I am an ordained minister. I have been attending and participating in protests in Minneapolis, Chicago, and now South Florida for 10 years. My first protests were in response to the Church of Scientology and its abuse of church members as well as evidence of shady financial practices that should result in its religious charity status being revoked. Among us were a bunch of white kids wearing Guy Fawkes masks playing meme music like “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley and “Still Alive” from the Portal video game franchise. We didn’t block the street or sidewalk. We had permits to protest and use sound amplification devices. The police rarely showed up and if they did it was only to remind us of the terms of our permit.
Experiences like this one led me to believe that as long as we obeyed the law and had our permits in order, the cops would be on our side. I didn’t question this assumption until I attended a protest in Chicago for organizers who were arrested and falsely charged with terrorism charges (and eventually released due to public pressure). Admittedly, I don’t remember much about the circumstances around this protest, but I do remember that it seemed strange to me. We were advised on what to wear, how to approach the police line, and that we shouldn’t smoke cigarettes because they might use the butt to arrest us – even though littering isn’t an arrestable offense in Chicago.
And again, when I protested for energy solutions and utility rights, we were, what I would describe as, the epitome of peaceful. We even did the electric slide (energy is basic a right…electric slide; get it?) at an intersection in the Chicago Loop. After a while we were told to disperse, some did, but a crowd of people remained, including a handful of ministers and a rabbi. The cops then brought in a giant van and proceeded to arrest everyone who was still at the intersection. The scene was calm, orderly, but almost unnerving in the way it happened. I was left wondering: Why did they arrest those folks? What did they accomplish? How did it protect me and my community?
Occupy Chicago was a real eye opener for me. I had heard rumors that Chicago police were especially brutal, but did not truly understand the terror or what this meant until I saw the way they arrested protestors, tore down tents, dragged people down the street, and so much more. It seemed clear to me at the time that the cops were more invested in protecting capitalism, buildings, and tourism than they were with actual human life or freedom of speech and assembly. This was just a few years after the 2008 Housing Crisis. My generation was promised that if we went to college, got a degree; we could be successful homeowners who lived out the American Dream. Occupy was a declaration for many young people that we knew that promise was a lie. Why did politicians send the police in riot gear when they could have made sweeping reforms to provide economic relief for students, low-income housing, increased SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) eligibility and funding?
When protests for justice in the name of George Floyd started up around the country a few weeks ago, it wasn’t a question of whether I should attend but whether I could given the pandemic raging around us. I have spent the last three months trying to set an example for others by wearing my mask everywhere and keeping a safe social distance. Experts have suggested that wearing masks and keeping a distance can mitigate risk. I also knew that open-air transmission of COVID-19 is significantly lower than indoors, but shouting and coughing caused by teargas would certainly increase communicability dramatically. All that in mind, however, I soon became aware of the most radical display of police activity and violence at the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that I’ve ever heard of. It looked like a warzone and solidified my belief that protests can’t be peaceful if the police are there.
Protests tend to feel a lot more dangerous with cops staring down at you dressed in full riot gear, eager to agitate, and decorated with rubber bullet or pepper ball guns slung over their shoulders. In Florida, cops have not hesitated to use riot tactics on unarmed, peaceful, protestors. Police are also on video arresting people who were speaking their mind (note: being offensive is not a crime), firing tear gas (a tactic banned by the Geneva Convention), and pelting citizens for simply standing on their porch. In Orlando, the protest looked more like a block party than an uprising until cops showed up and used dozens of cans of teargas on the crowd. The panic is palpable, even when simply watching the video. People don’t show up to protests hoping to get into a confrontation with the police. They go hoping that showing up will put pressure on their elected officials to give them the justice they deserve.
It’s clear to me that the response to protests is essentially cops living out the fantasy that they are warriors. It’s an open secret at this point that police are effectively trained to think of themselves as soldiers, and that violence or killing is both necessary and good (CW: video report contains graphic footage of police brutality and police shootings). They believe themselves to be the Thin Blue Line between order and chaos, but it seems more likely they are the vanguard for that same chaos.