The expanding breadth of public reaction to a video showing a white Minneapolis, Minn., police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck before he died on Memorial Day is unprecedented.

Protest marches have occurred in every state and worldwide, including in North Wilkesboro, West Jefferson, Elkin, Taylorsville and other small towns across North Carolina.

There are plans for more rallies in Wilkes County, including an observance of Juneteenth. This is the oldest commemoration of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slavery abolished in the United States.

Never before have protest rallies occurred so broadly in the U.S., especially in so many mostly-white small towns. The racial diversity of participants, especially heavy involvement of young, white protesters, in these events is noteworthy.

The majority of the protests have occurred peacefully, but incidents of violence and destruction at some have filled the news.

A tiny number of participants or onlookers with ill intent can quickly turn a constructive exercise of free speech into something ugly. It has been demonstrated that disproportionate use of force by authorities can have the opposite of desired results.

Because no permit was obtained, North Wilkesboro Police Chief Joe Rankin didn’t learn until around noon May 31 that a protest march was being held that evening in downtown North Wilkesboro.

Rankin wisely allowed the march to proceed as organizers planned, thereby avoiding a possibly contentious situation. He acted fast to have several officers posted at intersections along the march route to help maintain safety. Traffic was light as normal that Sunday afternoon.

No permit was obtained before a protest gathering, apparently impromptu, on the Wilkes Heritage Museum grounds in Wilkesboro Sunday. For the record, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro require that a permit be obtained before any protest, march, demonstration etc. is held on public property or public right of way. Permits are required for good reasons and event organizers will serve their own purposes by getting them.

It’s wrong and inaccurate to paint all police with the broad brush of racism.

Rankin spoke with conviction last week when he said he is sickened by photos and video showing what happened to George Floyd. “The officers who committed those acts in Minnesota are not my brothers. Our mission is to serve the people and we risk our lives every day doing that. Our officers are highly trained professionals.”

Rankin added that if one of his officers committed an act akin to what occurred in Minnesota, he would have the officer arrested and personally handcuff the officer.

Our experience with Rankin and the North Wilkesboro Police Department, and with other local law enforcement agencies, affirms this commitment to professionalism.

The brutality that led to George Floyd’s death produced a strong response that continues to expand as a reaction to systemic racism. These disparities between races in health care, housing, the justice system and other areas have been seen and felt more intensely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Racism is revealed in more subtle ways as well, like a white woman clutching her pocketbook more tightly when a black woman passes in the store. A black participant in the May 31 protest march in North Wilkesboro described what it was like to experience this.

On top of everything is that many people believe - for good reason - that the U.S. is regressing instead of advancing toward the goals of equal rights and opportunities for everyone and becoming more unified.

We pray that George Floyd’s death will be the catalyst for real and lasting change that the nation sorely needs.

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