On Police Retaliation And Obfuscation From St. Louis To Chicago
Most people don’t protest. Hell, even a lot of the people who want to protest don’t protest, and there are a lot of valid reasons for that. But if you haven’t done it, it’s easy to look at demonstrations from the outside and see people who are rowdy, disruptive, entitled to any kind of behavior, who’ve bought into outdated rhetoric and worked themselves into a tizzy about “the man.” It’s especially easy because that’s the narrative the news media tells about protests, especially when the news media confuses protests with riots all the time.
Take this, for example: Do you assume that the same people who have been holding candlelight vigils and die-ins in Ferguson and Saint Louis were also the people who burned cars and shops on the night of November 24, when Darren Wilson’s non-indictment was announced? If so, why? Where did you get that impression? Personally, I assume there’s some overlap, but I also know that experienced protest organizers know better than to destroy things or direct people to do so if they care deeply about their issue and want to keep organizing.
It’s hard to understand frustration with police on a day-to-day level — on the level of distrusting cops not just because they kill Black people with impunity, but because your interactions with them have been consistently negative — when you’ve never been in a situation in which you have a reason to disagree with the police. And so it’s hard to have never protested and understand why protesters live in the mindset of distrusting police, and distrusting the justice system.
To paint a better picture, I have two examples — one from Ferguson, and one from Chicago.
In Ferguson, on the night of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment decision announcement, police in St. Louis intentionally tear-gassed a protester-friendly café called MoKaBe’s. MoKaBe’s had announced two weeks earlier that it was a safe space for protesters, and in response, various police officers took to forums online, saying that they hoped MoKaBe’s got burned down and that they’d “laugh when you call 911 and they don’t show up.” The night of November 24, MoKaBe’s hosted a peaceful gathering to watch the grand jury announcement. Police started heading specifically toward MoKaBe’s, then gassed the café through the front and back doors. When the protesters tried to leave, the police blocked them, then gassed the sidewalk as well.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson claimed that MoKaBe’s had just been caught in the crossfire while police were trying to clear looters and vandals, but the video at the top of the page contradicts that claim, as do accounts from inside the café. This was, more probably, a retaliatory act toward MoKaBe’s for sympathizing with protesters. You can read a compilation of all the information about the MoKaBe’s gassing below:
Now, Chicago: Yesterday, several hundred protesters took to the streets at 4 p.m. to march in support of #BlackLivesMatter. The Chicago Police Department showed up in droves right from the start of the protest, kept protesters hemmed in on the sidewalks, blocked them from legally crossing streets, tried to force the protesters to march on a CPD-determined route, and wound up arresting 11 peaceful protesters. Police at the march eventually announced that anyone who didn’t follow the CPD’s route would be arrested. They lunged at protesters, using their bikes as weapons. These protesters had not done anything but march and chant; they didn’t endanger the cops, they didn’t endanger themselves, they didn’t endanger passersby or other protesters, they didn’t trespass on private property, they didn’t destroy anything. They just marched and chanted. Meanwhile, people on social media were organizing a phone campaign to demand the release of the arrested protesters. Officers at the CPD station that was holding the arrested — District 19 — repeatedly lied to people who were calling in, claiming that they hadn’t been taken to that station. They wouldn’t tell anyone what the protesters had been arrested for (I called, and was told that the arresting officers didn’t know why they had arrested the protesters). They were antagonistic to people calling in — one caller was asked if they were the police superintendent, because he’s the only person who could demand that prisoners be released. Another was told, “Honey, they did something bad and they’re going to need a lot of money to get out.” When jail support activists showed up to provide solidarity and supplies for the arrested, the CPD created a barricade to the station. They told activists that one support organization, Food Not Bombs, wasn’t welcome, and that if activists communicated with them they’d be cleared from the station. Their strategy was “bully, evade, bully, evade, bully, evade.” This is typical of the Chicago Police Department. They make the logistics of organizing and performing political demonstrations so difficult that the issue around which the demonstration was organized disappears, and instead it becomes an issue of the protesters’ right to protest. It becomes a standoff between police and protesters that protesters just can’t win. You can read more details about the protest, police tactics, arrests, phone campaign, and jail support below:
All this being said, I saw this tweet this morning:
— natturner (@natturner4) December 8, 2014
I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to make it out like this is merely an issue of the police being above the law, although they are. But the CPD is more aggressive about these protests than I’ve ever seen them before. This summer, I watched women break police lines after taking over Michigan Avenue during SlutWalk. Last year, I photographed a protest against intervention in Syria in which the CPD allowed us to walk in the streets for two or three hours. No one was arrested in either case.
I’ve never seen a protester arrested until last Friday, which isn’t to say it never happens — it does. But three people were arrested on Friday, and 11 on Sunday. There’s something about the #BlackLivesMatter protests that’s catalyzing the police. Maybe it’s the fact that they, themselves, are being held responsible in this case, as demonstrators are protesting the fact that Black people are being killed and incarcerated en masse in the United States. People are saying that this is lynching via police. Everyone who turns a blind eye to these deaths, who uncritically allows it to happen, is culpable, but the line of blame starts at the police. Race cannot be separated from that brutality.
So if you care, if you find this behavior suspect, what now? The most important thing to do is pay attention to how police are treating protesters, and communicate with your local and state representatives about your concerns. If we live in a democracy, that’s the only way anything will change.
For disclosure and clarity: I know many of the people I wrote about in this post personally. Sara Vipond, who has been gathering video and social about MoKaBe’s, is my sister, and is as interested in and vocal about social justice as I am. I also know many of the Chicago protesters who have been organizing and tweeting about Chicago demonstrations — they asked and allowed me to photograph their protests in the autumn of 2013, and I socialized with them during that time, although not since. My sympathies tend toward them, first and foremost because there’s overlap in our politics and values. But it’s also impossible to know them personally and not see a community that is nearly unconditionally supportive of each other despite political and strategic disagreements, invested in each other’s well-being, and invested in the welfare of the people of Chicago. Their compassion was what drew me to photograph them. They care a lot, and I admire that.
I hope it’s clear that I write mainly as an editorialist: I try to provide the best available facts about a situation, but I don’t just report them, I interpret them, and my interpretation is colored by my sympathies and personal experiences. Take that for what it is. I understand that the protesters’ tweets are colored by their sympathies and experiences, too, and I try to take that into account when I write. That being said, having participated in political demonstrations in Chicago before, and knowing them: I trust them. Most of their information and interpretations are accurate. If you have more or better information than I do, please feel free to send it my way: [email protected] or @rebeccavbrink.