Law enforcement officers and protestors face off during the Black Lives Matter protests in Cincinnati. Photo by Tai Sims/The Cincinnati Herald
‘Dangerous times for people who stood up for racial justice in our city.’ –Activist Brian Garry
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Cincinnati was in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests during this tumultuous summer in the city, county and across the nation and world, sparked by the murder June MM of unarmed George Floyd, a Black man who allegedly presented a bogus $20 at a convenience store, by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
For the most part, the day and night marches, demonstrations and speeches in the streets of Downtown Cincinnati were peaceful and have served their purpose in turning the spotlight on racial injustices and bringing about some reforms. However, there were police in riot gear at the hotspots, and clashes did occur when confrontations got out of control in the face offs.
A number of arrests for curfew violations were made, and 14 individuals were indicted on felony charges involving looting and damaging. While charges against the curfew violators were dropped, court proceedings will be carried out against those arrested on felony charges, with possible penalties of from 6 to 18 months prison time, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said. (See accompanying story about an individual arrested for breaking into the Saks store on Fifth Street and carrying out merchandise valued at $60,000.)
Deters commented, “The Hamilton County Grand Jury indicted 14 defendants in 12 different incidents that occurred during the recent protests on May 30 – June 3. These people, almost one-fourth of whom are not even from Hamilton County, took advantage of what was basically a peaceful protest and put our community and our residents in danger.”
Deters said none of those charges will be reduced or dismissed, “I will defend a person’s right to peaceably protest, and I always will. But when individuals use that occasion to loot, attack our police and their equipment and damage private and personal property and public property, I’m done with them.”
The Cincinnati Mass Defense Coalition’s legal team served the City with motions to dismiss charges in cases for the more than 500 protesters who were arrested, detained, and charged while protesting in support of the movement for Black liberation. The coalition includes local organizers, who say the city and its police department are using the legal system for the purpose of corralling, quieting and deterring citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to protest.
“We believe that exercising one’s First Amendment rights should not be an arrestable offense, and no one should be prosecuted for having the courage to fight for racial justice,” said the Rev. Nelson Pierce Jr., racial justice advocate and senior pastor at Beloved Community Church. “Cincinnati can never become a just or equitable city if it arrests and prosecutes people who take to the streets and demonstrate to demand change and justice.”
Most of these protesters were charged with “misconduct at an emergency,” which is a first-degree misdemeanor that that carries up to six months in jail and hefty fines. Organizers say city officials refer to these cases as “curfew violations” as a deliberate misnomer, because the city intentionally charged and arrested people for misconduct at an emergency, a serious, high-level misdemeanor, rather than other lower-level curfew-related charges.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac recently provided the Cincinnati City Council with an assessment of the protests from a law enforcement viewpoint in the aftermath of the protests. He introduced his comments by saying he supports and welcomes peaceful protests as a First Amendment right and the opportunity for citizens, including himself, to take part in them. However, although daytime protests were peaceful, he noted that a strong police presence, especially at night when the dangerous side of the protests occurred, was required.
In Cincinnati, he added, more than 100 businesses were damaged, there were 550 curfew violation arrests, officer was shot, and shots were fired in close proximity to officers; causing Isaac to ask the mayor to extend the curfew.
Isaac said he was proud of the professional manner in which his officers handled themselves during the strain of long hours in tense situations.
He added, “We wanted to keep situations deescalated as much as possible. Our officers did not take the bait from some protestors. Our officers get it. Our police department is still not perfect, but we have come a long way.’’
Mayor John Cranley praised Isaac’s leadership, saying, “You have put your heart and soul in leading this city in recent days, also taking a knee in solidarity with the protestors. You are doing an excellent job, and our police have conducted themselves in a most professional manner.”
Cranley added he was pleased to see that many of protestors were young and diverse.
Activist Brian Garry, who was present at the protests said, “It is important to make this distinction about what occurred during those events. The police said they do not use rubber bullets and that they didn’t shoot any rubber bullets, yet one man was shot with a rubber bullet that broke his eye socket.”
Throughout several days, Garry said he witnessed police attacks on what he thought were peaceful crowds in several instances.
For instance, he cites an incident that occurred about 9 p.m. Saturday, May 30, outside District 1 Police Station. “I really felt like I was an enemy being attacked in a war on foreign soil. I witnessed the Cincinnati Police shooting mace bullets in what appeared to be an indiscriminate manner. Additionally, they were lobbing concussion grenades – CS and OC tear gas grenades were also deployed. Marking rounds (reduced power cartridges tipped with soft, colored plastic projectiles that splat against the target and leave a bright mark) were apparently being shot indiscriminately into the large crowd of young people.”
Garry had walked up just as the police had begun shooting and was behind the police line, he said. At one point, police grabbed him and manhandled him to the ground and then shoved him in front of the police line between the protesters and the police. “I felt very unsafe and placed my hands in the air and walked away from the place and toward the protesters, as I was told,’’ he said.
“It was at this point I witnessed one young man hit in the eye with a marking round. He was bleeding profusely from his eye. We got him to the hospital. He was assessed with a crushed eye socket, macular hole in his retina that will more than likely require surgery, nerve damage to his cheek, nose and lip and stitches to his eye. Additionally, I spoke with multiple people who had received wounds from police projectiles seconds earlier,’’ Garry said.
Garry said he was told that this harsh response resulted from plastic bottles of water that had been thrown at the police. “The police reaction did not seem to be a commensurate reaction to a couple of plastic water bottles being thrown. I was also told later by one officer that they had seen a man take off his shirt and pour some liquid on his shirt. Apparently they thought he was going to light a fire. Even if that is so, officers could address that singular individual without attacking a whole crowd violently,” he said.
There were no windows broken that day or night, until after the police attacked what was for the most part a peaceful crowd, he said. Near midnight that same evening, some windows broken in Clifton. But that was hours after the crowd was violently attacked by the police.
“I feel that if there are a couple of people acting up in a crowd, then the police should address those couple of people and not just take out their frustrations on an entire crowd of hundreds of people, wounding and shooting individuals with projectiles,’’ he said.
“In these tense situations, where a whole community is grieving and traumatized, I feel police really need to acknowledge the collective pain and be very tolerant. I feel their response was heavy handed and far exceeded any actions by the crowds. Their reaction was scary and dangerous and traumatized many people who showed up to stand up for racial justice in our city.”