By Chris Bowling
The smell of steaming asphalt mixes with the exhaust from cars traveling back and forth under a cloudless summer sky.
In one direction is the volunteer fire department for this town, Carter Lake, Iowa where 3,000 Hawkeyes live on the Cornhusker side of the Missouri River. Not too far away from the corner of North 9th Street and K Avenue there’s four churches, three used car lots and two scrapyards. Twentieth-century homes and a trailer park sit only a short drive from lakefront property where the price tag climbs.
Caught in between that on Thursday afternoon, there was a girl standing alone in a shady patch of grass wearing a neon green tank top. She held a glaring white sign with skinny black letters that came into focus the closer you got.
“BLACK LIVES MATTER JUSTICE FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR.”
Fourteen-year-old Karley Baker was only about three miles from downtown Omaha where protests of police brutality against unarmed black men, most recently George Floyd from Minnesota, have brought thousands, many bearing signs with similar messages. Those demonstrations grabbed attention as law enforcement shot tear gas and pepper bullets at crowds gathering past city-mandated curfews. But the soon-to-be Burke High School Freshman said her movement feels just as necessary.
“Racial equality isn’t something we should have to protest for,” said Baker who’s stood out here the past four days for up to five hours at a time. “But in this time, it is something we have to protest for and, you know, protesting alone doesn’t do much, but it does spread awareness.”
Baker, who lives in Omaha but is staying with her grandma in Carter Lake, said there are some clear differences, though. While handfuls of people linked arms and scream phrases like “I can’t breathe,” or the name of 22-year-old James Scurlock, who died after a former downtown bar owner shot him during a Saturday night protest, Baker stood under a looming tree by herself. Her cousin came the first two days, but since then Baker’s been alone.
While she stands there, she thinks. Her mind wanders through the reasons she’s here, the injustice she’s seeing right now and what the future holds.
“There are a couple people that try and ruin it and bring it down and don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement at all,” she said. “But I think if there’s enough of us that know what’s going on and try to do what it takes, it’ll stop. That’s why I’m sitting out here.”
As cars pass sometimes they honk and raise a fist out the window. Some people bring water and thank her for what she’s doing. Other times people tell her to go home or give her a dirty look. Baker said her family also stands on both sides of this issue. Some, like her parents, support her. Others want to pretend it’s not a problem so that it goes away.
It’s a little disheartening to see that, she said, but Baker doesn’t give up easily. She’s stubborn, a debate and speech student who loves to research issues, pick them apart and educate those around her. Doing that is crucial right now, she said. A lot of people—her classmates, adults, everyone—need to listen and learn from this moment.
That’s why she doesn’t mind being out here alone. Though Carter Lake isn’t far from Omaha, it feels like a world away. Kids play pickup baseball on shady streets while people pack public beaches to cool off from the early June heat. It’d be easy for Baker to go undetected here. But that’s not her style.
Speaking up, even from the side of a road in a small town caught between two flyover states, is exactly where she needs to be.
“A lot of people are really angry, you know, which is the best thing you can be right now,” she said. “It’s something everyone needs to be angry about. Some people just aren’t passionate about it. And we need to be passionate about it.”