In Durham, a small group of protesters gathered on Wednesday night calling for justice for Breonna Taylor—a Black woman shot to death in Louisville, Kentucky, in a no-knock, late-night police raid—after learning that the police officers who killed her would not be indicted in her death. Protests over yet another failure to hold police accountable erupted nationwide, as they had after George Floyd’s death and the shooting of Jacob Blake.
The Durham demonstrators, mostly white, were clad in black as they marched through the streets of downtown. At some point, the protest turned violent—by the night’s end, about 40 businesses had windows broken, and the words “revenge” and “burn it down” were spray-painted on the Durham Police Department headquarters.
The next morning, Mayor Steve Schewel and Police Chief C.J. Davis held a press conference condemning the destruction.
“The folks who inflicted this damage were white,” Schewel said that morning. “This is an attempt to co-opt a racial justice movement.”
Four days later, protesters gathered in Raleigh Friday afternoon for an anti-corruption rally. Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin had already issued an 11:00 p.m. curfew ahead of the protest, and the windows of businesses downtown had already been boarded back up.
Unlike other protests, the crowd appeared closer to dozens than hundreds and stood socially distant before the courthouse. A series of speakers, mostly Black, discussed systemic corruption and called upon city leaders to hold police accountable and make meaningful changes. By sundown, the first group had peacefully dispersed, and an eerie calm had set in downtown. Diners sat down for dinner as police in riot gear stood on guard behind barracks set up outside the courthouse and sheriff’s office.
By 8:00 p.m., another group of protesters had gathered in Nash Square. Numbering in the hundreds, many white, clad in black, they held Black Lives Matter signs and called for justice. They told everyone with a camera to leave, warning journalists, “Tonight’s going to be really bad for you.”
As curfew neared, the vandalism began, as it has numerous times since May. Windows were broken, fires were set, and 12 people were arrested.
Like clockwork, Baldwin and Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown held a press conference the next morning, praising those who left peacefully and condemning those who did not.
“We do not have the ability nor would we want to stop people from assembling peacefully and speaking, but there were those, mostly white, who used this as an excuse to incite violence and cause destruction of our downtown business community,” Baldwin said. “Any message of support for Breonna Taylor was usurped by protesters who do not care about peace. They came here with a goal of destruction.”
The subtext is clear: These are the bad protesters. Their intentions were bad. Good protesters don’t damage property. Good protesters go home when they are told.
But these mayors seem to have lost sight of what protesting is. A protest is not meant to be convenient. If it is, it’s more like a parade, with the police there only to control traffic. Protests are not meant to be comfortable. Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, said it best last week:
“There is no right way to protest,” Blagrove said. “As an entity, as a state, you do not get to condone state-sanctioned violence, and with the very same tongue denounce violence in response to that state-sanctioned violence.”
“Any damage that happens in the street is a result of a failure of city actors, state actors, and federal actors to respect Black lives and for their failure to create equity in systems,” she continued. “When that damage happens, don’t look to the people in the street. Look to the people that have the power to keep them out of the street, because those are the people you should be angry with.”
Broken glass is annoying, sure. Businesses, already crippled by the pandemic, are dealt a blow that feels like an insult to injury. But these are mere nuisances. Attempting to divide a movement into good and bad protesters loses sight of the fact that the majority of protesters share the same goal: the protection of human life and the end of policing above the law.
The protesters themselves bucked Schewel’s claims that they were co-opting the movement. This week, Schewel told the INDY he did not mean to “distinguish between good and bad people,” but “between constructive and destructive action.”
“I believe in the power of civil disobedience and the way it can awaken consciousness, but I think that the destruction that people were making in downtown Durham last week was damaging to our businesses, which are struggling to come back, and also damaging to the cause for which the people who were demonstrating purport to support,” Schewel says.
Who gets to say which actions are productive to a social justice movement and which are not? Should it be the state itself, inconvenienced by the actions of so-called bad protesters? Should it be those good protesters?
There are no good protesters: not from the vantage of a corrupt system either unaware of or undisturbed by its own corruption, set on shielding itself from change. A protester deemed “good” by the system they are challenging is a contradiction.
The Black Panthers were condemned as a violent terrorist organization. In retrospect, whether we disagree or not with their actions, we acknowledge that the Black Panthers were part of the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in peaceful protests. He condemned the violence, too, but he also said that the conditions that lead to the violence must be as vigorously condemned.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” King said. “What is it that America has failed to hear?”
Let’s not forget why the protesters were out there in the first place: In the months since Taylor’s death nothing has changed, and her killers walk free.
Follow Raleigh News Editor Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
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