Lawrence City Commission approves creating historical markers for police killings of two young men in 1970

Ron Washington, chairman of the Black Students Union at the University of Kansas, left, addresses a strike rally on campus in this file photo from December 1970, as an unidentified youth displays a sign in memory of Rick "Tiger" Dowdell. Dowdell was fatally shot while fleeing police on July 16, 1970.

City leaders have voted to move forward with the creation of historical markers to commemorate two young men who were killed in confrontations with police during racial and political unrest in the summer of 1970.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to create markers for the killings of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell and Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice.

Some Lawrence residents spoke in support of the markers, including Kerry Altenbernd, chair of the local NAACP’s history committee, who said the markers approved for the 1970 events, as well as another marker about an 1882 lynching, represented good steps for the city.

“Things are changing, with the approval of the lynching memorial and now working toward getting these markers addressed and getting the truth to come out,” Altenbernd said. “I’m proud that Lawrence is doing this now. Better late than never.”

But the tension of 50 years ago seemed not so far away, as a couple of residents spoke negatively about Dowdell and Rice during public comments.

One of those commenters was Ron Dalquest, who told the commission he was a police officer in Lawrence at the time. Dalquest said that he was against putting up plaques for Dowdell and Rice “because they were criminals,” and that there were lots of people murdered in Lawrence who didn’t deserve to die how they did.

“But these two guys, you know, they chose the way they died,” Dalquest said. “They made that choice, they made the mistake. And our law enforcement are the best in the state, and I can’t understand why you can’t see that.”

Dowdell, a Black 19-year-old, was shot in the back of the head by Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett while attempting to run from police, with police alleging they exchanged gunfire with Dowdell in the moments before his death, as the Journal-World has previously reported. A coroner’s inquest at the time found that Dowdell’s death was justified, though that finding has been controversial. During a protest four days later against Dowdell’s killing, Rice, a white 19-year-old, was also shot in the back of the head after police reportedly fired into a crowd of protesters. The killings came amid a period of civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in 1970 that were at times destructive — including the firebombing of the University of Kansas Memorial Union — and led to arrests and use of force and tear gas by police, according to information on the Watkins Museum of History website.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda addressed Dalquest’s comments and said that the history of abhorrent behavior against Black men and women needed to be addressed.

“I think that it’s important to acknowledge that committing a crime is not a death sentence, particularly if you haven’t gone through the criminal justice process,” Ananda said. “And I think that putting our racist history at the forefront is particularly salient at the moment, in the conversations that we’re having.”

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he recognized historical markers can create some debate, but he said he thought that was an important part of the process.

“I recognize that historical markers can generate strong feelings in individuals,” Finkeldei said. “And indeed, I think that’s part of the purpose of them, is to start that conversation.”

Commissioners agreed that including information about the events of 1970 in Lawrence would be an important part of the process. As part of its action Tuesday, the commission voted to direct city planning staff to work with the Parks and Recreation Department, Human Relations Commission, Watkins Museum, and the Rice and Dowdell families to design markers — including the text — and make a recommendation to the City Commission.

City Commission Meeting 09/01/20


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