The Laramie City Council’s regular meeting on Wednesday was interrupted when protesters against racism and police brutality briefly occupied council chambers during public comment, bringing the meeting to a halt.
Local resident Jon Shapley was speaking during the council’s public comment period when protesters carrying signs and shouting chants entered the chamber.
“You going to do anything?” Shapley asked council members as protesters began filling the small space at City Hall.
The protesters shouted, “Do your job” as some council members left the dias and others in the chamber looked on in disbelief.
“Can’t say I disagree with their sentiment,” Shapley said of the chant.
After around three minutes the protesters began clearing council chambers, moving outside without incident.
A statement from the Laramie Human Rights Network, a grassroots movement that has largely been behind the marches calling for police reform over the last three months, indicated protesters are growing inpatient with what they see as a lack of responsiveness from elected officials.
“Wednesday’s sit-in calls attention to our city government’s negligence and unwillingness to perform their duties and responsibilities,” the press release states. “A sit-in is a form of protest with its roots in the civil rights movement, which causes temporary and peaceful disruption in order to inspire action from officials. The Laramie City Council has failed to bring meaningful resolutions to their constituents for nearly three months. A resolution — passed June 30th presenting a civilian oversight board — was created without consultation from concerned citizens, and no responsibility has been taken by council or the city manager in effectively researching or progressing its contents. Our city government refuses to address the larger, more pressing issues of community reallocation and demilitarization of the Laramie Police Department.”
After a few minutes, the meeting resumed. Mayor Joe Shumway said it was important that the council move forward with its agenda after the disruption.
“I didn’t want to have it be something where the business of the city is thrown out the window because there are people who want to interrupt what we’re doing,” Shumway told the Boomerang Thursday. “We locked the doors and pulled the shades and went about the city’s business. I personally appreciate their rights, but we’re going to find a way to do the city’s business, whether that’s in council chambers or elsewhere.”
Council chambers is currently limited to allowing 10 members of the public inside during meetings to allow for proper social distancing. Shumway said he and others were upset by the protesters’ apparent disregard for public health and safety by occupying the small space with dozens of people.
“They violated occupancy rules because of the COVID-19 situation,” Shumway said. “We’ve been clear from the very beginning we’re not going to put our employees at risk. Well, our city manager was at risk, our assistant city manager was at risk, our city clerk was at risk, our city council was at risk. They pretty much came in and put the whole city structure at risk last night by doing that. We really didn’t have the ability to escape and take them out of that risk.”
A spokesperson for the Laramie Human Rights Network told the Boomerang protesters have taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously by wearing masks and social distancing as much as possible during open-air events. But because of the protesters’ urgency calling on council to act, the spokesperson indicated Wednesday’s sit-in was a necessary risk.
“We have a situation where our local government refuses to do anything about the virus (their rejection of the mask resolution a few weeks ago), so it is very pertinent for these councilors to be faced with the reality of their inaction, that gatherings such as these, with more people and no masks are completely legal in our town,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Furthermore, considering their refusal to do anything about the issues that plague this community with pain and suffering, it must be necessary to weigh the risk of increased potential for exposure to the virus with the immediate threat of these issues.”
While the once daily demonstrations calling for change have now dissipated somewhat, the message from Tuesday’s sit-in was that protesters are not going away and would not cease making demands for reform.
One protester, Sam Miller, told the Boomerang Wednesday future sit-ins aren’t off the table.
City manager Janine Jordan said Thursday she believed the city had been doing the work it committed to in a June 30 resolution regarding a citizen oversight board for the police department.
“Working together, the City Attorney, Police Chief and myself, have started researching oversight board structures, best practices, training requirements, membership qualifications, legal matters, costs, etc.,” Jordan said in an email. “We hope to share our findings and be able to make at least some general recommendations to (the) City Council sometime between November and January.”
In light of the demands for reform, Shumway said he’s worried protesters will never be satisfied no matter what council does. There’s a fundamental disagreement, he said, as to whether there’s an imminent threat of police brutality concerning the LPD.
“Our police are not out using force in an irresponsible way,” Shumways said. “If they were, we’d be hearing about it.”
Shumway said there’s a concern in the community that protesters on the political left associated with the Laramie Human Rights Network will inevitably clash with people on the right commonly associated with a Facebook group called “Love America.”
“We don’t need to have a big conflict to resolve it,” Shumway said. “We need to make sure that everyone has a voice and everyone is given the right to enjoy the greatest nation, the greatest state and the greatest community there is.”
People associated with both groups have exchanged public comments during council meetings of late, but Shumway said how that’s handled in the future will be different. Going forward at council meetings, Shumway said he thinks it is likely public comment periods will be limited to Zoom and the telephone to avoid any future disruptions.
Boomerang intern Logan Stefanich contributed to this report.