BISMARCK — About 300 protesters carried handmade signs denouncing police brutality as they marched through the streets of North Dakota's capital city on Saturday, May 30.

Many demonstrators grew hoarse chanting "black lives matter" and "I can't breathe" during the five-mile trek through Bismarck. Others wore facemasks that muffled the sound of their spirited cries to "say his name," in reference to George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police on Monday, May 25. Derek Chauvin, the white now-fired officer who videos showed kneeling on Floyd's neck during the arrest, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Opie Day moved to Bismarck a year ago after living most of the rest of his life in the Twin Cities. The 44-year-old citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa emerged as one of the protest's leaders and performed several songs on drum that he said radiate unity and good feelings in his Native American community.

Day said he and many other Native Americans have been victimized by police discrimination just like other people of color. He added that Floyd's death and the ensuing unrest in his hometown "really hits home."

“Not being able to be home in person, this is my way of contributing and letting them know that I’m with them," Day said. “It just breaks my heart to see my city like that — like a warzone.”

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Day noted that he was surprised and heartened by how many demonstrators showed up Saturday in Bismarck, which is a politically conservative city. In addition to Day, many other protest leaders were members of Native American tribes.

Opie Day, 44, leads a crowd of about 150 in a chant shortly after a protest over the death of George Floyd in police custody began in Bismarck. Day lived most of his life in the Twin Cities before moving to Bismarck and says the pain his hometown is enduring "really hits home." Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Opie Day, 44, leads a crowd of about 150 in a chant shortly after a protest over the death of George Floyd in police custody began in Bismarck. Day lived most of his life in the Twin Cities before moving to Bismarck and says the pain his hometown is enduring "really hits home." Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Zach Raknerud, who is running for U.S. House of Representatives on the Democratic-NPL ticket, drove down from his native Minot to show support for protesters who are "fed up" by what they perceive as unfair policing practices.

"Even in a community that isn't as diverse as some other areas, we still stand up for each other and we still understand there's pain in our community too," Raknerud said. "We have to fight back against it."

Unlike similar rallies held in Minneapolis and Fargo, the demonstration in Bismarck never really teetered on violence or clashes between protesters and police.

Officers only showed up to the rally about an hour after it started to tell protesters to continue moving through town and stop blocking the intersection of State Street and Divide Avenue, a busy junction near the North Dakota Capitol building. Within minutes, demonstrators heeded the officers' commands and started back toward downtown.

The three-hour march was not completely without tension. Several protesters threw water bottles at cars that tried to maneuver through the sea of people, but many drivers locked in the traffic jam caused by rally tapped their horns in support of the demonstration.

About 10 minutes in, the tone of the rally changed from cheery to serious after one protester made an impassioned urging to take to the street and show residents unaffected by police discrimination a taste of "the pain we feel everyday."

As protesters passed by his Seventh Street home, Terry Ohlhauser stood outside and said to his neighbor "that's a good thing right there." Ohlhauser, who was not involved in the demonstration, said he saw the video of Floyd being restrained on the ground and decided it wasn't right. He added it was good that upset members of the community chose to express themselves.

As a multi-racial resident of Bismarck, Allison Johnson said she had to come out and make her voice heard Saturday. She said instances like the one that resulted in Floyd's death have an added trauma to her as a mother of black children.

"I have an 18-year old son who is African-American and I worry about my son every day, sending him out in this crazy world," Johnson said. "I worry that my baby's not going to come home one day because of this foolishness out here."