Opinion Column: Grand Rapids peaceful protest turned to riot
As I watched the video of George Floyd's murder, I saw the unconcerned look on Derek Chauvin's face as he squeezed the life out of Floyd.
I saw other officers watching the scene and doing absolutely nothing.
I saw a man who was arrested and murdered for using a '"fake" $20 bill to buy cigarettes, which turned out to be real.
I was outraged. I started to imagine my black friends being in that position. Where a simple police stop could lead to their death.
The days after Floyd's murder, I was constantly watching videos on social media about the protests in Minneapolis, New York and Seattle. I saw courageous protestors who would not let another murder of an innocent black person happen ever again. They chanted "Not one more! Not one more!"
I wanted to be out there with them. After almost 100 years after black freedom they are still not free. I needed to help change that.
When I found out the my hometown of Grand Rapids was having a Black Lives Matter silent march I knew that I needed to attend. I knew that I needed to go to document and spread the word of this powerful movement.
The night before the protest, I was on social media watching videos of protestors in Minneapolis and other cities. People were being sprayed with tear gas, hit with batons, thrown to the ground and hit by police cars driving straight into the crowds.
I started having second thoughts about going to the March. These videos made me scared for my safety. Not because I would be with thousands of protestors, but what only police officers might do to us. I was afraid to be tear gassed, I was afraid to be beaten, I was afraid to be arrested for practicing my right to freedom of speech.
All of these things were happening to protestors across the country, and I was afraid that it would happen to me. But those protestors were brave, and they kept fighting. I knew that I had to be strong for them.
I got to Rosa Parks Circle at 5:20 p.m. for the silent march. As soon as I got to the circle, I could not believe what I saw.
Thousands of people were already gathered in a rally with Black Lives Matter signs, banners and flags. Speakers were telling their stories.
People from all ages, ethnicities, genders and orientations gathered in union to demand justice for the black people. Speakers told stories of their injustices and starting chanting to excite the crowd. It was a sea of black bandanas tied around peoples faces. Everyone's fists were in the air in solidarity. There were groups of teenagers on the outside of the circle playing the song "F**k tha Police" loudly from their speakers. Some people brought megaphones and were chanting "Black lives matter! Black lives matter!"
When it was time to march, coordinator Asja Saintard offered us safety instructions and directions. She explained that safety volunteers, wearing neon yellow vests, were stationed along the route of the march. March coordinators were also working with the police to ensure a peaceful and effective protest. Protective face masks, hand sanitizer, and water bottles were given out to marchers.
When the march started at 6 p.m. I was focussed on getting the best pictures of this event for Central Michigan Life. Everyone that I asked to take a photo of was happy to get their picture taken and to help show support of Black Lives Matter.
I was recording a video of the march when 43-year-old Marrio Evans-Johnson of San Diego approached me and told me his story. Released from Alger Correctional Facility nine days before the march, he told me he was assaulted repeatedly by the law enforcement officers, and as a result his sentence was extended seven more months.
“I am a victim of police brutality” Evans-Johnson said.
My eyes started to water as I listened to his stories about the injustice he had endured. He shook my hand and thanked me for coming out and supporting this cause. He explained that this cause was his life's mission, and he thanked me for helping him.
Even an hour after the march started, more protestors were joining the march. People were packed tight, touching elbow to elbow in the streets. People were standing on trash cans, sidewalk benches, and some even climbed up into the trees.
I stood on top of a crowded bus-stop bench with four other protestors to get a better view of the mass of protestors.
Chants filled the air as marchers moved down the streets of Grand Rapids.
“No justice, no peace.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Say his name – George Floyd!”
Drivers in vehicles parked along the march route were honking and cheering on the marchers. Many people those cars were hanging out of their windows and sitting on the roof holding up their own signs and banners.
The march stopped at the Grand Rapids Police Department.
I am quite short, so I managed to weave myself all the way up to the front of the march where the police were barricading the front doors of the building with bicycles. I was afraid at first to be so close to the police as I had no idea when they would start retaliating. They were emotionless as they stood there while thousands of marchers chanted and yelled at them with anger and sadness in their voices.
By 7:30 p.m. I had gotten all of the photos that I needed. I met up with some friends at a fountain on the corner of Fulton and Division streets. We discussed, and admired, the turnout at this historic civil rights event.
We watched black families walk together hand in hand holding giant flags and banners. We saw a Jeep Wrangler parked in an intersection with a 5, 4 and 1-year-old on the hood of the car holding up signs that read "Please don't shoot me."
Every now and then, the protestors would take a knee, put their hands up and chant "Hands up! Don't shoot!"
My arms had goosebumps and my eyes had tears in them. The emotion and strength in their voices as they yelled up and down the streets of Grand Rapids was overwhelming. I thought to myself: I will never forget this moment. I wanted to remember me, holding my Nikon camera, facing a mass of thousands of heroes demanding justice in my hometown, forever.
At that moment, I was so proud to live in Grand Rapids.
I left the march after it moved from the police department and ended at the Calder Plaza. A final round of speeches was scheduled for 9 p.m.
I made my way home. I left the march feeling blessed to be a part of such a powerful event.
At 10 p.m. the director of the silent march sent out a Facebook announcement: “Please if you were with us marching and you believe in our cause for a peaceful, non violent protest but ended up being stranded at the Grand Rapids Police Station, leave the station NOW, we do not want riots or destruction in our city! And most of all we don't want any harm done to you or anyone else. We don't have to be that way!!”
I received a news notification that some protesters were still at the police station and the confrontation had become violent.
What I saw on television made me fall to my knees – windows of businesses were broken, the SWAT team had moved in and were telling people to go home, tear gas canisters were being thrown into the crowds, and the police station was covered in graffiti.
I was shocked. I was terrified. Streets that I had walked just an hour before were now filled with tear gas and broken glass.
It wasn't just Grand Rapids. New York was on fire. Los Angeles was ablaze. Detroit was in chaos.
There was a crowd surrounding the GRPD station. One man threw a street sign through the window on the building. Protestors went to the Secretary of State branch next. They started breaking in the windows with cement blocks from the city landscaping. They hung banners reading “BLM” inside the Secretary of State then set them on fire.
I watched my television screen and cried at the sight of my city filling with smoke and flames. After attending such a peaceful and powerful march and protest just an hour ago, I could not believe that it ended in chaos.
We do desperately need justice for the black Americans, but this is not the way.
Remember the words of Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Across the country, protestors are remaining peaceful, yet police are still retaliating. That is the story we need. That is the story that needs to be shared. Not protestors vandalizing, destroying or burning our cities. We need them to see the truth of the injustice. Peaceful black faces, and horrible police brutality.
“No justice, no peace?" No. We MUST remain peaceful. Don’t let the media portray us protestors as the bad guys, we all know who the real bad guys are.
Let the police videos speak for themselves.
Let their violence be the only violence because that is what needs to be seen and that is what needs to be changed.