to help push ACOPP’s neglected initiative through and were successful, he said.
Harrington continues to speak with protesters, and Harris and Vogel said they have found common ground. Caught in the middle, Harrington is also healing some of his relationships with police officers upset about the resolution, he said.
“There was no way to do any sort of reform without making the public perception and internal perception be that we are punishing law enforcement,” he said. “It’s easier for me to say that wasn’t my intention — it’s harder to win that trust back.”
Officers who say they are doing their job well and don’t need a civilian oversight board have grounds for that belief, Harrington said. But he wants to see Laramie build an oversight board now, before there is an incident that would necessitate its involvement. “This is a proactive step and proactive steps sometimes feel unnecessary and uncomfortable,” he said.
The ideal oversight board would have “very little work,” he said.
The historic vote came even as officials expressed frustration at protests they felt were groundless. The Laramie police department is an exemplary law enforcement operation with no history of civil rights violations, Stalder told WyoFile the day after the council’s vote.
“People need to understand that what happened in Minneapolis did not happen here, and the police officers that work here are held to a high standard day in and day out,” Stalder said.
“I don’t worry too much about a civilian oversight board … because this department has nothing to hide,” he said.
The crowds showing up night after night were proof that many in Laramie felt otherwise, Vogel and Harris said. The university town doesn’t need a large police force that accounts for 25% of the city’s budget while there are two other branches of law enforcement patrolling its streets, they said. Protesters continue calling for reallocation of some of LPD’s funding.
While opponents say Laramie is an exceptional place that doesn’t need reform, the protesters argue debate about the future of policing is a national one that can — and should — take place in Laramie too.
“We can maybe make some real change,” Vogel said. “We can’t stop now.”
The protests have already changed the tenor of local politics, Harrington said. “It’s a very alive democracy,” he said. “To know that you might vote on something and cause a march the next day … that’s very different than my council experience leading up to 2020.”
The group has stopped marching each night. It now hosts lectures on racism and how to combat it, online and at times in person. Protesters have met to write letters pushing the UW Board of Trustees to disband the campus police department.
Vogel estimated there are around 30 people who consistently participate in the letter writing. They think they can still drive 70-100 people into the streets if they need to. “If we’re not getting heard through these orthodox ways,” like council and board meetings, Vogel said, “we’ll find our unorthodox ways of doing it.”