Riot Police And Peaceful Protesters: A Die-in In Durham
It began with emotional slam poetry and slice-of-life storytelling around a Christmas tree. “I don’t want to see my little nephew die,” shouted one woman, tearfully addressing the crowd, equal parts angry and somber.
The peaceful protest moved through the Durham streets, in solidarity with similar movements across America. Protesters banged drums, chanted catchy and poignant phrases, shut down Highway 147, and “died” in the streets. The group was loud, for it wanted to be heard, but peaceful. Then the riot police showed up.
Ferguson. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Their deaths are just a trickling few of the incidents of systemic racism ending in tragedy. As a young, white, middle class female, I have grown up in a bubble. I hear about these tragic cases, like many of you, and feel sorrow, shake my head, and make an even bigger effort to be colorblind.
Segregation In The Crowd
In this effort to be colorblind, I was disturbed when the protesters in Durham willfully segregated us into black and white. Oppressed and privileged. One woman, a black woman, stayed with the white crowd and mirrored my thoughts, saying, “Isn’t segregation what we’re trying to move away from?”
I voiced this concern, and got a thoughtful response from a woman named Rachel, who said,”…POS wanted us to unite and talk about what actions needed to be taken for us. Remember that just because you protest with us doesn’t mean you will get treated like us when stuff goes down.”
This dichotomy of thought makes the issue even more complicated, and it can be traced back to black leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who sharply disagreed on the best way to manage the systemic oppression of the black race. This contrast could be seen in the Durham crowds, with some protesters peacefully marching, some shouting, “We hate all cops, you racist pigs!”
Some people have harshly criticized the peaceful, but disrupting protests. One officer last night commented to me, “It’s just annoying.” Many people argue the disruption is pointless at best, and the violence is only adding fuel to the fire, at worst.
“I hear what you’re saying,” argues Danielle, a local blogger at Womancipation, “but I do not think it’s anyone’s place to say when violence of an oppressed group is and isn’t justified. These people are suffering, and I respect their right to self-determine how they retaliate and make their voices heard.”
Dying on Highway 147 And The Police Barricade
By the time the protesters marched to the highway and began dying in the streets, I’ll admit I was getting nervous about the police presence. As a normal citizen, I approached one officer in a line of cops creating a barricade with their bicycles. I asked if I was allowed to go past the barricade and onto the sidewalk. The officer shrugged and half-smiled, nodding me through. But as I went to pass, his fellow officer silently pushed his bicycle in front of me and shook his head. I was surprised by the cold, calculating reaction.
White privilege, the kind I’ve unconsciously grown up with, immediately jumped into my head. I’m a little white girl. A free American citizen.
You’re telling me I can’t walk on the sidewalk of my own city? You’re shoving your bike in front of me? I haven’t done anything wrong! Nothing to deserve this!
…Oh. Suddenly, maybe I understand a little bit more.
I’ve never had a taste of what it’s like to have the police silently, wordlessly not on my side.
As watched the die-in on Highway 147, I saw the tensions rising. Dozens of black-clad, armored officers stood in ominous formation–the S.W.A.T. team was assembling in the shadows, just outside the protesters’ line of vision. A little girl standing nearby whined nervously, “Mommy. Why are they here?”
“Don’t worry,” she responded. “We won’t get too close.”
Systemic Racism In Action
As the crowd passed a parking deck, a large pick-up truck sped up on the crowd threateningly from behind. One of the security workers for the parking deck came out with a glowing baton, shouting, “Stop, sir! You can’t go that way!”
The driver hit the gas, the truck roared dangerously close to the worker. “Get out of my way,” the driver yelled.
“Sir,” the concerned worker waved his baton, holding up his hands to block the marching crowd. “You can’t go that way! Stop!”
The truck roared again, and the driver repeated, “Get out of my way!”
The worker let him pass, admonished and angry. “He could have just told me he was a cop,” he said to his friend.
I was startled. Rather than threateningly moving towards a worker and shouting rudely, couldn’t the officer had just politely stated, “I am a police officer. I need to get through.”
I don’t know if it had anything to do with it, but the security worker was black.
