Most demonstrators wanted to protest George Floyd’s death; others wanted to light the world on fire
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It was around midnight when Yuko Watanabe crouched in the corner of her restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and called her parents in Japan, yearning for a comforting voice. Rioters had hurled concrete blocks into the window of her restaurant. Raucous looters, night revelers, loud bangs, and smoke filled the streets. Broken glass and dead plants were scattered across her restaurant.
“Did you call the police?” her mother urged.
“Mom, you don’t get it,” Watanabe said. “They’re targeting the police!”
That was May 29, three days after protests began in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd. Then protests calling for racial justice and police accountability spread across the United States from New York to Los Angeles, and even from Paris to Seoul.
Most protests have been peaceful, but many have ruptured into violence: Some ended with the police spraying rubber bullets into the crowd, striking people with batons, and releasing tear gas. Other times, rioters torched buildings—including a police precinct in Minneapolis and City Hall in Nashville—and looted stores.
Many protesters blame the police for inciting violence—but they also blame unknown “instigators” among the crowd who threw water bottles and rocks at the police or set police cars on fire. The riots that erupted worry activists: Will people who share outrage over Floyd’s death (and others) turn against the protests’ original message? A few protesters argue that riots are necessary for social change. Protesters who want to maintain peace try to calm more-aggressive protesters.
The protests have attracted people with different agendas to slink in and take advantage of the madness. In many cities, looters broke into stores and hurried out with arms bulging with stolen goods. In some cities, people got hurt. In St. Louis on June 2, gunmen at a protest shot four officers. The same night, looters shot to death a retired St. Louis police captain, David Dorn, trying to protect a friend’s pawn shop. Dorn was black. In Buffalo, N.Y., on June 1, an SUV driver charged into police officers, injuring two.
Victims have included peaceful protesters, journalists, bystanders, and business owners: On June 3 in Orange County, Calif., a Mini Cooper plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters in broad daylight. In Fort Wayne, Ind., on May 30, an off-duty television journalist lost his eye when police fired tear gas cannisters into the crowd. In Las Vegas, police caught three members of the far-right extremist “boogaloo” movement allegedly planning to throw Molotov cocktails into peaceful protests. Videos also show business owners—many of them minorities—weeping after looters demolished and wiped clean their stores.
In most cases, protests started peacefully during the day, but as night fell and many protesters dispersed, looting and rampage began. I saw protest organizers in Los Angeles urge people to go home after the protest and explicitly condemn looting or violence. But some protest rhetoric and the vulgar graffiti some spray on walls—full of profanity and urging people to kill cops—send mixed messages to the public. I heard one man tell his friends, “We should burn all this [expletive] down.” Another man said he wished someone would shoot police officers dead, because “all cops are pigs.”
With emotions running high, one challenge for protest leaders is maintaining unity and focus with diverse groups of protesters who have different motivations.
That’s what Elevn St. James, 43, is trying to address in his “No More Names” protests in downtown LA. As a black man who grew up in LA, he said he’s experienced racism since he was 6 and still does. But he saw a lack of leadership in the protests, and also saw how quickly they can escalate into violence when an already distrustful crowd faces a line of police officers with riot helmets and batons. One belligerent action from either side could unleash terror. So each time someone began screaming at the cops during a protest on May 31 in downtown LA, he jumped forward and reminded the crowd: “Peaceful protest! Don’t give the police any more ammunition to hurt us!”
When one protester started tagging the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, St. James yanked the spray can away from him and disavowed his behavior in front of the crowd. Then he turned to the officers behind him and said: “This is what accountability is. This is what we expect from you.” He asked them to take a knee to show solidarity with protesters, but the officers refused, saying they had orders. “The police department is more outraged against the looting and the rioting than they are to the murders happening against black and brown people not only in LA, but all over the country,” St. James said.
Still, many police officers across the country—chiefs of some of the largest departments in the United States—have publicly condemned the actions of the four Minneapolis police officers in the Floyd tragedy. In many areas, officers also displayed support by marching alongside protesters or kneeling in solidarity. Even Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said she thinks “people’s minds are changing, hearts are changing.”
At a June 3 protest in Hollywood, where more than a thousand mostly young people gathered to demonstrate, I saw 26-year-old actress Keke Palmer passionately exhorting three National Guard members to march with them: “We have people here that need your help. This is when y’all stand together with the community, with society, to stop governmental oppression.”
The troops said they couldn’t leave their post, but when another protester asked them to take a knee, the three members did. Then one member motioned to the other guardsmen, and they took a knee with the protesters. The crowd cheered. Later, an LAPD sergeant also joined a moment of silence with the protesters. With arms wrapped around each other, officer and protesters bowed their heads for a few minutes. One organizer declared: “We don’t want any violence. We don’t want anyone hurt. We just want our voices heard.”
Wes Tarte, 28, said he hopes the National Guard members and police officers return home having experienced a little change of heart: “We’re all humans. But as soon as they put their uniforms on, it’s like they lose their humanity. What we’re trying to do is get them away from that and do what’s right.” Beside him, his 18-year-old brother grumbled—he still doesn’t trust the authorities and doesn’t believe they were genuine when they knelt. Tarte sighed: “My brother doesn’t agree. He’s young, he’s angry, his generation is up next and things have not changed.”
He said he too is angry. Every time he sees a police car, his heart skips: “When a white boy’s heart skips, he’s worried about a speeding ticket. When my heart skips, I’m worried about getting killed. I shouldn’t have to worry about that.” Still, he said he believes in the slow, gradual work of communication and compassion: “Our job as the people is to take our anger and aggression and frustration and instead of going up against their faces, we gotta hit right into the heart and say: Listen! This is what we’re going through!”
WATANABE, the restaurant owner in downtown Los Angeles, said she’s lucky that all she suffered was a broken window. When her property manager called her in the middle of the night, she rushed to her restaurant. Many people were still roaming downtown, swigging liquor, some performing doughnuts in their cars on the streets. She grabbed a broom and started sweeping the broken glass outside. As she did so, one kid began tagging the building with spray paint. “Go away!” Watanabe screamed. One young woman told her: “Honey, it’s a revolution. Have fun with it.” Another young man stuffed a wad of cash through her broken window and mumbled an apology.
Watanabe was at her shop until 4:30 a.m. cleaning up the mess. One group of young adults leaned into the cracked window and called out, “Hey, you want to buy some kitchen equipment?” They held up Tupperware, pans, trays, and nuts—goods that Watanabe suspected they looted from nearby restaurants. She chased them away.
Like many business owners, Watanabe is conflicted. On one hand, she supports advocating against police brutality and racism. But she sees some demonstrations spiraled into lawlessness: “What do we do? The system is all broken now. When I’m scared, I used to call the police. Now I can’t. Now I need to protect myself.”
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