Water bottles, granola bars, goggles, earplugs, milk of magnesia, first aid kits, hand warmers, face masks, cardboard signs. These are the things I arm myself with before heading to Black Lives Matter protests.
Rubber bullets, firearms, pepper spray, batons, tear gas, bulletproof vests, handcuffs, bats, flash bangs, body shields. These are the things police officers are armed with at Black Lives Matter protests.
The thing about BLM protests is, I don’t even think “protest” is the right word for them anymore. They are more like community events, with speakers, music, marches, free food, even cookouts. In some ways, they resemble block parties — everyone gathered around in solidarity, bringing food to share with the crowd, passing around safety kits and water bottles.
I have never felt a stronger sense of community than at BLM protests. We all have each others’ backs because we have to have each others’ backs. We stand, hundreds strong, against line after line of fully armed officers. The most violence I have seen protesters use against the police is the launching of a half-full water bottle into the air — nothing compared to the air heavy with tear gas, or the welts growing on people’s bodies after being shot with rubber bullets.
BLM protests are often framed as violent and chaotic, with some of the latest reports including claims of protesters throwing cinder blocks and frozen soda cans at officers. From what I saw and experienced, this is false. But I have come to realize that it doesn’t even matter if it is true or not — because we are up against the power of a militarized state. For those who are tracking it, police officers commit violence on an almost daily basis.
For those who point out that looting or the destruction of businesses is a form of violence equal to that of the police, I ask: Is a Target store equal to the worth of a life?
Interrupting protests that demanded justice for George Floyd, in the two-month process of the Derek Chauvin trial, were additional protests across the Twin Cities, after Daunte Wright was killed by Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter.
One speaker at a protest the next day put it this way: “Y’all can’t even go two months without killing us?”
Immediately after the shooting of 20-year-old Wright, who was unarmed, community members gathered at the Brooklyn Center Police Department. They were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bangs. I watched as one man knelt before a wall of officers with his hands in the air. The police responded by shooting several rounds of tear gas directly at him, as well as many rubber bullets. One rubber bullet collided with the man’s ear. He fell to the ground and was pulled away by medics.
Not long after, he returned to the same spot with his head bandaged to stop the bleeding from his ear. He continued kneeling with his hands up throughout the night.
On April 13, I attended another protest at the Brooklyn Center Police Department. The crowd gathered in a circle around speakers, including a couple state representatives. We marched from the police department to an FBI building a few blocks away. After we arrived, speakers shared their stories, including one woman who was also a victim of Derek Chauvin’s. “In 2018, he knelt on my neck. He knelt on my neck, too,” she told the crowd.
That night, police escalated the situation again. As protesters stood in front of the fence surrounding the police department, chanting, passing around safety kits, and holding each other, the officers pressed forward and began tear gassing the crowd before the 10pm curfew.
Several residents from a nearby apartment building came outside to ask the police to move the crowd further down the street, since tear gas was leaking into the building.
“Please, there are kids in here. There are kids! They can’t breathe in there!” one parent yelled.
The scene the next night looked similar, with the police pressing forward and tear gassing almost immediately, despite the fact that the crowd had remained peaceful. As soon as the police began tear gassing and shooting rubber bullets, the panic and aggression escalated.
Again, residents came out of their apartment building to ask police to stop tear gassing. One woman, dressed in a bathrobe, made her way to the cops who pushed her to the ground and arrested her.
Protesters and community members weren’t the only ones on the receiving end of police violence and arrests. Although press are exempt from curfews, Louie Tran, a reporter with Move for Justice News, was taken by an officer, despite the fact that he was clearly labeled as a member of the press. He was eventually released and continued his reporting, but more arrests and violence against reporters continued the following nights.
Niko Georgiades, a reporter with Unicorn Riot, was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet, detained, and had his equipment destroyed by police. Journalist Georgia Fort was tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Reporters from other publications, including the Star Tribune, reported police violence, which led to a restraining order prohibiting police in Brooklyn Center from arresting journalists or using force against them.
There were reports that dozens of medics, who attend protests to provide immediate medical aid to anyone who has been injured, were targeted and arrested by police.
Heading into last weekend, protests for Daunte Wright popped up around the Twin Cities. I attended a protest at the University of Minnesota on Saturday, hosted by Students for a Democratic Society, and then made my way back to Brooklyn Center for the night.
The Brooklyn Center Police Department remained surrounded by National Guard members, with six or seven snipers situated on the roof. But across the street, in the community, were rows and rows of tables offering free food, water, masks, hand warmers, goggles, and other safety supplies. There was music, dancing, chalk, and families with children as young as toddlers.
Suddenly the lively crowd grew silent. Everyone’s heads turned toward the street where the Reverend Jesse Jackson stood in a circle of reporters. He placed his hands on the shoulders of community members as they prayed together.
The night remained relatively peaceful, after one protester announced that Daunte Wright’s family requested to keep peace. “For just one night. Let’s have some peace.”
For the first time since Daunte Wright was killed, the police seemed to oblige.
Following the closing statements in the Chauvin trial on Monday, protesters returned to the streets demanding justice for George Floyd.
There is a sense of desperation at BLM protests. No matter whose name we are chanting, or whom we are demanding justice for, the fact remains: There is always someone we are demanding justice for. But no matter how many officers get charged, no matter what sentence Derek Chauvin gets, no matter what happens to Kim Potter or any of the other cops who have unnecessarily taken lives, we do not have true justice.
I believe we will not have justice until we abolish the system that allows this to happen in the first place.
We can never get back George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Adam Toledo, Philando Castile, or any of the thousands of people killed by police. But we can end the system that will continue to take lives.
It is not about this cop or that cop, the “bad cops” or the “good cops.” To me, it is about an entire system that is rooted in racism, sexism, classism, queerphobia, transphobia, and violence.
The violence will not go until the system does. That is why I am in the streets at community protests, and writing and speaking as I can about what I have experienced and seen — it is time right now to get to work dismantling this deeply abusive system.
Kassidy Tarala is a journalist who has been a freelance writer for Minnesota Women’s Press for several years.
See this news item about pending Minnesota legislation related to police reform