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Divided Together looks at the urban-rural divide in the United States through the lens of one town: Lynden, Washington. The project was funded by a grant from Election SOS, which works to improve news coverage of elections.

Divided Together: A 'March for Black Lives' comes to a small, conservative town

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Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
Lynden, Wash., was the site of a 'March for Black Lives' and a concurrent pro-police rally that each drew hundreds of people on July 5, 2020.

This story is the second in a three-part series, “Divided Together,” looking at the urban-rural divide in the United States through the lens of one town: Lynden, Washington. The project was funded by a grant from Election SOS, which works to improve news coverage of elections. You can find the first installment here. You can read this story in Spanish here

Amsa Burke grew up as one of the only Black residents of rural Lynden, Wash., where the population is more than 80 percent white.

Adopted from Ethiopia at 6 into a white family, Burke said she had a mostly wonderful childhood in Lynden. She said her family loved her, she had friends, and she did well in school.

But, she said, sometimes her peers made her aware of race. At those moments, she felt "like a science display or something everyone wanted to touch and like poke at."

At other times, she faced overt racism. She said a classmate once commented Burke would have been a slave in the olden days, and someone once gave her a note with the n-word on it at school.

Burke said, for the most part, she brushed off these experiences. But then a chain of events culminated in an awakening. It started with a mission trip to Ethiopia, followed by the pandemic, followed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests around the United States.

Burke said it wouldn't have been enough to attend a march in another community. She wanted to march in her hometown.

Burke, who had just finished her junior year at Lynden High School at the time, planned what she called a "March for Black Lives," alongside other high school students and parents in Lynden. She said they avoided the phrase "Black Lives Matter" out of concern it would be inflammatory in the small, conservative town.

Before long, fliers started appearing in Lynden. 

“We need your help,” they read. “Protesters are coming to Lynden. Help us protect our town.”

And when hundreds of marchers gathered in Lynden on July 5, 2020, to support Burke and her fellow organizers, they were met with a pro-police rally that also drew hundreds of people. Interactions between the two groups were loud, emotional and complex.

You can listen to that story above and read the script below.

Will James: This week, our series “Divided Together” is exploring the urban-rural divide in the U.S. We’re looking at it through the lens of one small, conservative town: Lynden, Washington. The urban-rural divide was perhaps never more apparent in Lynden than on one day last July. Local high school students organized a march for racial justice through the town, and the reactions were loud, emotional and complex. KNKX’s Bethany Denton takes us back to that day.

Bethany Denton: July 5, 2020, was a Sunday. Amsa Burke woke up feeling nervous.

Amsa Burke: I was really scared that I was going to be kind of the one responsible for something bad happening. But I knew I had done all the right things. You know, I talked to the police. I made sure they were on board with us. But they told us as long as we're peaceful, it should be OK.

Bethany Denton: Amsa had recently finished her junior year at Lynden High School. She, along with a handful of other high schoolers and parents, had planned what they called a “March for Black Lives” in Lynden. They avoided the phrase “Black Lives Matter” because they worried that it might be too inflammatory in this conservative town. Amsa is Black, adopted from Ethiopia at the age of 6 into a white family. She says, for the most part, she had a wonderful childhood growing up in Lynden. Her family loved her, she had friends and did well in school. Even though she was the only Black person in her school, she says she didn’t think much about her race, though there were the times when others made her aware of it.

Amsa Burke: I kind of felt like a little like a science display or something everyone wanted to touch and like poke at.

Bethany Denton: In Whatcom County, where Lynden is, an estimated 82 percent of residents are white. At times, Amsa experienced overt racism. A classmate commented about how she’d have been their slave in the olden days. Someone once gave her a note with the n-word on it at school. Amsa says, for the most part, she brushed off these experiences. But then, she says, a chain of events culminated in an awakening for her. It came after a mission trip to Ethiopia, followed by the pandemic and business closures, followed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests around the country. She says attending a march in another city wouldn’t be enough. She wanted to march in her hometown. Days before the event, fliers went up around town. “We need your help,” they read. “Protesters are coming to Lynden. Help us protect our town.” Amsa had expected this kind of reaction, but she wasn’t sure whether a lot of people would come out to support her.

