|Date:||June 9, 2020|
By Phil Fairbanks | June 9, 2020
Early on, when protests turned to vandalism and injuries, it could have easily overshadowed the change protesters hoped George Floyd's death might bring about.
But not for the activists knee deep in a yearslong effort to end police brutality.
For them, the focus was always on what first drove people into the streets, not what was right or wrong about those initial demonstrations.
"People are looking for answers on how a demonstration should go instead of focusing on the injustices happening in their backyard," said Orlando Dickson of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board.
For those who have been working for years to press for changes, the protests can be explained by the rage that they know constantly simmers below the surface and that bubbled over during those early demonstrations.
"There's a justifiable anger, hurt and frustration that black people in Buffalo and across the country feel," said Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo. "I understand why our community is reaching a boiling point."
A week ago, a peaceful protest that started downtown and ended at the Buffalo police station on Bailey Avenue led to a chaotic scene later that night. Eager to disperse demonstrators, police fired pepper balls into the crowd, and protesters responded by throwing rocks and water bottles at police, police said.
In the midst of that scene, a woman drove an SUV into a line of police officers, injuring three of them, one of them a state trooper who was run over and seriously hurt. Deyanna Davis, the driver who was hospitalized with gunshot wounds, is charged with intentionally driving into the line of police.
"There was a level of rage and fear among the protesters that left me shaken," said De'Jon Hall, a Police Advisory Board member who was there as an observer. "And that kind of rage comes from somewhere."
For Lonnie Barlow of PUSH Buffalo, the gruesome image of George Floyd lying on the ground, a Minneapolis police officer's knee on his neck, acted like lighter fluid on a smoldering fire.
"Buffalo got an up close and personal view of what has been happening all over," Barlow said, referring to a protest followed by vandalism in Allentown and elsewhere late last month, "but it took a very violent and damaging turn to the point where the purpose of the protest – which we presume was for justice for George Floyd and against systematic police brutality, and for black lives – seemed to get lost to another agenda."
Protests in Buffalo in recent days have drawn thousands of people but have remained peaceful, with hundreds of people marching on Elmwood Avenue and gathering at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Sunday.
Mayor Byron W. Brown on Saturday met with a coalition of police reform advocates for more than four hours after video showed two Buffalo police officers pushing a 75-year-old protester to the ground on Thursday. After the meeting Saturday, Brown pledged additional police training and said he would work with the community to implement new "policies and procedures" but did not elaborate on specifics. Both sides called the meeting productive.
Activists, who spoke to The News before the meeting Saturday, challenged Brown's handling of complaints about police during his years in office.
They pointed to Brown's passionate rebuke of a demonstrator who tried to set fire to City Hall – he called him an "idiot" – and contrasted that with his handling of police brutality complaints.
"If we had the same type of scrutiny directed at the police, I'm not sure we'd be where we are right now," said Tanvier Peart, a board member at the WNY Peace Center.
To make her point, Peart reels off the names of African American men and women at the center of brutality complaints and wonders aloud why Brown never held a news conference regarding them.
Brown, in an interview, challenged the criticism and pointed to his leadership on several initiatives that make it easier for the public to file complaints against police.
In the past, people had to go to Police Headquarters to make a complaint. Now, there's a City Hall office set aside for the same purpose. People can also text or email complaints into the department.
"There was one way before I became mayor," Brown said. "Now, there are eight different ways."
The mayor also took note of the police officers convicted or disciplined during his tenure.
"I've terminated officers from service," he said.
Still, to a person, the activists interviewed for this story seemed focused on what can be done to keep another black man from dying in police custody.
"We want local officials to stop coddling police officers who have acted with excessive force, who have blood on their hands," said Charis Humphrey, a community organizer with Black Love Resists in the Rust.
Two years ago, Humphrey's organization filed a lawsuit accusing the city of using traffic enforcement practices, most notably neighborhood checkpoints, to discriminate against people of color.
About the same time the suit was filed, the city disbanded the Buffalo Police Strike Force because of complaints about its use of checkpoints from another group, Black Lives Matter Buffalo.
Activists hope to use the current spotlight on Floyd's death to continue that type of reform.
"They're looking at the past five years, not just what happened recently, and seeing what they can do to move forward," Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, said of the organizations involved in the effort.
Their hope is that the larger Buffalo community will recognize the city's long history of segregation and racism and play a role in the reform effort.
Dickson suggested whites can do something as simple as talk to a black person about their fears of the police. He also acknowledged the inherent barriers to having those conversations.
"It's hard to convey that to someone who doesn't share that same fear," he said.
Peart's wishes are even more ambitious.
"I want people to plug in," she said. "We need more people to be anti-racist."
What she wants is for people to get actively involved in the effort, and noted that a number of equality and civil rights groups will be hosting training sessions in the near future for those who want to become community organizers.
"Young people in our city have energy, are active and are watching," Barlow of PUSH Buffalo added. "It's up to groups like us with the resources we have to help facilitate the building of a community-changing infrastructure that makes the future we need in Buffalo and elsewhere a reality for them."
Read the article on the Buffalo News website here.