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Long Story Short: Aftermath

6/1/20



The protest was initially peaceful.

Photo by Johanna Dominguez

 

What do we want? Change

 

*See correction at the end of this piece.

 

I began writing about Buffalo’s George Floyd protests around 8 p.m. Saturday and continued as events unfolded. On Sunday, I added newly available information.

 

A nation explodes in protest

Late last week, protests erupted across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by a police officer who pressed Floyd’s neck against the ground with his knee, as bystanders begged the officer to stop. On Saturday evening, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Buffalo’s Niagara Square to make their voices heard as part of a reoccurring national protest against police abuse.

 

The demonstration began with an eight-minute moment of silence, which is the amount of time the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck before the man died. The anger was palpable as people waved signs, marched, and shouted, some chanting Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe; I’m gonna die.” Car horns honked in support. Dozens of police in riot and SWAT gear, some with dogs, were on hand to oversee the initially peaceful multi-racial protesters.

 

In contrast, by late afternoon in nearby Rochester, demonstrations had erupted into violence after tear gas was deployed by police. Cars were flipped and set on fire. The violence escalated into the night. There are reports of buildings burning.

 

For a time, it looked like Buffalo would escape the violence.

 

Outside instigators?

Mayor Brown had issued a warning ahead of the Buffalo protest, saying that there were indications that outsiders were planning to incite violence at the demonstration. A Facebook group calling itself “protest against police brutality” allowed postings that openly advocated rioting.

 

“Please consider matching their contribution,” says one post shared by Shawn Milliman, which was attached to a screen shot of the Minneapolis riots. Ryan Nicastro posted instructions on concocting slow-burning material from gasoline and Styrofoam. Brian Delaney, who appears on Facebook in paramilitary garb, wrote: “Individual verified on OSINT [open source intelligence] helping plan and incite riot / domestic terrorism in WNY are of responsibility.” Scorby McMicaelson posted a meme with the message: “Riots and looting are a legitimate and profound form of protest against a system that values goods and services over human life.” Stephanie Eichinger shared information on obscuring your appearance from facial recognition and other forms of identification. Nick Scott posted, “Yo, so who’s ready to fucking riot later!?” All these people are white.

 

Numerous messages circulated on social media prior to the demonstration—including on the “protest against police brutality” page—stating that no recognized or trusted social justice organization in Buffalo planned or endorsed the event. Black leaders urged their followers not to attend. “Black people. STOP letting white people tell us how to grieve, express our anger, and love,” said one. “We know how to organize and act for ourselves. If we need anything we know how to ask.” The fear was repeatedly expressed that any destruction that occurred would be blamed on the black community.

 

Of the ten people who were arrested Saturday evening, all are from Western New York, five being from outside Buffalo, one as far away as Ransomville. Another is from Grand Island and one is from Amherst. At least five of the ten are white.

 

Events escalate

As the protest lagged on into early evening, a car on Delaware Avenue attempted to make its way past the crowd, probably inadvertently.* The driver was pulled out by protestors, beaten, and her vehicle destroyed. Police intervened and rushed the woman to ECMC. Vandalism intensified around the square. This is when tear gas was first used in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

 

At 8:30 p.m., an officer using a bullhorn alerted the crowd that it had two minutes to leave Niagara Square or be arrested, and the protest begins to dwindle. Long after the deadline passes, police continued to exercise restraint toward stragglers, many of whom are openly antagonistic. Meanwhile, a large group of demonstrators that left the square, marched through city streets, some riding atop slow-moving cars, some on bikes. Hundreds paraded down Auburn Avenue, where I live. I asked one marcher if there is a plan. “That’s a good question,” he said, and continued on.

 

Businesses around the city were vandalized, windows broken; dumpsters set on fire. A 7-Eleven on Elmwood near North was looted. Hodge Wine & Liquor was ransacked, and full bottles were thrown at police and bystanders. Later, the marchers circled back to Niagara Square, where City Hall and other surrounding structures were defaced with graffiti. Windows in the Statler Hilton and some surrounding storefronts were smashed.

 

County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Mayor Brown declared a State of Emergency, with a 10:30 p.m. county-wide curfew. Just before 11 p.m. police again used tear gas, along with flash bombs to disperse the crowd, to little effect. At 11:07 p.m. a bail bond truck was set on fire, blazing brightly in Niagara Square.

