On the surface, cops marching and kneeling with protesters looks like progress, but local activists want people to see the larger problems beyond the photo-op

It’s a really good photo.

It does all of the things photojournalism should do: It tells a story, pulls the reader in.

The picture, taken by Dispatch photographer Joshua A. Bickel, shows Columbus Division of Police Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight marching with 21-year-old protester Earl Jones. The two have their arms around one other. Jones holds up a cell phone, livestreaming the protest.

Taken on Monday, June 1, six days after protests sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd reached Columbus, the photo — and the accompanying article — ask an important question: How do we move forward? The photo practically shouts the answer at you: Together! Arm in arm!

Maybe you’ve also seen this video. Taken by Facebook user Aaron Rigsby, it shows a crowd of protesters in front of the Ohio Statehouse. As they take a knee, so do the Ohio State Highway Patrol officers who surround the entrance to the building. Some of the officers even raise their fists. The crowd cheers. To date, the video has been viewed more than 20,000 times and shared 337 times. The comments on the video are overwhelmingly positive, with several people writing that the video brought them to tears. One commenter wrote, “Literal goosebumps.”

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The members of BQIC, (Black Queer Intersectional Collective) were not buying it. On Tuesday, June 2, the group released a statement on social media condemning organizers who help police march with protesters.

The 482-word statement begins with, “Check yourself, Columbus. We do not applaud the murderers who killed Ty’re King. Nor do we take selfies with the face of an organization that took the last breath from Henry Green. And we most certainly do not march with the very system that kneeled on the neck of our brother George Floyd.”

The statement also expresses BQIC’s anger with non-Black organizers who are attempting to lead a movement that does not directly affect them. “We find it unacceptable that there are non-Black organizers of these events being grossly self-congratulatory for their efforts while ‘leading’ these events without any strategy nor direct input from the Black organizers in this city,” the statement reads. “We find it unacceptable and utterly cognitively dissonant to experience non-Black people talking over Black people at these actions. Hearing non-Black people lead chants and songs. Having non-Black people correct us on how we are protesting- how we are grieving.”

BQIC member Dkéama Alexis said the group decided to release the statement after its members began seeing some protesters marching and kneeling with police. Alexis said one organizer told a fellow protester to “shut up and listen to the police officers.”

“We felt motivated to release this statement addressing Columbus at-wide, to let them know that we aren’t going to stand in solidarity with anybody that wants to sympathize with police, because the police do not sympathize with our communities,” Alexis said. “They have been waging war on our communities. That’s the whole point of everything that we’re doing.”

BQIC’s statement ends with a call for other organizations to “condemn this behavior.” The same day that BQIC released its statement, SURJ Columbus (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and Free Them All 614 followed suit and issued statements of support on their social media channels. On June 3, Columbus Freedom Coalition did the same.

“It does seem like every day it’s becoming more and more of an issue of people trying to be like, ‘Let’s give the cops a chance,’ or chanting, ‘March with us!’” said Mia Santiago of the Columbus Freedom Coalition. “It’s so incredibly disrespectful and heartbreaking to see that this movement is trying to be derailed by centrists and people who are far worse.”

Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer with SURJ, said he and the group wanted to show support for BQIC but also let people know that they completely see through the police’s actions. “It’s simply PR,” Krakoff said of law enforcement’s interactions with protesters. “Individual officers, if they truly think that Black lives matter, we don’t see them speaking out. We don’t see them quitting. We don’t see them filing complaints. The few times we do hear about it, the cops usually get fired, or they get demoted or they get desk duty.”

CPD public information officer Sgt. James Fuqua said the decision for police officers to march with protesters happened organically.  “They wanted us to walk and talk, and we absolutely agreed,” he said. “We marched with them in solidarity, telling them again that we are listening and we are going to try to make this work.”

Fuqua, who has been with CPD for 15 years, said he understands that some people do not want to see protesters and police marching together, but he sees no other way forward. 

“Real change has to start with boots on the ground,” he said. “What other position would we take? Should we not walk with the protesters and hear them out and start to try to make real change? Do we continue to stay in our skirmish line with our batons up and the shields, with no communication? I don’t think so.”

For BQIC and other abolitionist organizations — groups that support the complete abolishment of the police and prison systems — there is no way to move forward with the current systems in place. 

“We’re not just advocating for an end to police brutality. Policing is inherently brutal. We are advocating for an end to policing and the violence of policing. It has a directly anti-Black history that is rooted in enslavement of African people,” Alexis said. “There’s no way to reform that. There’s no amount of kneeling with cops that can undo the legacy of violence that they have enacted on Black communities.”

The protests join a long line of local activism focused on the murders of Black people — oftentimes at the hands of the police. When asked why CPD hadn’t previously marched with protesters, Fuqua acknowledged that it was a great point and said, “There have been many questionable actions by officers across the United States … [including] his particular incident with Mr. Floyd, as well as what happened to Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Mr. Arbery in Georgia. I feel the nation has been traumatized by so many significant incidents back to back to back and never had a chance to process any of them singularly, and that has caused an eruption of people, and even within our own police department.”

If there was one common thread in Alive’s conversations with local organizers and CPD, it was the sense of urgency felt by all of the involved parties. These protests, this moment, feel different.

“We recognize that what we all saw on [the video of George Floyd’s death] was something that was very tragic, and [we] would never want it to happen to anyone here,” Fuqua said. “The sense of urgency is now. There is no more waiting for the next incident.”

“This moment feels unprecedented, at least for my lifetime,” Alexis said. “To know that their have been consistent actions [and] demonstrations with large crowds showing up at them is really energizing to see, because it’s going to take a lot of people power to dismantle the racist system of policing, and it’s going to take all of us to contribute to this movement however possible to affect long-lasting change and build a world where we all can exist freely.”