The finger-pointing started before the tear gas cleared: “It was the police – they acted without warning.” “These protesters just came to make trouble.” “These weren't Fort Wayne people – they were outside agitators.”
How about this? We're all responsible. We're all outside agitators.
George Floyd's death at the hand of men sworn to preserve and protect was the spark that lit violent protests here and across the nation. But the tinderbox was stoked with far more than racial discord: hopelessness, frustration, fear and virus. It's no coincidence it all ignited in the midst of a pandemic.
Gathered in Fort Wayne to protest injustice in Minneapolis, local participants were looking for assurance it couldn't happen here. Instead, their worst fears were confirmed. Police in riot gear, throwing tear gas canisters and firing rubber pellets at the crowd, including marchers who had come for no other reason than to show solidarity and journalists there to report both sides of the story.
Law enforcement did what it has been trained to do. As protesters spilled over four lanes of Clinton Street, blocking traffic as they marched toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge, officers flooded streets from the area of the Rousseau Centre.
“It looked like an army, not the police department,” one observer said.
Tear gas filled the air as protesters turned south, away from the phalanx of armed officers. Most of the crowd, a mix of people black and white, both young and middle-aged, fled the area and a younger, mostly white crowd remained. By 8:45 p.m., before darkness had even fallen, an armored medical evacuation vehicle rolled south toward the Courthouse, an officer in combat gear aiming a gun from its turret.
In those tumultuous moments, years and years of work to cultivate positive police-community relations were lost, replaced by images of faceless forces identical to the ones we've watched in Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York and other cities many times our size.
But place the responsibility right here. While most of us have been hunkered down, inconvenienced by the COVID-19 shutdown but mostly safe in our comfortable homes, those at the flashpoint were not. Law enforcement officers were among the everyday heroes, continuing to work and interact with members of the public even as some of their colleagues tested positive for the virus. Those same officers on Friday confronted anger they didn't deserve from a handful of protesters – hateful messages on posters, insults and thrown objects.
And it's likely those who police say triggered Friday's violence have likewise been in harm's way in recent months. COVID-19 might have eliminated a job, or abruptly ended school and stolen a hard-earned walk across the stage for a diploma. It undoubtedly stole small comforts of the months ahead – festivals, baseball, concerts. The coronavirus has extinguished hopes and dreams.
“All IN this together” is a nice tagline, but it's meaningless for those left out. This is much more than an inconvenience or a health scare for many. It's an economic catastrophe, with no hope for recovery. Many were barely getting by before the coronavirus; many were suffering. Some lived in urban areas; some in small towns or rural communities.
Before blaming police or protesters, consider what you might have done to make life bearable for all. Did you support policies that contribute to equal opportunity for all? Have you supported candidates who serve all Hoosiers, or those beholden to special interests? Have you advocated for public programs and services benefiting youth and low-income residents, or complained about tax increases?
“Outside agitators” certainly share the blame for what happened this past weekend.
Now, we must agitate for positive change, beginning with the protest's initial goal of ending the racial inequities laid bare by George Floyd's killing.