Before a violent Friday night, a peaceful evening vigil for George Floyd seemed to accomplish exactly what was needed.
Against the setting sun over a shimmering Des Moines River, it answered an anguish shared across the country. People got a chance to speak their fears and pain and be heard. And they did, in haunting lines like these:
"To birth a black boy is to birth a funeral."
"I'm scared for my life every day I wake up."
"They see us as a plague."
"My grandmother turned the other cheek. What am I supposed to do? Please tell me, what am I supposed to do?"
Nothing could erase the gruesome image of an unarmed black man dying for no reason, his neck compressed by a white Minneapolis police officer's knee. But the vigil affirmed for the indignant that their emotions were righteous, and reasonable. It offered other ways to channel the hurt: by writing to politicians, and by voting in county attorneys, sheriffs and other officials who give a damn. And it reinforced that there are white allies in this fight against racism.
It wasn't flawless. In this time of COVID-19, too many people shared close quarters unmasked. Some held up signs generalizing about police, and the location itself, in front of Des Moines police headquarters, could have been seen as provocative. But to their credit, police had no visible presence at the event. They left protesters alone.
Flash-forward an hour or two and a few blocks east. As evening morphed into night, peaceful protest morphed into deliberate provocation and destruction. From what I could see, and have since heard, those in the vanguard, agitating and throwing stones at police and into store windows, were not the same ones pledging earlier to work harder for justice. In fact, they appeared to be opportunists seizing the occasion to sow fear and distrust of peaceful protesters.
Ako Abdul-Samad knows the territory, and it seemed that way to him. The founder and head of Creative Visions, which serves young people in Des Moines' mid-city, had headed home after the 6 p.m. rally, when he got a call from Bishop Ron Woods urging him to go back downtown as things were getting violent.
He arrived as, according to a Register timeline, a crowd swarmed at officers at Court Avenue and East Second Street, jumping on police cars and throwing water bottles. Abdul-Samad saw an officer spray pepper from his car window. Abdul-Samad, who is also a Democratic state representative, saw about 10 men in their 20s or 30s -- perhaps seven white and three black -- trying to stir up the rest every time things were settling down.
He talked to some upset young people (not part of that group) and asked them what they wanted. "Those kids are in pain," he said. "They are hurting, and we, as adults, have to listen to them with a sincere heart.
"They said, 'They're killing us. The police don't listen to us.'" He told them to assemble a group of five to share their concerns with police, and then report back to the crowd what they had told them. They agreed.
"But every time we got the kids listening, some of those individuals would start hyping them up." Bottles would be thrown, police "would move to stop it," and the agitators would start up again, Abdul-Samad said.
When officers in riot gear formed a line, one agitator walked up to them and got in their faces, he said. Some protesters shouted expletives. A former Black Panther, Abdul-Samad knows some of the city's troublemakers, but says these instigators were not them: "That was a red flag." He also knows the smell of weed, and says it was pungent on some of them.
Arriving on the scene when rocks were being thrown, I pleaded, to no avail, with some of the throwers to stop. Then, when a line of police down the street began advancing in riot gear with a tank, I feared what I'd seen in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 would repeat itself in shots being fired. So I did something my journalism professors taught us never to do -- insert myself into a news situation -- by getting between police and the crowd, and pleading with police not to advance. That was also to no avail.
Later, as things escalated, I was conscious of a white male instigator yelling anti-white insults at another man for trying to get people away. It made me wonder if the agitator was trying to cast aspersions on African-Americans with that language. Then a rock was hurled into a tire shop window. Separately, Abdul-Samad was hit by a brick and a rock in the face and back. Tear gas was fired. Still, Abdul-Samad believes the police showed great restraint.
Asked Saturday whether he thought the instigators were trying to make the legitimate protesters look bad or get in trouble, Abdul-Samad said, "I would bet my money on it."
But he said he has reason for optimism after meeting Saturday morning with the mayor, the governor and the police chief, who were all on the same page and have some positive plans. He wouldn't reveal what those were.
Meanwhile, let's hope those provocateurs, whoever they are, get out of the way and let people heal and get back to the business of seeking justice. As Abdul-Samad rightly observed, "Last night wasn't the way to do it."
About The Writer
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.
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