 

More tear gas and pepper bullets were used on the crowd at 11:18 p.m. Around 11:20 p.m., windows were broken in City Hall, and a man was seen on live TV dumping a basket of flaming material through one. City representatives later called him an idiot, promising to arrest and prosecute him. Fire engines arrived on the scene and extinguish the burning truck. A fire hose was run into City Hall, but there was little damage inside.

 

Cat and mouse

By this time, it became a cat and mouse game between police and protestors. Demonstrators slipped around police lines, only to reenter elsewhere on the square. Some eventually marched down Main Street, while others moved to Elmwood at Niagara. A fire broke out in a nearby parking ramp, an attempt to burn a forklift. Police continued showing restraint in the stand-off. Their determination not to escalate the violence likely prevented wider rioting. Around midnight, things began to quiet down.

 

Why Buffalo?

On the surface, the protest was a plea for justice for the murder of a Minneapolis citizen by police. But why here? The answer lies in the history of violence against people of color that occurs daily in cities across the country, including Buffalo. Justice is rarely granted its victims.

 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

 I was a boy during the race riots of the Long Hot Summer of 1967. Buffalo was one of 109 cities ravaged by days of violence. There would eventually be 159 separate riots. I was perplexed as to why people would resort to needless destruction. What was their point, I wondered? Account after account of the 1967 riots, name police brutality as a significant cause. A 2017 article in US News called 50 Years After Race Riots, Issues Remain the Same, had this to say: “What usually ignited the powder keg of resentments was police brutality or abuse.” The Newark riots, for instance, were triggered by the arrest of John Smith, a black taxi driver, who was pulled by police from his cab, beaten, and dragged into a nearby precinct as hundreds of residents watched. Smith was physically abused; George Floyd was killed. Smith had hundreds of witnesses; millions watched Floyd die on social media.

 

Why violence?

What does senseless violence achieve? The 1967 riots were devastating, resulting in long-term economic damage to communities. But state and local governments responded with dramatic increases in minority hiring, especially in police departments. Fair housing ordinances were enacted around the country. In the wake of the current riots, reforms have already been proposed in New York State which would unseal police discipline records.

 

Is this what it takes to get the attention of police and government leaders? How many peaceful rallies are needed before we see real reform? How many demonstrations before police are held accountable for their actions? How many protests before officers are trained in de-escalation tactics and bad cops are screened out?

 

Is it any wonder that violence eventually erupts? I’m not justifying the mindless devastation that took place here and in other cities. There’s no excuse for destruction of property. But there is an explanation. Maybe the death of Floyd was so unambiguously egregious that it became the tipping point for exasperated justice seekers. Or maybe rebellious instigators seized on it as an opportunity to wreak havoc. Either way, something was bound to give. And without real change, it will again.

 

Hope

On Sunday, beginning as early as 6:30 a.m., large numbers of volunteers came out all over town with brooms, bags, and boxes to help their neighbors clean the mess. Windows were replaced or temporarily boarded. The Elmwood Village, which was hit hard, started a fundraiser to assist with the cost of glass replacement for businesses already struggling under the weight of COVID-19 restrictions.

 

Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood, who is black, delivered a message on the department's Facebook page in advance of the protest, saying in part, “Since becoming Commissioner, my biggest priority has been to continue building stronger relationships between the BPD and the community.” He seems to be making a real effort under current conditions. What is needed though, is radical transformation of the entire legal system, not incremental change.

 

 

The end of the world blues

Most folks have extra time on their hands now that we’re all staying home, and people are doing a variety of things to fill that time: binge watching TV, baking and cooking, cleaning closets, and, of course, reading. A pile of unread books and magazines eternally beckon from beside my bed, but one book recently loaned by a friend grabbed my attention. Hallwalls’ curator John Massier knows my interests, but the book’s title—The End Is Always Near—seemed a tad portentous, given the current state of the world.

 

Written by historian and podcaster Dan Carlin, it’s a history book comprising stories of various ways once-mighty civilizations ended, often abruptly. You got your volcanos, famines, wars, droughts, invasions, and other ways whole cultures can be snuffed out. Cheerful it’s not, but it’s educational.

