Yes, Peaceful Protests are Possible — Just Listen To Black Organizers
Seriously, it should not take a white person to tell you this.
The protesters of Tuesday’s action at LA Mayor Garcetti’s residence, for the most part, had only a faint reason of where the day was headed. The protest was built largely in secret, which gave the early proceedings a tense but excited air. Many attendees (KNOCK.LA reporters included) were only given an address and a time at which to meet.
At just before 3 PM, before the crowd began to fill the small park, things were almost comically peaceful: a woman in a beautiful white dress pushed a baby on a park swing. Young people sat on the grass under tree shade. Two people across the park practiced tai chi. But soon, more and more people began to gather with signs, flags, and posters under their arms. It was clear that even if we didn’t know WHERE we were going, we all knew WHY we were here.
“The mayor needs to service his people,” one protester told me as the crowds began to form, “Not just the people with money, but the people who actually make this city come alive. Because a lot of Black and brown folks are the ones putting this city on their backs and doing the work that needs to be done.”
And he was right. One such person bearing the brunt of today’s work was Black Lives Matter organizer Dr. Melina Abdullah, who marshaled the crowd at the park with a strict code of conduct. She debriefed every protester over megaphone before the action began, which was where many of us learned that the destination of the day’s march would be Garcetti’s residence on Irving Street less than a mile away.
Since this was a protest specifically NOT advertised over social media, and only spread by word of mouth to trusted collaborators, protesters were told not to begin livestreaming until the march reached the Mayor’s residence.
The march began 10 minutes later. The mass of people, at this point a hundred strong, headed down Wilshire towards Garcetti’s home. Organizers at the front of the event walked directly into traffic — admittedly thinned some due to COVID-19 — and spread the crowd to fill Wilshire Boulevard completely as it headed east.
There was a real sense of excitement in the air, filled with cheers, chants, drumming, and cowbell to keep the pace marching on. The march’s demands were made clear as it continued: shouts of “DEFUND THE POLICE” and “PROSECUTE KILLER COPS” were repeated over and over with each step.
As the march turned on to Irving, the mood was almost eerie. Rows of beautiful mansions stood darkened and quiet as a stark contrast to the boisterous crowd that began to fill the street.
Once the protesters reached Garcetti’s residence, they split into two main groups: one group positioned directly in front of his home, and one slightly farther down the block where Irving met 6th. The group in front of Garcetti’s residence kept things lively with a constant stream of Black Lives Matter speakers and activists, while the group at 6th sat or took a knee on the street in peaceful protest.
The speakers in front of Garcetti’s home began with the traditional “libation” ceremony. Dr. Abdullah poured from a water bottle while speaking the names of Black victims of police violence. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were among the first two spoken, but soon suggestions from the crowd flooded in too quickly to hear each one: Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and so many others — some cases new and fresh, some old wounds that never got the chance to heal.
The vibe here was deeply spiritual. “We all know that we didn’t just come out here in our bodies,” said Dr. Abdullah, “we also know that we invoked the spirits of our grandmothers and grandfathers and everyone who walked before us. We’re gonna take a moment to acknowledge their presence, and ask them to be here with us, because in doing that we have much more power than of our physical bodies.”
Each call of names during the libation ceremony was followed by a call of “ashay,” or amen.
Just a few feet north of the speakers, the sit-in began. Rows and rows of seated and kneeling protesters met a line of police officers that had gathered to block off 6th Street. These officers, like so many these days, were armed to the teeth. Rubber bullet guns were slung over backs, plastic handcuffs by the dozen were attached to belts, and riot helmets and vests were worn by all. The only thing missing? Face masks, on at least a dozen or so cops.
Clearly, while guns are standard issue, a simple cloth mask to protect the public from deadly germs is less so. (Of particular note was the presence of LAPD Commander Cory Palka, who moved through the crowd and the protest line for hours without any sort of face covering at all).
However, despite this show of force, the protesters stayed calm. This was largely due to Dr. Abdullah and other BLM organizers’ masterful briefing at the start of the action, as well as the work of a handful of designated BLM representatives trained to talk to the police. Most of these representatives were white, using their position of privilege to ease tensions between riot cops and protesters. They did their job efficiently and without drawing attention to themselves.
If you knew where to look, you could see signs of impeccable organization everywhere. From the representatives dealing with police to the scouts looking ahead for any possible problems to the medics and green hat legal observers kept on hand, dozens of attendees worked together to keep things running smoothly.
That’s not even to mention the unseen dispatchers working from home to coordinate group movements and keep an eye on potential police action. It takes a lot of people to keep tensions from boiling over and peace in a crowd of several hundred for hours at a time on a hot spring afternoon.
One of the most telling scenes of today’s action came fairly soon after protesters occupied Irving Street. Many chants had been called throughout the afternoon already: usually by one voice shouting out a call and response, and the crowd picking up shortly after.
As protesters sat and kneeled in front of a long line of police blocking out 6th Street, a similar chant began: “How do you spell RACIST? L-A-P-D!”
The crowd joined in for a few cycles of call-and-reponse, when the call changed slightly: “How do you spell PIG?” There was a more awkward response this time, with less gusto: “L-A-P-D?” The call came again: “How do you spell CRACKER?” After this, a few heads turned to the white protester behind the call. “No,” a nearby Black protester told him in a gentle voice, “You’re not Black; you’re not trying to incite any violence right now.” To his credit, the caller apologized and gave up the chant.
But just because things were peaceful didn’t mean they couldn’t be fun, too. Actor and activist Kendrick Sampson was one of the speakers at the event, and he soon began one of the more rhythmic chants of the day: “Shout down Babylon, Black people are the bomb, we ready! Yeah, fuck Garcetti!” After a few repetitions of the chant, protesters started to dance along together to the beat, performing an impressive Electric Slide on the mayor’s front lawn.
But even as they were enjoying themselves, protesters never lost sight of the reasons why they were here. After the dance subsided, one of the electric sliders reported “America has always been a place where Black people and brown people are inherently criminal. And we’re here to decriminalize, defund the police, and de-legitimize the police.” She continued, “Allyship looks like: stop calling the fucking police! Stop validating this bullshit system that has always been set up to catch slaves and make money off of people.”
As the clock ticked closer to the 6 PM curfew, BLM organizers began getting the message out to attendees that it was time to disperse. Most, at this point, did so, especially after the heavily-armed riot cops moved back their line and Cmdr. Palka took a knee for a cheesy faux-solidarity photo-op moment. The protesters who left in the minutes following the curfew were unmolested by the police contingent, eyeing each other with a sense of uneasy peace.
All this goes to show is that, when white people listen to Black organizers and refrain for agitating and escalating the situation, peaceful protests are possible. Now, I’m not implying here that every violent protest is caused by white agitators in the protest itself rather than police escalation, that peaceful protest is the only avenue to achieving equity, or even that this particular action was without its arrests — several of those who stayed in front of Garcetti’s house to protest the curfew were taken into custody later that night.
But this protest did feel different to the violent clashes of this past weekend, and the credit for that must be given to BLM organizers working extremely hard behind the scenes.
There’s still time to be a part of this incredible movement. Donate to and follow Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles. We’ll see you at the next protest.