Racial injustice and police violence in Columbus, Ohio

Note: This was originally posted on my Facebook page after the first major protest for racial justice in Columbus on Memorial Day weekend 2020. Photo by Paul Becker – you can see all of Paul Becker’s photos from that day here.

Paul and I are back from the Justice for George, Breonna, and Ahmaud protest today at the Ohio Statehouse. You can see my livestreams of the ministers’ action, the marchers, and some of the speakers elsewhere on my page.

After livestreaming for about 45 minutes, I left the speakers area when it became very crowded. Even though 90% of attendees were wearing a mask, I was not comfortable being in that huge crowd. As I started walking toward the car, I got a message from Paul that he was in an area that had been pepper sprayed. So I went back.

Here is what I saw.

First, there was easily 2,000 people at this protest. You can see my 10-minute livestream of hundreds marching in front of the Statehouse – that was less than half the attendees. There were more people than there was room on the sidewalks to hold them. So some people ended up stepping into the street – it was impossible not to.

There wasn’t enough room for everyone to hear the speakers, so some in the crowd started marching instead. I saw hundreds of people marching in a square around the four crosswalks at the intersection of Broad and High. They were peaceful, chanting and carrying signs. They weren’t paying attention to the signal lights, so they were jaywalking, but that was the worst “crime” being committed.

Suddenly a series of bike cops came racing in and stopped in front of them at each corner, forcing everyone back onto the sidewalk. Also arriving were a bunch of cops in full body armor, a SWAT tank equipped with an LRad, and a bunch of mounted police.

Then the tear gassing started. Police gassed people at the corner diagonal from me, then the one directly across from me. A few people were arrested and brought in front of the crowd at my corner to be loaded into a police van. People cheered for those getting arrested.

At one point there was a commotion in the street a few hundred feet in front of me, and medics including Atticus brought a few people to the nearby bus stop to wash out their eyes. I didn’t know it at the time, but that is when Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, City Council President Shannon Hardin, and County Commissioner Kevin Boyce were all pepper sprayed. Here’s more on that.

Eventually the police began to announce on a loudspeaker that they were declaring a state of emergency at Broad and High, telling everyone to clear the area. If we did not leave, “chemical dispersants” would be used to force us out, and we would be subject to arrest. Keep in mind, chemical dispersants had already been used, and there were up to 1,000 people in the area at the time.

Eventually I found Paul, who had been dealing with pepper spray and mace on the other side of the street. We stuck around to get a little bit more video and photos, and then decided to leave.

Here are my thoughts on these events.

This was a completely unnecessary show of force. The people at this protest this morning were peaceful, and the protest organizers made it a point to tell people before the protest began that it would be peaceful, with no property destruction – and there wasn’t.

It was the police who escalated the situation with their heavy handed tactics completely out of proportion to the situation. It makes no sense why they did this, and it is not how they have handled other large crowd protest situations I have been in.

Last September I was proud to take part in the youth climate strike at the Ohio Statehouse. The organizers had a permit to gather on the Statehouse steps and lawn, but not to march. After the speeches, people decided to march to City Hall, Rob Portman’s office, and back to the Statehouse. Instead of arresting us, police closed off roads to traffic to allow 800 people to cross multiple intersections.

No one was pepper sprayed or maced. No one was arrested. There was no SWAT truck or LRad and no one in body armor or riot gear. There were bike cops – that’s who secured several different intersections so we could cross.

Fast forward to today. The organizers of this event didn’t have a permit to march either. But instead of allowing people to express themselves, the police employed a disproportionate show of force. Instead of de-escalating the situation, it made everything much worse.

And all of this started at 11:15 a.m.! If police are going to instigate a standoff with 1,000 protesters at the center of town before noon, what’s it going to be like at midnight??

It’s not like we didn’t already know about the problems with the Columbus police. In 2018 the city created a task force to examine practices of the Columbus police, and the report they commissioned in 2019 found a “significant disparity of use of force against minority residents.” More about that here.

It is long past time for the city to act.

I don’t know nearly as much about police policy as I know about climate and energy. But here are some ideas from other sources.

From the 2019 report on the Columbus Police:

According to news coverage, the report “recommends the Police Division create an “early warning” program to identify potentially problematic officers. That system could be used to intervene when triggered by “more use-of-force incidents than is typical,” community complaints or other warning signs.

Among the many recommendations in the report are that the Police Division:

‒ Continue intense training, education and monitoring to address the disparity of use of force against minorities.

‒ Continue to work on building community trust.

‒ Increase training on de-escalation and procedural justice that deals with using fair processes.

‒ Address concerns raised by employees about internal and external bias.”

Here are some policy solutions tweeted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (incidentally, elected officials were also maced in Brooklyn today):

“1. Ask your mayor & city council for strong Citizen Review Boards

  1. Budgets. They’re powerful. Find your city’s police budget. Compare that to the school & housing budget. More $ in fmr Rightwards arrow school-to-prison pipeline
  2. What does mental healthcare look like in your city? Too often our prisons are used to discard ppl struggling w mental health, housing. Invest in the latter.
  3. Healthcare, living wage, housing & education guarantees. Without them we feed the cycle.”

Here are some comments from Mary Jo Kilroy:

“The contract between the FOP and the city of Columbus is where the process of eliminating bad/racist officers can either be helped or hurt. It seems as if it expires in June. News reports generally focus on the economic aspects, but how complaints are investigated, and what type of discipline can occur is defined there.

This site compares cities, also shows what to look for in the contracts. For example, in Columbus, although there is progressive discipline, past misconduct can only be used for 2 or 3 years. Also accused officers must be given all of the transcripts, polygraph summaries, witness statements, complaints, etc. reasonably in advance of being questioned, access that a civilian being questioned would not have. https://www.checkthepolice.org/#project”

It sounds to me that just as with the climate crisis, we know what to do about the policing crisis. We just need the political will to do it. I hope city leaders find that political will soon.

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