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Sprawling Protest Movement Treads Line Between Justice Agenda and Chaos

2020-05-30 11:00:09
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MINNEAPOLIS — With the Third Police Precinct headquarters engulfed in flames, a cathartic release swept through the streets of Minneapolis’s South Side Thursday night. Some people danced to Beyoncé, others passed out beer. Still others chanted: “No justice, no peace! Prosecute the police!”

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has incited a wave of demonstrations and unrest across the nation, renewing passionate street uprisings that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement six years ago.

What happened in Minneapolis and elsewhere this week reflected the broad and diverse scope of the movement that took flight six years ago, with young but already veteran organizers trying to keep the focus on police accountability and systemic racism through chanting and marching. Others came to revel in the energy of the moment. Some came to loot and set fires.

Mike Griffin, an organizer in Minneapolis, said these are mostly decentralized protests. “That happens without the black pastor coming in and telling us to do it. That’s organic. These are organic protests.”

But that decentralized nature comes with risks of a moment that can spin out of control, with images of flames and looting or worse that can easily overshadow the central message of an end to police abuse and systemic racism.

The protesters come from all racial backgrounds with ardent cadres of young white allies quite unlike earlier eras of racial unrest. Some marches are led by national or local activist organizations. Many others are simply spontaneous, sprouting up from long-simmering frustrations in city neighborhoods.

But underlying it all was a moment of witness, part anger, part despair, part hope, defined by the seemingly endless drumbeat of deaths as senseless as that of George Floyd.

“May 27, 2020, changed my life forever,” said Kayla JuNaye Johnson, 21, a student majoring in criminal justice at Grambling State University, a historically black public university in Louisiana. “I would always go out and support protests but never took full action like I did yesterday. I stood on the front line shouting, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ Now I finally know how us African-Americans felt during the civil rights movement. I am a part of history.”

Protests played out around the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Friday night.

A particular hot spot this week was Louisville, Ky. Gunfire broke out in the late hours of a demonstration on Thursday that was protesting the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician killed by Louisville police officers executing a search warrant. Seven demonstrators were injured. It is still unclear who fired the shots, though authorities said they came from within the crowd.

“We have to be careful to control our message, and violence changes that message,” said Keisha Dorsey, a Louisville city councilwoman who supports police reform. She said, with the endless fire hose of social media, it can become easy for a protest to lose all focus. “At that point that centralized voice, if it’s not cohesive, can get lost,” she said.

Many of the nationwide demonstrations this week have pushed for the arrest of the officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death. But every city has also had its own cases and rallying cries.

A demonstration in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday night, which ended in clashes between police and protesters and damage to the Ohio Statehouse, was not only about Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor, but a number of other black people killed at the hands of police, including a 16-year-old killed in a police sting in Columbus in late 2018.

In Phoenix, a controversial local activist called a march which, while not fully supported by the other police accountability groups in the city, ended up drawing hundreds, many of them protesting the long-troubled record of the Phoenix police in addition to the death of Mr. Floyd. In Memphis, an aggressive police response to a demonstration organized by local educators on Wednesday night prompted a second protest on Thursday, in part responding to the police actions during the first.

“It started out as the George Floyd issue,” said Ayo Akinmoladun, a Memphis educator who organized what was intended to be a small silent protest. “All of these other issues are now coming out.”

While the demonstrations are largely unmanaged, there is also a more structured element to the overall attempt to win policy reforms, with activists who came of age on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore or Cleveland making better use of technology and other tools than in the past.

DeRay Mckesson became a well-known activist after spending months in Ferguson chronicling the nightly vigils and clashes with police over the killing of Michael Brown.

He is not heading to Minneapolis, where he used to live, to protest. Instead, he has been speaking with organizers on the ground to craft strategy, he said, in line with the work he has done in more recent years to develop policy reforms.

“There needs to be an immediate response to the trauma,” he said, referring to street protests. “There are people who do that, and I support that. I can be most helpful pushing around policy changes, structural changes and helping to make sure the story we tell is consistent with the world we’re trying to build.”

In Minneapolis, some local activist groups have led rallies on the South Side, where Mr. Floyd was killed. They have set up tables with fliers and also handed out water and other things to keep the people at rallies comfortable.

But young residents, unaffiliated with particular organizations, have led a more spontaneous uprising, said Mr. Griffin, a senior organizer with Community Change, a national activist group.

Even the Black Lives Matter network had public meetings and agendas and a decision-making structure, he said. Now, there is “an army of young people who are more fired up, more pissed off, more ready to be in your face to fix this system than we were five years ago.”

Carol Becker, a longtime Minneapolis resident, took her 13-year-old to witness some of the demonstrations earlier in the week while there was still light out and things were under control. She supported the protests because she believed that the officers were “absolutely wrong,” she said.

But by nightfall, with unrest giving way to tear gas, rubber bullets, and burned and looted businesses, she found herself standing in front of her father’s apartment building, fending off people trying to set it on fire, she said.

“There were protesters at the police precinct,” she said. “When you got even a block away, there weren’t protesters anymore. These people weren’t protesting. They were breaking into things and taking things.”

Minneapolis has a core group of anarchists, residents say, describing them as white activists of the Occupy Wall Street mold, challenging the moneyed elite in a city with a high concentration of Fortune 500 companies.

One man in particular has become a focus of those who believe that outsiders could be trying to discredit the protest movement and its goals. Dressed in all black, with a black gas mask and carrying a black umbrella, “Umbrella Man,” who appears to be white if otherwise unidentifiable, was filmed breaking windows at an AutoZone store.

People sympathetic to the protests continue to view figures like “Umbrella Man” with deep suspicion.

“I am well aware there are often people at these rallies who incite violence to discredit those peacefully assembled,” said Camille Gage, 63, an artist in Minneapolis who said that the building where she keeps her studio was on fire. “I feared there would be an effort by some to use violence and destruction of property at the rally to honor Mr. Floyd, and I was sadly correct.”

But some said the destruction was necessary.

“We’ve tried being peaceful,” said Rashaad Dinkins, an 18-year-old college student from Minneapolis. “We’ve tried doing the kneeling and the silence for so long, and we get criticized for even doing that.”

“This is what needs to be done for the world to pay attention,” his friend, Amra Zahirovic, added. “People have had enough.”

It is impossible to manage and control a group as varied and eclectic as those who have shown up at the protest scene in Minneapolis: a 40-year-old black mother of three who had joined her boss, a 21-year-old white woman, to pay homage before their shifts started at a Little Caesars pizza place in the suburbs; a couple of Green Party members who were helping with donations at the first-aid station at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church; a trio of young white men dressed in headgear and goggles who appeared ready for battle.

“Cub is my grocery store; I eat here and it’s trashed,” said Johnnie Green, 54, who lives about four blocks away. He studied the graffiti and destruction, considering where he may have to go for groceries now. “I’m an optimistic person, but I’ve never seen this in Minneapolis,” he said, remarking on how friendly and diverse he found the neighborhood.

But he understood where the anger came from.

“The police never stand up for us,” Mr. Green said, sipping on a beer. “With the Covid pandemic people are hungry and homeless. With no job, what do you expect? I think that’s going to happen to masses of people across this country. We could reach the point that it’s civil war.”

Still, in city, after city, people turned out, hoping for the best.

“I’m here for peace,” said Kenny Washington, 39, of northeast Minneapolis who came out with her newly minted college freshman son, Trenton Washington, 19, after some rest from the exhausting first night of protest. “Destruction is only going to bring chaos. People want to bring change, and we came back to give peace another chance.”

John Eligon and Matt Furber reported from Minneapolis and Campbell Robertson from Pittsburgh.

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