Montrose leaders, residents hold a peaceful protest Monday in Montrose

Bailey Vince, a Ridgway resident, holds a sign in peaceful protest on Monday, June 1 at Demoret Park in Montrose. Local residents gathered at the park to promote solidarity and protest the death of George Floyd. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder of Floyd on Friday, May 29.

Montrose political leaders and others on Monday condemned the killing of a Minneapolis man, allegedly due to police conduct, which ignited protests nationwide, as well as local demonstrations.

According to a criminal complaint, George Floyd, 44, an African American man, died May 25 after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, 46 seconds, despite Floyd telling the officer that he could not breathe.

Chauvin was subsequently arrested on allegations of third-degree murder - perpetrating an eminently dangerous act and evincing depraved mind, and with second-degree manslaughter. The complaint alleges Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly three minutes after he went unresponsive.

“I think it was first-degree murder,” Montrose County Republican Party Chairman Ray Langston said Monday. “Somebody telling you ‘I can’t breathe’ and you continue doing what you’re doing, you made a conscious decision to do something that could end their life.”

Montrose County Democratic Party Chairman Kevin Kuns also decried Chauvin’s alleged actions.

“When is enough enough? When can (black men) be safe?” Kuns said.

“I don’t think there is any decent person that would look at the video of what happened in Minneapolis and condone that,” State Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said. “I think it was an individual who was out of control, and unfortunately, there were others there that probably should have intervened. I would hope that they will be held accountable for their actions.”

The death brought out local demonstrators over the weekend, who also are planning a demonstration tonight at 5, Demoret Park.

“I don’t experience racism due to my pigmentation, and so I think it’s really important to use my privilege to stand up and speak out for people who don’t have the safety to do that,” demonstrator Karen Sherman-Perez of Montrose said Monday. An immigrant-rights activist, Sherman-Perez said she was trying to show solidarity with the black community.

The protest wasn’t against law enforcement, she said, but there is a need for systems reform to keep all people safe.

“I wanted to try to be part of the movement in whatever small way that I can, and show my support,” Bailey Vince of Ridgway said. “I think it’s a really important cause and I want to do whatever I can to help.”

Although the Montrose gatherings have been peaceful, Coram said protests in Denver haven’t all been. He pointed to vandalism of the president of the state Senate’s vehicle, obscene graffiti and said the door to his office has been boarded shut.

“We have all the rights in the world to peacefully assemble and protest. I totally support that right,” Coram said.

“With that said, it appears that this is done in a shift operation — the daylight protesters seem peaceful and generally respect the rule of law. When the sun goes down, it seems like a different group comes in. They are there to create anarchy and destruction of the people’s House and surrounding businesses in this region.

“This unfortunate incident does not give you the right to burn and loot and cause personal injury to other individuals.”

Kuns also condemned violence, but said videos show bad actors on all sides, including, in some cities, police steering horses or vehicles into crowds.

“It’s very sad and scary to me,” he said, adding he is trying to put himself in the shoes of black Americans.

“If I grew up as a young black man and saw myself marginalized for 20 years … I would probably get to the point where writing my congressman, or a letter to the editor is not working,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I have watched a lot of police respond to the uprising against police brutality with more brutality,” local protester Chucky Photon said at the Monday rally. “That’s the thing that was the turning point for me to just (be) in and be active about it.”

For Kuns, it is also disturbing that the underlying issues are nothing new. As a white man, he said, he does not fear being pulled over, but black men have a different experience.

“What upsets me more than anything is, I wake up today and there are 107,000 people (in the United States) dead from COVID-19; 40 million unemployed, people unable to get food. Now we have the riots. Where is the leadership in this country?” Kuns said, criticizing President Donald Trump.

Trump drew fire for a tweet last week, which read: “These thugs are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to [Minnesota] Governor Tim Walz and told him that the military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control, but when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

After Twitter flagged the tweet as one violating its rules against glorifying violence, the president said the remarks were “spoken as a fact, not a statement.”

According to national media reports, President Trump on May 29 was briefly taken to a bunker in the White House as protesters congregated outside.

According to published reports Monday, he called several state governors “weak” in their response to violent protests.

“The occupant of the White House is sitting in a bunker calling out governors and mayors for lack of leadership,” Kuns said. “I never thought I would see that in my country … it just blows my mind this is where we are.”

Langston said the violence and property damage being committed in some places is disappointing and detracts from necessary conversations about better training for police; however, he did not see systemic racism.

“There is no systemic racism. If you look at people who die in custody, it makes up all races. … Is there racism? Yes. I think it’s abhorrent, but some people are just racist, and that’s on an individual basis,” he said.

“I think we have a media that has a totally biased agenda, to promote racism. I honestly believe the media has an agenda to promote a systemic racism issue where none exists.”

He also said Democrats are attempting to paint Republicans as racist and that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is racist.

People who riot are criminals, Langston said, adding he “doesn’t buy” that people are acting out because they feel oppressed.

“It really breaks my heart to see police come under fire because of this. The majority of our police officers are good, honorable people and they are going to suffer because of this,” he said.

Kuns said there seems to be a difference between how predominantly black protesters and predominantly white protesters are treated. He referenced a march on Michigan’s capitol building in May, in which people angry over the governor’s COVID-19 orders arrived fully armed.

“One was called a First Amendment protest and the other is called a riot. That to me is white privilege versus Black Lives Matter,” Kuns said.

Langston said he believed the response to Floyd protests has been due to violence, not the races of people involved.

Kuns said he has seen videos of white people engaging in acts of vandalism, apparently to trigger more of it, and that it is hard to know who agitators really are.

“It’s just not a good situation and it’s not getting any better. COVID-19 is not going away and now you have riots all over America,” he said.

Coram said he thinks peaceful protests are effective and that it will take a concerted effort to address systemic racism.

“First of all, you are not going to change anybody’s way of thinking through violence. If you want to change someone’s mind about something, you show them love and respect and you can have a conversation,” he said.

Montrose resident Kit Johnson attended Monday’s rally with Vince, her son. She said there needs to be more accountability and people need to work together, yet appear to be more polarized.

“I feel sad about America. I feel sad about the future,” Johnson said. “But I try to have hope, too. That’s what we all need to make a difference.”

Staff Writer Josue Perez contributed to this story.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.