Over the past several weeks, I’ve attended about ten evenings of the protests in Rochester following the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police, and the ensuing 6-month cover-up. Suddenly, Rochester had all the potential to become Ferguson or Kenosha – nightly violence, people hurt or killed, burning and looting included. I want to relate, from my observations, why this has not occurred in Rochester.
To be sure, the potential was there!
The first night, after the video went viral, about 200 protesters who gathered in front of the Public Safety Building were vocal but law-abiding. Without warning, the police moved on them with tear gas and pepper-ball guns, despite the fact that they were making no move to do anything other than protest.
The second night, as the protestors – now about 1500 – marched toward the Public Safety Building, the Rochester Police Department (RPD) trapped them on the Court St. bridge. Again, they had stopped moving, but the police, with no warning at all, opened up again with tear gas and a barrage of pepper balls.
By the third night, the group that became known as Elders and Allies had been formed, initiated by Shirley and James Thompson and Kit Miller, later combined with an initiative by Rev. Myra Brown. As part of this group, my wife Sue and I marched with the protestors, partly to discourage the police from attacking.
The protestors were incensed after undergoing the unprovoked assaults the prior nights. And it was known that some outsiders had joined their ranks. The chants were stronger, more heated. The front lines of protestors were equipped with homemade shields, football helmets, padded clothing, whatever they could use to protect themselves. All defensive wear; no offensive weapons of any kind in sight. Teams of medics were ready with eye wash and medical supplies to treat those wounded. The group came up to the barricades on Plymouth and halted. Then someone tossed a commercial-grade firework at the police. Several more were thrown. The police threw some back to the protestors before they exploded. Some bottles and rocks were thrown. But realizing that they had gotten poor press for their aggression the first two nights, the police waited eight minutes, as they reported later; then they opened up again, raining pepper balls, tear gas, and flashbangs, hitting reporters as well as Elders and Allies who had hoped to protect the protestors.
In response to questioning by City Council two weeks later, RPD reported that 6100 rounds of pepper balls had been launched in those three nights. To be sure, there were salty, accusatory chants lobbed across the lines. This verbal assault had to be painful for the officers to absorb. Still, all we witnessed was well within the rights of protest, and not a valid excuse for such a dangerous, punishing reaction from people pledged to serve and protect.
So, you might be asking, where are those signs of hope I promised?
On the fourth night, about 100 of us Elders and Allies stood right at the barricades in front of the Public Safety Building. Mayor Warren, with persuasion from Rev. Myra Brown, had finally ordered the police to stand down. The protests were still loud, very passionate, and yet disciplined.
And for the most part, RPD let them be.
Since that night, the protests have retained passion and determination, and have remained peaceful. Based on reports from trusted observers, the rock-tossing and bottle-throwing on the first couple of nights was done mostly by young, white activists, likely anarchists, who seem to have moved on. I do know from several reports that when something was thrown at police, organizers and/or elders around that person immediately admonished them. City Hall was decorated with slogans and posters, but again, the organizers disciplined the others not to actually destroy anything. They took quick action when a couple of rogue demonstrators (if there can be rogue police, there can be rogue demonstrators) attempted to break through a door there.
In the meantime, the “protests” have morphed into various forms:
- An evening reception/feeding/support for Daniel Prude’s family, some of whom traveled from Chicago.
- Gatherings in front of City Hall marked by music and dancing.
- Providing food and shelter for anyone who needed it.
- A very touching memorial service at MLK Park to honor all those killed by violence in Rochester over the years.
- A birthday celebration for Daniel on what would have been his 42nd birthday, complete with a huge sheet cake for his family and decorated cupcakes for the crowd.
- Educational and inspirational presentations about history and racial justice and love.
More hope: I cannot say enough about the organizers of these events. I had already come to know many of them in the work I’ve been doing, but these days brought out the very best in their leadership, their dedication, their spirituality, their generosity. Especially, I want to give appreciation for Ashley Gantt and Iman Abid of Free The People ROC. I also learned so much in listening to Adrian Elim, Danielle Ponder, Stanley Martin, and Anthony Hall among many others.
More hope: The protests continue. The police seem to have learned that their aggressive, militaristic tactics are unnecessary. Or at least, they’ve cut back. I’d like to think some of the chants had penetrated. I was especially struck by this one, as protestors stood in front of the Public Safety Building: “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here!” Or maybe the melodic, mantra-like chant, “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?” Whether the learning will be sustained remains to be seen. The appointment of this particular Interim Police Chief, Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, is another sign of hope according to several people whose knowledge and opinions I trust.
More hope: While the protests go on, the work of shaping a fully-reimagined police/public safety cohort is just getting started. One key leader in this work is Rev. Lewis Stewart, President of United Christian Leadership Ministry (UCLM), an organization I’ve connected with for the past three years. He was cited by many of the organizers as one who can bring the real work forward, since he has a unique ability to bridge divides. He is highly respected by the main organizers, and also highly regarded by the City and County officials who will be key in implementing any actual changes. And UCLM has assembled a powerful cadre of about three dozen people, including some current and past law enforcement leaders, who are right now shaping specific proposals.
More hope: One of the most positive statements giving rise to my hope came in a planning meeting I attended in which one of the main protest organizers, Ashley Gantt of Free the People ROC, said to Rev. Stewart, “We run. We burn bridges. That’s what we do. But we count on you being behind us, with your connections, ready to get down to the table and make the changes!” This kind of synergistic vision is vital! And as I’ve seen with Ashley, Iman and others in the past, they’ll eventually be at the table too! We need both the churn and the table work.
One final bit of hope, on a very personal note: My wife Sue and I were at the birthday event. I had heard Joe Prude, Daniel’s older brother, in a couple of interviews express a gnawing sense of guilt: “I called the police to get help for my brother, and he wound up dead!” I found it heartbreaking that he was saddling himself with that undeserved burden. So at the birthday party, I met him. He showed an immediate warmth and appreciation for our being there, and gave me a brotherly hug (masks on). I said to him, “I’ve heard you a few times, Joe, talking about the guilt that you feel for Daniel’s death. Please don’t do that to yourself! I’m more guilty than you are, because I’m a part of the system that allowed that to happen.” Without hesitation, he was telling me not to do that to myself! HE was comforting ME!! What a kind, gentle, sensitive soul.
And so I choose to live in hope, and continue to give what I can to the work that’s ahead. I urge you to dedicate yourself as well. No Resources listed this time. The internet is loaded with what to do. Find your work!
Replies welcome, below.