Shouting At The System
Being at any protest rally is tricky. While you may agree with the overall need for systemic change, certain protesters are always more radical than others. Several times, I noticed individuals pushing back against the police, or shouting hate, when another protester would step in, saying, “Hey. Calm down. That’s not what we’re about.”
So when the rowdy teenager in the crowd shouted, “We hate you, stupid pigs!” while flicking off the police officers–and I want to note, he was a white teenager, and some of the police officers were black–I walked past and nodded politely and thanked the officers for their service. Because on an individual level, these police officers are men and woman who are probably not intentionally seeking to be aggressive or racist. They really do want to serve and protect.
But that teenager isn’t shouting at the individual cops. He’s shouting at the system.
One police officer responded, “It’s okay. I understand why they’re angry.”
A lot of white people get nervous dealing with systemic racism. We don’t agree with the system. We don’t want to be privileged. And when it comes to speaking out, we honestly aren’t sure what to say. What can I say? What if I accidentally say something offensive? Since I can never truly understand the struggle of racial oppression, how can I help? So I did something crazy.
Danielle, well-versed in systemic oppression, responded, “I would say the best thing to do is listen to stories, ask questions, educate yourself. It’s so crucial to understand the historical context of race relations in the states, in order to really conceptualize the legacy that exists today. Besides that, oppressed groups need support. At the rally I went to on Tuesday, a speaker said white people need to join the fight. Stand alongside black people, without telling us how to lead our movement.
I would add also talking to people that are not part of communities of color. Often times, when I want to talk about race I get accused of using the ‘race card.’ It doesn’t stop me from talking, but it helps to also have white allies, which other white people might be more inclined to listen to.”
But not everyone agrees. Falling into the racial minority camp also, Dereck chimed in, “I do want to say though, I suggest not looking at yourself in an oppressed versus non-oppressed light. I hate when someone tries to use ‘privilege’ to explain how someone has it better than another because it turns into a comparison of people based on criteria, and unintentionally makes them look at people as different from one another. I don’t want people speaking for me and my ‘lack of privilege’ because I’m not white. I want them to be there for me, be my friend, and not look at themselves as any different from me.”
As a white person in Raleigh, that’s always been my method for managing racial injustice. I simply like people for who they are and leave race out of it. On an individual level, this is the goal. But the protests aren’t necessarily aiming to change individuals, but rather break down a broken system.
Riot Police At DPAC
The audience at DPAC applauded the chanting protesters from glowing windows as the crowd surrounded the building, drumming and chanting. The cops wailed sirens, and young sign-holders danced to the disco beat. After hours of walking around Durham, the crowd had reached its destination, and the riot police were waiting.
At first, I was fascinated. I’d never seen real-life riot police, with intimidating sticks, black helmets, all backlit with red-blue strobes. “What are they going to do?” I wondered.
As the video shows, the riot police began marching into the crowd, holding armored shields forward and chanting in deep voices, “Move back! Move back!” I stepped aside, jaw open, and recorded. Why were riot police pushing into a peaceful protest?
A thought struck me: This kind of thing could easily spark violence. Sure enough, only a moment later a woman in the crowd fell down, shrieking, “No!! No!!” as officers decended on her. I couldn’t see, but I think she was being arrested. I still don’t know why. Maybe she refused to move back?
I forgot I will still recording and grabbed my husband, ushering him away from the crowd. Unknowingly, however, we’d stumbled onto the prison’s property. A gentleman with white hair and a mustache shouted a warning at me, “Get off the prison property!”
“I… I just want to get away from the crowd,” I stammered, confused.
“Get off the prison property!” he yelled. Again, I was shocked for the complete lack of humanity. Police officers have always been my friend.
We moved back into the crowd. When riot police began surrounding the protesters from the other side, we took refuge in an alley next to some DPAC workers. Several other protesters left the crowd as well, and we all walked up a hill to watch as the police blared pulsing sound cannons across the crowd, demanding they disperse. Eventually, they did, but only after several were arrested. I suppose they were arrested willingly for a cause they believe in.
From the safety of the hill, we watched as Durham got shut down. People in DPAC applauded. Cars honked their support. Officers did their job, and I don’t blame them. Hopefully, each officer has gained a bit more self-awareness about how the system alters his or her racial perceptions.
Maybe we all have.