 

Then came Chapter 6

The 2011 movie Contagion recently became must-see TV after it went from being a horror/disaster film to a current event documentary overnight. But Contagion is fiction. Carlin’s sixth chapter is about real events. It’s titled A Pandemic Prologue? And that it is.

 

The chapter is chock full of instances where cultures were wiped out by disease. It wasn’t that long ago that humans lived in an environment that was inconceivably deadly by today’s standards. Mortality was high, and plagues regularly reduced populations. Since people didn’t traverse the globe as we do today, the devastation tended to remain localized. Around the middle of the eighteenth century—thanks to science—life became considerably less tenuous. Vaccinations, for one thing, beneficially altered the course of human history.

 

So far, so good

The stories in the book are horrific, but readers can take solace in knowing that they take place in the past. Then, on page 137, we come to the 1918 Spanish flu, which wasn’t that long ago. “Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about this flu was that at the time it hit,” Carlin writes, “humanity had made great strides in medicine.” The virus had traveled to America by British ship and spread quickly. Of course, it could have been much worse.

 

“It still can be,” begins the next paragraph, as Carlin switches from historical analysis to cautionary tale. He warns readers of the risk of hubris, reminding us that “just like the Titanic, our civilization is not unsinkable.” He talks about the potential for weaponized disease, including human-made viruses. Then this: “New strains of virus are jumping from pigs and poultry and birds to humans just about every year.” This is where the book begins to sound eerily familiar, so I look to see when it was published: 2019—months before anyone heard of SARS-CoV-2, or the disease it causes, COVID-19.

 

Pondering the probable

Suppose we were to have another pandemic, Carlin muses, unaware that one would be arriving shortly after he completed the book. If that happens, he says, it’s not just the virus that might bring down a civilization; it’s the ripple effects: “fear, uncertainty, and irrationality on the part of the public.” These things keep experts up at night. “History would suggest they are right to be worried,” he adds.

 

“Even a slow-moving virus triggers all sorts of panic, backlash, and prejudicial responses,” the author states. “We live in a world with a “far greater level of interconnectivity than in any past era. Contagion can now spread on a far greater scale.”

 

Carlin postulates, “It’s hard to imagine a human society acting rationally or humanely if mortality began reaching catastrophic levels. We might turn to religion, change the social structure, blame unpopular minorities and groups, or abandon previous belief systems.” The author notes that mass panic will almost certainly ensue.

 

Test run

We already see these things playing out on a small scale with the current pandemic, including right here in Western New York. Friends denounce each other on social media for supposed unacceptable views, fear and anxiety are often inflated, and conspiracy theories abound. There has been a three-fold increase in the number of local drug overdose deaths since the New York pause went into effect. Suicides and mental health disorders stemming from the crisis are on the rise. Buffalo and Erie County Crisis Services is seeing higher levels of anxiety and increased hotline calls.

 

Across the country, Asians have been harassed. Some clerics declare that COVID-19 is a punishment from God, and science is frequently being devalued, distorted, or denied altogether. And COVID-19 isn’t even as severe as the Spanish Flu, much less the fifty to seventy percent mortality rate of the Black Plague. How much, wonders Carlin, would our understanding of science blunt fear and panic during a truly severe pandemic? Not a whole lot it would seem, if our current situation is any indication.

 

COVID-19 has provided civilization with a test run for the big one, and we haven’t handled it well. China appears to have concealed the seriousness of the coronavirus at its start, in order to hoard necessary medical supplies. Given Trump’s America First policy, does anyone believe the US would have acted differently? Trump downplayed the seriousness of the disease even as it infected US citizens. He had already “streamlined” the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2018. Its pandemic response team was largely disbanded. America and the world were unprepared.

 

The end

Carlin closes the chapter with a question: “What is the likelihood that humanity has already experienced the worst plague it will ever encounter?” The implied answer: not likely. Going forward, the world must be much more prepared for future pandemics, and the United States should resume its former role as a global leader. Civilization might actually depend on it.

 

*Correction: after reviewing videos that were not available when this post was written on Sunday a.m., it does appear as though this driver deliberately drove into the crowd in a provocative manner. 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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