COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nana Watson stood at the intersection of Broad and High streets after dark Thursday night with her heart in her throat and tears in her eyes.
The president of the Columbus Chapter of the NAACP wasn’t surprised by what she was seeing. So much pent-up anger, so much frustration, so much hurt from oppression, all bubbling over into attacks and destruction.
She gets it. Oh, my how she gets it, she told The Dispatch Friday morning as she called the roll of the names of young black men in Columbus who have been killed by police.
“The black community is angry. All people are angry. Everyone who watched the murder of George Floyd is angry,” she said of the black man who died in Minneapolis earlier this week after a white police officer there pinned him to the ground by his neck.
But she said that she thinks of those in that crowd of hundreds of protesters in downtown who shattered windows of the Ohio Statehouse, who broke into local businesses and looted them, who ripped apart the very bus stops that keep people dry as they simply wait in the rain for a ride to work. And she can’t help but wonder: Is this the way to change?
Yet she said she knows this: Thursday night was just the tip of the iceberg.
“We are angry about unemployment. We are angry about no childcare and lack of access to education and being held hostage in our homes by COVID-19,” she said. “All those things that black people have been deprived of forever now comes at the time of the virus. And it all boiled over.”
But the destruction of property, the throwing of rocks and water bottles and firecrackers at Columbus police officers won’t solve the problem, she said.
“The NAACP supports protesting,” she said. But she added that relations between the black community and the Columbus Division of Police have improved under the new administration and she doesn’t want to see that backslide.
“We have to be thoughtful about protesting,” she said. “We have such a right to be angry. But destroying one’s property and a business owner’s livelihood is not the answer. Watching those officers stand there like tin soldiers as people stoned them. I won’t soon forget that image.”
Silence is over
Community leaders didn’t hold back their feelings Friday about the unrest that was so out of character for what Columbus has seen before, more volatile even than the protests that followed some of the more high-profile and controversial fatal police shootings in recent years: the killing of 13-year-old Tyre King in the Olde Towne East neighborhood in September 2016, and the shooting death of 23-year-old Henry Green in South Linden in June 2016.
Although she said the destruction of property is wrong, the time for standing silent is long past, said Stephanie Hightower, a powerful advocate for the African-American community and president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League.
“Recent racist incidents and violence demand direct language. The hard truth must be said. America stands at a crossroads. The choice is clear — do we have the will and the determination to finally rise above four hundred years of bigotry and racism?” she wrote in a statement.
In a later interview with The Dispatch, Hightower ticked off a roll of her own, adding to Floyd’s name from Minnesota that of Ahmuad Arbery, who was black, and was chased down by white men in a pickup truck and shot and killed in Georgia.
“We have had two public lynchings of black men in this country in a three-month span,” she said.
What erupted in Columbus on Thursday night, Hightower said, came from a new generation that has learned to rise up and take a stand.
“This is about our young people. They don’t have hope,” she said. “They don’t want their legacy — whether they are white, yellow, black, brown — tied to the 400 years of racism that preceded them in this country. Stop murdering black men in cold blood and think that it is OK. That’s what I hear young people say.”
Heather Wise, an organizer with the Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) organization in Columbus, said in a written statement that a group of protesters gathered and marched peacefully toward City Hall and the Statehouse on Thursday night.
The crowd quickly grew, and they encountered police at Broad and High, some in riot gear.
“We engaged in a stand-still face-off with them,” she wrote, adding that the later use of tear gas by police escalated the situation. On Friday, she said, SURJ was still assessing the injuries to protesters hit by rubber bullets fired by police.
“What’s happening in Minneapolis is not an anomaly,” she wrote. “Columbus Police continue to send the message that black and brown people’s lives don’t matter; it is understandable that many folks protest such inhumane conditions.”
So can real change be brought about without violence? The work of Hightower’s organization is among the very things that help the African American community escape oppression and mistreatment, said Pastor Frederick LaMarr.
LaMarr is a leading voice in the tight-knit black church community, and his Family Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side’s Oakwood Avenue has in the past played a role in helping to quell unrest and in improving community and police relations.
LaMarr was part of a more peaceful protest earlier Thursday evening at Livingston Avenue and Lockbourne Road where the Near East Side and South Side connect. He did not attend the one Downtown that wrought the vandalism.
LaMarr said the protesters needed a leader to step up and stop those only bent on destruction and violence and the police needed to better de-escalate the situation.
“It’s OK to protest but do it peacefully and do it safely,” he said. “And the Bible says a soft answer turns away wrath.”
LaMarr said the announcement Friday of the arrest of and murder charge filed against the officer accused in George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis might help ease things now, though more local protests were already planned for around the city Friday night.
“What the black community wants is justice,” he said. “If folks see an officer has been arrested and he’s been charged, then some frustration turns to rejoice. Finally, somebody’s hearing us.”
LaMarr said, though, that history will tell us that we’ve been here before: Someone dies, an alarm sounds, the community is outraged, people demand action, then tempers abate. Nothing really changes.
“If no one is listening to us, we take care of it ourselves. We have to organize: Join the church, join the NAACP. Be an informed voter and elect new leaders who listen to us,” he said. “That brings real change.”
Hightower said the vandalism and destruction that happened on the Downtown streets of Columbus night was wrong, and that she thinks it wasn’t really about the Columbus Division of Police at all.
“The blatant racism and bigotry that no one in Minneapolis decided they needed to check has set off a tsunami,” she said. “People are tired. People are scared. What we have here in this country right now is the perfect storm.”