When JeaDa Lay and Madison Winn met in a choir at Lewis-Clark State College, they had no idea that one day they’d raise their voices to bring together hundreds of people in the biggest protest against racism ever seen in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.
Lay and Winn organized the Black Lives Matter Peace Rally that took place June 6 in Lewiston’s Kiwanis Park.
“We’re here to grow together, we’re here to change the world. I’m not done; we have to keep going,” Lay told those who gathered for the protest.
Now people are asking her and Winn, how do we keep going?
The two friends talked to Inland 360 about their experiences organizing the protest and possible answers to that question.
A deeper understanding of history is crucial to the moment
While the two women met in choir, they found their momentum in a civil rights class they took at LCSC last fall, Lay said.
“Many of the students had never heard of this history — black history, which is American history and world history,” said Lay. “Our history, which is so hard to look at, it’s draining. … Even I, as a black American, am constantly educating myself.”
Lay is biracial and considers herself black. She was raised by a white mother.
“Understanding more of what that history means and how it has manifested in now, I think people are so removed from it,” she said. “Most of the time they think it doesn’t apply to them, they’re so detached. It’s taken as a joke. It’s pitiful, is what it is. It’s completely disheartening that people are so removed from humanity.”
On planning a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020
Winn organized a Black Lives Matter march on the Lewiston-Clarkston Interstate Bridge in July 2016 that drew about 150 people. That experience gave her an idea about the types of online threats, reactions and counterprotests she and Lay could expect.
“The threats felt strangely more real this time,” said Winn. “It really felt as if JeaDa and I were in danger, especially in this area, which is sexist and misogynistic.”
People shared screenshots with the women from social media pages where people were organizing counter protests. Lay recalls one that called out to “all militia men, locked and loaded, all lives matter.”
Things gained momentum very quickly, Lay said. It all happened over the course of a week.
The women never shared these pages with their followers and instead focused their intentions on building a peaceful event.
“From the start, we went out of our way to be respectful to the community, reassuring them we only push for peace,” said Lay.
“The threats did not outweigh the support,” Winn said.
In the course of planning, the city initially issued a permit to them and then revoked it over a disagreement about when the protest should take place. The women worked with several lawyers, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union in Idaho, to ensure the protest would happen the weekend they wanted.
“I don’t want to put more energy into that, but people should be aware there were obstacles. The standards have not been held the same for everyone that has tried to protest in Lewiston,” Lay said.
Preparing for the day
“I think something that’s really important is that, looking back, I feel better. The night before, I felt like I was going to die. It was playing through my head; I’m truly going to die,” Lay said.
There’s a misperception that black people want to be fighting this fight, she said.
“Someone literally told me, ‘You want the attention; you want to be oppressed.’ It was extremely hard to be a face of this in a town like this,” said Lay, who was vice president of the student body when she graduated from LCSC this spring with awards, including Humanities Outstanding Graduate, the LCSC President’s Award and the Rising Woman in Leadership Award.
“As a white ally, I needed to check in with JeaDa and make sure she felt comfortable with every step of the planning,” Winn said.
The morning of the march, Winn asked her father, who died a few months ago, to be with her and took something of his with her. Lay prayed to her ancestors and angels. They met and prayed together. Lay’s mother, who had worked the night shift, arrived to be with her.
When they got to Kiwanis Park, a man was there and started videotaping them, asking what they thought they were doing. Protesters began to arrive. They waited until 11:15 a.m. to start because they could see people were struggling to find parking.
“It became so huge. It grew exponentially. People kept showing up and showing up, and suddenly we had 1,000 people in front of us. That half-hour gap was so intense with people showing up,” Winn said.
There were many other black people, other people of color and people from the LGBTQ community. They were heartened by the presence of people from the Nez Perce Tribe.
“The history of pain and trauma, generational trauma, that shows so much of us standing together,” said Lay.
“For the first time, so many people felt seen in their home,” Lay said. “I think it would be foolish to say I feel safe in America, in this area, but I will say I feel supported.”
They saw and heard counter protesters in the distance: a truck with a Confederate flag, people driving by and yelling, people with Trump flags.
“Eventually we drowned them out,” said Lay.
Armed protesters who gathered at the same time in downtown Lewiston didn’t participate in the Black Lives Matter Peace Rally. The women were cautious in their comments about the group.
“I think we held space and they tried to tell us where our space was and we decided where our space is,” said Lay.
Looking back and forward
“We were really afraid, but we still did that. We led people on a march,” said Lay.
Their fears were greatly overshadowed by the sense of community, strength and love, she said.
“It’s about how two women controlled a group of 1,000 people, and we didn’t have guns. We were standing in silence in remembrance of people, of people we don’t know about, of people in the future we won’t know about, a time in the future in which we are moving for change.”
White people keep asking Lay when the next protest is.
“People don’t understand how much it takes to do something like that,” she said. “I’m doing more just by existing right now.”
She feels angry, drained, tired and sad.
“I have a deep sadness. Every black person, we carry a deep sadness behind our big smiles and deep laugh,” Lay said. “Whenever you make a decision and disagree with someone, bring compassion and empathy. I think that’s something everyone needs to learn.”
“Other people need to be doing these things too,” said Winn. “Hopefully we inspired not just passion but leadership.”
People should be talking to their black friends and if they plan something, ask them to be there and to be leaders but also, stop asking so much and start doing more, said Lay. There needs to be more education and listening.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are in this time, you need to understand we are all in this together. We have to be working together to demolish these things. Some people are just waking up to the lives we are living. We’re all just waking up.”