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GUEST COLUMN: If you're going to condemn violence, condemn police brutality

Photo from the Facebook event page taken by Danyell Nefe.

Guest Column written by Sarah Syeda

The tragedy of George Floyd's death was not an isolated incident. Many people – mostly Black men – are killed as a result of police brutality every year. 

For nearly every death, people come together and protest. But protests eventually end and those people mourned are forgotten. This year was different. 

Maybe it was a result of the pandemic, which enabled many people to take the time to learn about racial injustices that have been happening throughout our country’s history. Maybe it was the fact that two brutal murders of Black men were caught so clearly on camera, in such a short timespan. Whatever the reason, people protested the injustice of Floyd’s death in all 50 states and in nearly 70 countries. 

This year, protestors participated in the largest civil rights movement in history.

My city, Saginaw, was eager to join the movement. Many different groups and individuals organized peaceful protests and rallies for us to attend. One friend of mine, who as a Black man, was particularly passionate about ending racial injustice, made a point to go to every protest being held locally. 

On Saturday, June 6, he went to a peaceful protest being held at a large intersection near our local mall. About 1,200 citizens came to this protest to show solidarity with the Black population in our city. Many people came in front of the crowd to say a few words about the injustices our fellow Americans face, and how far we still have to go in rectifying it. The police chief gave his short, standard speech about how his officers care for the community. He ended it by telling the protestors to come reach out to them if they had any concerns before going to stand in the back of the protest near the tents where people were passing out water.

After the speeches, the protestors – all unarmed – marched along the side of the road, chanting and waving their signs in the air. Many people driving by waved, shouted, or honked to show their support. Some people ignored them entirely, but that was to be expected. For much of the protest, none of the observers showed signs of dissent or hostility. 

Then, 10 minutes before the protest ended, a black Dodge Ram pickup truck pulled up to a red light at the intersection. He shook his head in disgust at the protestors, and in response they chanted louder. They moved closer to his truck, but they stayed a considerable distance away and did not try to touch the vehicle.

In response, the man in the truck reached into the compartment beside his armrest. The man pulled out a black semi-automatic pistol. He slid the top of the gun back as though preparing to shoot, and pointed it directly at my friend and another man standing beside him before waving it around at the crowd at large. The protestors reacted in panic – most of them scattered away from the truck, afraid for their safety. One or two ran up and hit the truck in frustration. Another protestor pulled out his cell phone and videotaped the truck and its license plate, but by that time the man had put the gun away. A few seconds later, the light turned green and the man drove away, brandishing his pistol once more when he turned the intersection.

At this point, the police were still standing in the back by the water tents. My friends went to talk to them about what had just happened. When the officer asked him if the man had pointed the gun at any specific person, my friend answered that the gun had been pointed at himself, another man, and then the whole crowd. The officer then asked him if he had felt endangered, and when he answered that he had, told him that they would have a detective call to evaluate the situation. 

No detective ever reached out to my friend.

The protestor who had videotaped the truck and license plate posted the video to Facebook so that others could help identify the man. Even on the Facebook post, where 10 to 15 people claimed they had witnessed the man pull a gun on protestors, there were people trying to invalidate the story. A few comments under the post said that the protest didn’t look peaceful to them, or that the story of the gun being pointed at my friend must be fake because it had not been captured in the video. 

Why would a protestor videotape a random truck just to lie about someone committing a crime? Why would so many people claim to be an eyewitness to a crime that hadn’t happened? It amazed me how some commenters were so quick to blame the protestors, who had done nothing to endanger the man.

With the help of the Facebook post, the man with the gun was identified and found by the police. Despite Michigan laws that classify brandishing a firearm in public as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of $100.00, this man suffered none of these consequences. Eventually, our local news station published an article about what happened. They described the man as “waving the gun around” and neglected to mention that he had pointed it directly at two of the protestors.

My friend was upset by the lack of concern by the police and the media, but he wasn’t surprised. 

“Imagine if a Black guy had pulled the gun. He wouldn’t have gotten off nearly as easily,” he told me. “He’d probably have been shot-- he’d definitely have been shot.”

Why was the man brandishing a weapon made into a non-issue? Where are the people saying that violence is never the answer, and why don’t they speak up against men like him? Why don't they speak up when police officers in other cities use tear gas and rubber bullets on protestors simply because they stayed out a few minutes past curfew? Why don't they speak up against qualified immunity, which allows police officers to get away with murdering citizens over misdemeanors?

Despite all the speeches they have given saying that they stand with their citizens, despite their urging people at protests to come talk to them and get to know them, not one of the police officers in our city has been able to say that Black Lives Matter. What these police officers won’t say, says a lot about them. The words and promises of police officers mean nothing if they are not willing to reform for the safety of the citizens they swear to protect and serve. 

Too many American citizens have been murdered as a result of police officer violence and enough was enough long ago. Action needs to be taken now, and we cannot stop protesting and advocating and fighting for the rights of American citizens until we see change happen.

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