Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Black Lives Matter - The experience of a white protester
Last night I attended the Black Lives Matter protest in my home town. It was hosted by five women who managed to arrange everything in about two days. Their Facebook Page can be found here.
I arrived an hour early to assess the situation beforehand. Given how many of these protests erupt in violence, I was concerned for my own safety. Before I left, I had to explain to my 7-year-old daughter where I was going and she cried, begging me not to go. I promised her everything would be fine, I wanted to keep my promise.
Auburn's streets are old and narrow, townhall is sandwiched between new construction and old, with awkward roads that confuse even the locals. As a SWAT Tank drove by protestors while staring us down, I decided I couldn't leave even if things did go wrong. I saw the cops surround the area and thought, I'm sorry, Lily.
The new apartments give heights to the radically changing downtown. The Sound Transit train station has been a game-changer for what was once just a suburb for Seattle commuters and Boeing employees. Everything was boarded up to prevent looters with the exception of a few strategic areas where police watched us. Garbage cans were removed. A town shuttered in fear of its own inhabitants.
I'd like to point out there has been looting in Auburn, however, the looters have often come from other cities. They leave a trail as they go and law enforcement has been tracking them. They know the looters are a separate entity, yet the mental link between protestors and looters remains synonymous.
The coordinators started the protest, emphasizing that it was a peaceful protest. They carefully outlined the agenda of the protest. We would walk from town hall to the police station and back again. This proved to be a much harder feat than anyone imagined as there were nearly a thousand people in attendance.
The Muckleshoot tribe came and shared their music and grieved for their own people lost. Missing and killed indigenous women are seldom talked about, but it happens far more often than white people realize.
I don't like the term 'woke' but I thought that I knew that I had no idea how Black and Brown people were treated. I thought that in my ignorance, it meant that I knew more than most. Still, in my mind, it was a distant thing. I live in a liberal state. The local police were not like those other racist places.
The Mayor, Nancy Backus, appeared in the back escorted by two police officers. She made a speech that was celebrated among protestors, but when the families of those who were killed in my own town showed up, everything changed.
I didn't realize there were several people in Auburn who were killed without cause. That Auburn police were under investigation for them. When a woman stood up and detailed her own experience, stricken with a trauma that brought protestors to tears, the police officers remained cold and removed.
The woman invited the chief of police and the mayor forward to take accountability and bridge that gap between the people and the police, but they refused. When she pointed out that the mayor had seen the dashcam of her arrest without her consent, the Mayor shook her head and left a few minutes later.
It was a tense moment. The crowd was angry with the way the police behaved, but the coordinators kept things moving to prevent any chance of riots.
Not all cops are racist. We all know that. Obviously. However, there is something toxic in police culture that perpetuates protecting each other even when it's wrong to do so. There is a fine line that police must walk, and we all understand that. Somewhere between protecting others and each other, and racial bias and lack of de-escalation training, police officers are often left making these distinctions in a fog.
This protest was about raising awareness of this toxic culture in our own town and inviting police to reunite with the civilians. They had an opportunity to make a show of solidarity and refused in a bid for power and authority.
We walked with white people on the outside and Black and Brown, elderly and children in the middle. I'm here to tell you that Black people did not care where they walked. It didn't matter to them because they just figured they were a walking target anyway. When I first showed up in advance, I noted that everyone was white. I had some concerns that this would be the march of white saviors, but eventually, Black and Brown people rolled in.
Another thing I noticed while walking to the police station, were the police. All of them were white men. They were joined by the all-white SWAT, the all-white military. This only occurred to me as I drove home to discover that every cop (there were a lot) I passed on the way home was ethnic. They sent all the minority cops out to patrol while white men took on the protest. A bizarre power move that further confirmed just how tone-deaf Auburn police really is.
The streets were blocked off by police, which was normal to some extent if you ignored just how many police were waiting in the back alleys and smaller streets. There had to have been at least a hundred police officers if not more, fully equipped in riot gear.
I've been to a few protests. I showed up for immigration rights and for LGBTQ+, where there were a few police scattered around the vicinity. This was totally different. They came ready to fight. The tension mounted as we walked to the police station where fifty+ police waited for us with barricades. They were on the roof and in the windows. It was surreal. Between the barricades and the buildings, we had walked ourselves into a trap. If things went wrong, there was no way out.
The leaders of the protest approached police waiting outside the station. They talked about how while not all police are bad, there are some in Auburn that are not being held accountable. She invited them to kneel with the protesters and they refused.
Again, the Auburn police confused the plea for accountability and solidarity with questioning their right for authority. People were sad and hurt that the police refused for the second time, a chance to reconnect with the community. We kneeled and chanted for several minutes before the coordinators asked us to go back to town hall.
There was a little bit of confusion at this rate because we couldn't really hear what she was saying. The mic cut out and people near the front were not leaving, so the crowd in the back wasn't moving. This was probably interpreted as something more insidious, but it was really just a big boat trying to turn in a narrow channel. Peacekeepers in the back started telling people to leave, so most of us did.
A few remained at the front, but they were no longer with the protest. They were joined by people awaiting a spectacle, that I'm happy to report never came. The entire evening was successful and totally non-violent. I saw a few people that were more riled up than others, but they were quickly kept in check by others. We walked away. We proved the excessive show of police was unwarranted.
I walked away from this event with a further confirmation that our current system perpetuates racism. It's not a racist cop or a few cops on a power trip. This is a system set up to pit police against people, and this system has Black and Brown people set up for failure. It forces police who want to be the force of good to choose between loyalty and justice.
This system has failed. We need accountability for our police. Independent from the force and dedicated to keeping people safe in the justice system and on the streets. We need more de-escalation training. It has been proven effective in multiple cities. We need to bridge that gap between police and people. We have a lot of work to do.
I had a conversation with the Mayor of the city. We talked about the significance of taking a knee with the protestors. While some officers did kneel, it was not visible to the crowd. She agreed that more needs to be done in terms of outreach with the community.
I learned that prior to the event, someone outside of the protest put garbage cans full of rocks, broken bricks, and chains around the area in hopes that they would be used by the protesters. The police numbers swelled in response to that as well as the fact that the Hospital was nearby.