OMAK – An estimated 400-500 people filled the sidewalks of downtown last Thursday for a peaceful march for George Floyd.
Floyd died after a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck during an arrest.
The officer and three other officers have since been fired and charged in his death.
Protestors, calling for social justice reform, marched from Civic League Park through downtown.
Armed citizens positioned themselves along the route to protect protestors and businesses from potential out-of-town groups threating to cause harm.
“I thought it was an amazing thing to watch take place,” Omak Police Chief Jeff Koplin said Friday morning. “I think it went extremely well on all sides. I saw people with starkly different opinions and views show up, all in support of each other.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a display like that in my life,” he said. “I tear up a little bit as I think about it. I’m a little in awe of it, to tell you the truth.”
Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley echoed that.
“Last night’s demonstration went extremely well,” Hawley said. “I believe this was due to the planning and communication which occurred before anyone gathered in Omak. The lead organizers of the march and the effort to protect the businesses and demonstrators were respectful and supportive of each other, which eased a lot of tension before it started.”
Hawley said he was also grateful for Omak and Okanogan fire departments, LifeLine Ambulance, Life Flight, Omak Police Department, Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Brewster Police, U.S. Border Patrol and Colville Tribal Police for providing a safe environment for the demonstration.
“We all should be grateful to live in such an amazing community,” he said.
Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Arian Noma said he, too, was impressed.
“Okanogan made its voice heard yesterday and proved that you can be heard without violence and mayhem, and simply through unity,” he said. “It is my understanding that many of the protestors were of high school age.
“It took courage of heart and fortitude to stand up and march for issues that, at first glance, do not seem like they affect our community,” he said. “Those leaders of tomorrow showed the utmost compassion, professionalism, consideration and love. Thank you, very much, young people and the rest of the community, we hear you.”
Omak Mayor Cindy Gagne said she was grateful for the “cooperation exhibited by all participants.”
“The demonstrators followed through with their promise to be respectful and keep to the message of peace,” she said. “Likewise, the community members who came out to ensure that there was no violence and vandalism — from factions that may have sought to interject into the marchers — were respectful and peaceful, too.
“The law enforcement presence and assistance was appreciated greatly,” she said. “In preparation of the event, we had communicated with the parties and then prepared for the worst possible scenario that I know all of us are glad didn’t transpire.
“There have been many occasions to be really proud of the people in our community and last night was one of them,” she said. “In this instance ‘community’ means the whole of this county.”
Protestors gathered in Civic League Park where they mingled and prepared to march through downtown.
Organizers gave a brief welcome, followed by a prayer by Father Jake Morton and a moment of silence in memory of Floyd.
Jayden Tonasket, an Omak High School senior, said she had the initial idea to host a march in Omak.
“I started the event thinking maybe 20 people would end up coming; and someone counted around 500 people were there, which is unbelievable,” Tonasket said Thursday. “I had no idea it would ever get to be as big as it did. Especially in a town like this. I’m very happy we could all come together and acknowledge what is happening in the world, and still manage to stay peaceful and spread love.”
“I am sincerely grateful for the community support our event received,” said Jordan Williams, who also helped to organize the event. “In this process, our organizing team made so many valuable connections with community members.
“Moving forward, it is my hope that these connections will allow us to organize a group dedicated specifically to addressing social justice issues here in Okanogan County,” she said. “We look forward to working with and for our community again in the near future.”
Cecilli Gildroy MacGregor said the march was “incredible” and filled with “so much love and support from so many different members of the community.”
“I definitely feel like everyone needs to see how well we all came together,” she said. “My sister and I stayed at this event until everyone else had left, to ensure that the park was left cleaner than we had found it. Our cleanup effort was hardly necessary, everyone had been so respectful and policed their own trash so well.
“I believe the head count I heard was somewhere around 467 people involved in our march; that’s not including all the wonderful supportive men and women lining the sides of the streets, keeping us safe,” Gildroy MacGregor said. “We never, in our wildest dreams, expected that kind of turnout.”
As protestors walked into the downtown corridor, they were greeted with armed citizens standing by — should any violence break out.
Omak resident Wendy Snook said she had initial concerns about attending the event.
“I was really scared to go down to it,” she said. “But, you know, I eventually worked up the courage to go down there and everybody was really cool, calm and collected.
“I thought it went really well,” she said. “It felt really great to be able to participate.”
Adrian Carrillo, another one of the march’s organizers, said he was in contact with the armed citizens prior to the event.
“They were there to protect protesters, local business and our message,” Carrillo said. “They did not want our message to get mixed with any ‘outsiders’ starting violence. There were many rumors going around that people were coming from cities to cause a riot.
“Our group of protestors and the demonstrators did not want this to happen,” he said. “We did not encourage them to come armed. They were coming no matter what. So, I wanted to clear the air and made sure we had relationships on both sides in case a riot broke out.”
“This peaceful march in Omak was organized by the young people of our community,” Chesaw resident Sandy Vaughn said. “As a person who has been involved for many years in joining others to work for social and environmental justice, I was inspired by the organization and diversity of the group. What a blessing for our community.”
“I’m so inspired by the energy, good will and diversity of the hundreds of people who showed up,” she said. “Even most of the armed people on the streets smiled in response to greetings, although some scowled. Maybe those thought their friends, young people, co-workers and neighbors were going to do some looting.
“Or maybe, as some people say, they were protecting the marchers right to protest without interference from agitators,” Vaughn said. “But this gathering was an energizing part of a real movement for justice. Nothing can take that away.”
Former Omak Police Officer Jim Bucsko called the protest simply “awesome.”
“We put a lot of work into making sure everything went smoothly,” he said. “The community came together, and it was just fantastic.”
He said he had been in contact with law enforcement agencies and organizers of the protest prior to the event.
“It took a lot of hours, several days to make sure everything went smooth,” he said.
“Our main mission was to make sure that the protestors’ rights — their free speech — was protected from outside influences. Their voice is important.”
He said he spent more than two hours speaking with a couple of the protest organizers and told them if they needed anything to contact him.
“Whether you’re right, left, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “That is what was really awesome, and powerful about this. It was just amazing.”
He said he, along with many others, were greeted with handshakes, fist bumps and smiles from protestors on both sides of the sidewalks.
Bucsko credits a group of volunteers — Teagan Levine, Oren Jensen, Creig Hedington, Rocky DeVon, Tyler Christensen, and Kenny Davis — for helping to make sure things went smoothly.
“I thought it turned out great,” she said. “The protestors were awesome and everyone that came and helped made sure that their peaceful protest didn’t get hijacked.”
She said armed citizens stayed in town late into the evening to protected downtown businesses should there have been an after-dark riot.
“We’ve heard so many rumors, it just like, OK, we can’t act on every rumor,” she said. “All we can do is plan for the worst, hope for the best and let everyone know that we’re your neighbors, friends and your families.”
She called the protest the “most impressive display of our constitutional rights last night that I’ve ever seen.
“Okanogan County rocks.”
After protestors made their way through downtown, they gathered at city hall where they shared speeches which called for social justice reform, including Black Lives Matter, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and more.