Amsa Burke: People started coming. Then more people started coming. I was only expecting maybe like 50 people, maybe a hundred, if it was lucky. But I was not expecting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. I was, like, “What?”

Bethany Denton: The day of the march, Jim McKinney was a little nervous too. Not because he was marching, but because on that same day he was attending a pro-police rally, organized by a group called Lynden Freedom. That’s the group that created the fliers about protesters coming to town.

Jim McKinney: I'm a retired U.S. Army foreign area officer and intelligence officer. I decided to go out and participate not in a counterprotest per se, but more as in a rally. And I would say that's probably the way to look at it is support for police. There was a lot of tension at the time and a lot of arguments to defund the police. And I do not see the types of issues in our county that are prevalent in some of the major urban areas where we've seen more violence and more destruction.

Bethany Denton: Jim, who’s white, doesn’t see racism as an issue that Lynden needs to solve.

Jim McKinney: We've created these narratives that have divided and made issues that don't really, that are very, if they exist, they're at a very low individual level. Most people here are actually quite accepting. And I've really never seen any problems or issues from my perspective.

Bethany Denton: Jim’s fears about the March for Black Lives in Lynden came from what he saw happening in cities like Portland and Seattle. This was less than a month after Seattle protesters drove the city to abandon a police precinct and established a police-free area known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. To Jim, those actions didn’t look like an exercise in free speech but a sign of societal collapse.

Jim McKinney: I served in the Balkans. I was the security assistance officer at the embassy in Albania, I was down in the southern Philippines. And I watched communities that had once been together and thriving disintegrate very rapidly based on divisive issues.

(People chant “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter.”)

Bethany Denton: The two groups faced off at various points around town, with hundreds of people on each side. Videos from that day are such a clear window to a particular time in recent American history. One side is a rainbow of protest signs and face masks; one side is a sea of stars and stripes and bright red baseball caps — and a fair number of rifles. There weren’t any violent encounters so far as we know. Just a lot of shouting on both sides. Rusty Polinder, a Lynden resident, was at the March for Black Lives that day. He left feeling disappointed by the backlash.

Rusty Polinder: I remember saying to other people was, “We were on the wrong, Lynden was on the wrong side of history today. And it's embarrassing.”

Bethany Denton: Rusty joined the march because he felt compelled by his evangelical Christian faith.

Rusty Polinder: I think a lot of people like to say, “I don't see skin color.” Well, God does. He made us. He made skin color and he made culture and he made so many beautiful things that we need to really dive into each other to understand each other.

Bethany Denton: Rusty is white. He’s from Lynden, fifth generation, and he recognized people on both sides that day — people he’d grown up with and went to church with. He says that even though he marched for Black lives, he is hesitant to align with the national Black Lives Matter movement because he supports law enforcement. But it did hurt him to see many at the pro-police rally carrying rifles.

Rusty Polinder: I feel like the counterprotest took away from what Amsa and others shared that day. I don't think it was heard. And that was disappointing. This place is like no other and I mean that in a positive way, but I also mean it in a, our strength also has become somewhat of a weakness. Because if you belong here, you belong here.

Bethany Denton: Rusty says what makes Lynden special is how tight-knit the community is. Lynden rallies around its own. But that same quality can make it unwelcoming to people perceived as outsiders. On the day of the march, some people on the pro-police side dismissed those at the March for Black Lives as outsiders from the larger and more liberal city of Bellingham nearby. They didn’t believe these issues had anything to do with Lynden. And when Amsa gave a speech recounting some of the racism she’d experienced right here in her hometown, videos from that day show people on the pro-police side couldn’t hear it. They were standing too far away.

Will James: That story by KNKX’s Bethany Denton is the second installment in our series “Divided Together,” about the cultural gap between rural communities and cities. It’s funded by a grant from Election SOS. Listen tomorrow for the final installment. It's about how people in the Lynden area reacted to the coronavirus pandemic in radically different ways.

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