Why Black Lives Matter protests were nonviolent, but not calm

Two large Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago and Minneapolis Tuesday night resulted in no violence. But that wasn't the whole story.  

Paul Beaty/AP
Protesters block a street during a protest for Laquan McDonald early Wednesday in Chicago. Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times last year, was charged with first-degree murder Tuesday, hours before the city released a video of the killing.

Charles Preston wants to make one thing perfectly clear. The protests in Chicago Tuesday night were nonviolent, but they were most certainly not calm. 

"We were loud and angry, but we had a right to be," says the spokesman for Black Youth Project 100, which helped coordinate the protests. 

Overnight Tuesday in Chicago and Minneapolis, there was widespread relief. Worries that protests against police might turn violent had brought a member of Congress out onto the pavement in Minneapolis and prompted a pleading press conference from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Tuesday.

But Tuesday night's message was not "all is well," say Mr. Preston and others involved in the protests. To them, the national script is still backward. The story of Tuesday night, they say, was not that protesters managed to remain peaceful, but that they managed not to retaliate against continued police provocation.

For instance, the arrest of aspiring Chicago poet Malcolm London – who once appeared at a TED Talk with Bill Gates and John Legend – was on "trumped up charges," says Preston. "Police saw this as an opportunity to jail one of our charismatic leaders." 

An initial police statement said Mr. London hit a police officer, and he was arrested on one charge of felony battery. But on Wednesday, police dropped the charge. 

The incident speaks of the fraught relationship that remains between the black community and police even as police take historic steps steps to rebuild trust. 

For the most part, members of the black community say they still don't feel it. Even on a Tuesday night when everything seemed to go about as well as could have been hoped, the lingering feelings among black activists in Chicago was bitterness and frustration. 

The lesson, experts say, is that police reform will not only take time, but heart. The goal is not so much a change in arrest rates or body cam usage, but a deeper change in how each community views the other. For police, Wednesday's release of London will be a small sign of that deeper change. For activists, his arrest will be a sign that that change has not come fast enough.    

Tensions were undoubtedly high Tuesday in both in Chicago and Minneapolis.

In Chicago, police released a video that showed a white police officer fatally shooting a black teen 16 times because he refused to drop a knife; many of the shots were fired after the teen had already fallen to the ground. The officer was charged with first-degree murder Tuesday, but activists note that it had taken more than a year and a lawsuit to get the video released – and charges were not brought until hours before the video was made public.

In Minneapolis, five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot Monday night – though not seriously wounded – at one of a series of nightly rallies outside the Fourth Precinct for Jamar Clark, a black man fatally shot by police on Nov. 15. Protesters said they had been harassed by both online death threats and a group of masked men who filmed the protesters and made racist remarks.

Three men – all white – were arrested Tuesday. It is not clear whether they are connected to any of the alleged threats. 

The Minneapolis protests Tuesday night included a march on City Hall by nearly 1,000 people, as well as a visit to the sidewalk protest site by Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, where "hundreds of demonstrators ... quietly milled around, sharing coffee, pizza and doughnuts and stacking up firewood," according to the Associated Press. 

But there was an edge to the evening, as well. Some of the protesters said police had showed up in full riot gear the night before and had been rough with the crowd, according to the AP. 

It is a complaint echoed in Chicago and beyond. "The black community is always told to be peaceful, as if we are inherently violent," says Preston. "The cops ... come and greet these peaceful protesters with militarized gear. The cops come prepared to arrest people who are protesting. The cops have their hands on their guns and they are agitating the situation.... I think in a situation like that we show great restraint."

The tensions between the two communities were highlighted further this week when a police officer in Oregon was taken off street duty after calling Black Lives Matter protesters fools. Ahead of a planned protest in Portland, Ore., he tweeted: “Black Lives Matter is planning to protest at Lloyd Center on black Friday. Oh joy, stuck late again at work to babysit these fools.”

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy acknowledged at a press conference Tuesday that "we have some work to do to obtain the trust," but he added: "At the end of the day, you've got respect the men and women who are out there every day doing this job without incident."

Many experts agree that, by and large, the police community wants to serve the black community better. “I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, and I’ve never seen such a spirit of openness and trying to figure out what’s appropriate for policing as I’ve seen here,” says Tom Tyler, a Yale University professor of law and psychology, told the Monitor at a police summit in Chicago last month.

The challenge is conveying that message across what Mayor Emanuel called a "barrier of misunderstanding."

Just across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis's Fourth Precinct, an answer might be taking shape. The police chief of the Columbia Heights, Minn., has brought crime to a 25-year low through community policing, The Huffington Post reports. Officers are required to do 10 hours of community policing a year, serving dinner at local church functions or holding "Coffee with a Cop" sessions. 

Community policing "wasn't always popular with [officers], it took months or years for some people to see the value," Chief Scott Nadeau told the Post. But "I think that having these positive interactions ... helps them to maybe refocus somewhat on the fact that the majority of the people in our community are great citizens and those relationships are important to both sides."

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