One ground-level view from the protests that have overtaken Columbus the last week
Over the weekend, protests driven by the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd, as well as Columbus’ own demons with cops killing black people, turned dark as officers with the Columbus Division of police maced, pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed protesters Downtown.
So many love to see the word peaceful applied in front of protests. It’s digestible. Easy. You can throw up a black power fist to a handful of people chanting while walking through the city. Maybe make a hashtag on Instagram and talk about how hard inequality is for black people, although it will never affect you. It’s easy.
And it does absolutely nothing.
I think y’all wanted some made-for-TV solidarity march that was easy to ignore, which has happened with every protest that has come from black people dying in the street. Someone creates a hashtag and there’s a “call to action” that is never followed with anything tangible.
Many of you all fully intended to never do anything about George Floyd. Or Tyre King. Or Breonna Taylor.
Over the past four days, I have watched Gov. Mike DeWine and Mayor Andrew Ginther come out with mealy-mouthed shows of concern while doing absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of protesters. I am watching the narrative shift from people being hurt and suffering to one in which the actions of police have somehow been described as “measured and restrained,” even as protesters were sent fleeing by clouds of gas, eyes and lungs burning with chemical agents, some bloodied and battered by rubber and wooden bullets.
Officials said that they understood what the protesters were angry about. That their voices were being heard. And then they let them get shot at, gassed, pepper-sprayed, maced, slammed on the ground and more, all throughout Ohio.
There has been no accountability for CPD. Hell, there never has been. For any police department. Anywhere.
The face of the protest is mostly young. I see so many young black faces at the front of the line.
I watched one livestream where a black woman was seated on the ground next to the Ohio Statehouse, eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t see!” she screamed.
On camera, I can see someone kneel down and spray a bottle of water in her eyes before trying to help her to her feet, picking her up as best they can so they can escape together.
The tear gas is still wafting towards them and everyone is choking.
“Why did they Mace me?”
“My entire body has been on fire for over two hours. I can’t even touch my own skin. My face burns and I couldn’t see out of my right eye until about 20 minutes ago."
The protesters ran to Rich Street and waited. They still tried to lead a chant, even though many of them were coughing, crying or bleeding from the wooden bullets fired by police. The protesters have on T-shirts and either tennis shoes or flip flops. The gas cloud and the smoke caused by flashbangs limits visibility, joining with the sound of wooden bullets being fired to turn the street into a warzone.
The police have on riot gear: shields, body armor, helmets. Some appear to have their badge numbers taped over.
I sat at home, helpless. I wondered, “Am I going to see someone die on camera, in real-time? Are these black women going to become another hashtag? Do the police care? Does anyone care?”
It’s a battlefield.
By Saturday, the protests had grown much larger.
There are stations and volunteers positioned to help distribute medical and food supplies throughout Downtown and the Short North. There’s a rudimentary sort of medical triage. Healthcare professionals, many of whom are still fighting the COVID-19 crisis in their day jobs, are assisting those who have been attacked and gassed. Some of them even end up getting pepper-sprayed or fired upon with crowd-dispersing projectiles.
The protesters are making masks out of T-shirts so they don’t choke when they’re hit with tear-gas. Police pepper-spray them in the face anyway.
“Kevin, you didn’t see their smiles. They laughed at us as they shot us with [wooden] bullets. They sprayed us with Mace and laughed about it.”
Later I watch as a man, his face beet red from pepper-spray, has milk poured over his eyes, searching for some form of relief.
A half-mile away in German Village, diners crowd outdoor patios, either unaware or indifferent to the black people being brutalized just north of where they’re seated. You can hear the sirens. You can hear the flashbangs.
People are protesting in neighborhoods that have been gentrified, where business owners and residents call the cops on black bodies because they feel uncomfortable.
I have also seen alarming commentary from people who appear to care more about broken windows and maybe some stolen Jordans than the fact authorities have allowed the police to openly brutalize its citizens for years.
What is currently happening in Columbus, and in cities across the United States, is just a taste of what black people have always dealt with at the hands of police. If the videos of protesters being attacked that are now inundating Twitter and Facebook feel familiar, it is because that type of black brutalization at the hands of the police is universal in the United States.
I hope it made you uncomfortable.