Police Incitement Against Black Lives Matter Is Putting Protesters in Danger

Minneapolis is a case study in how police hate speech fosters a climate of violence.

Photo Credit: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com

From the floor of the Republican National Convention to the online pages of the Blue Lives Matter Facebook community, it is now commonplace for public officials, police and first responders to openly declare war on Black Lives Matter—the civil rights movement of our times.

In some cases, this climate has given way to overt intimidation, with the captain of the Columbia, South Carolina fire department fired earlier this month for threatening to run over Black Lives Matter protesters, followed by the termination of three other first responders for related offenses. According to the count of Sarah Kaplan, reporting for The Washington Post, those South Carolina officials “are among at least a dozen public employees who have lashed out against protesters on social media and been punished for it.” Yet, many more appear to have faced no consequences at all.

Coming from the very people ostensibly entrusted with protecting public safety, smears and threats are fostering real violence against a movement that arose to counter the disproportionate state-sanctioned killing of black people, including extrajudicial executions by police. Unfortunately, the metropolitan area of Minneapolis has emerged as a case study in how police incitement endangers and criminalizes First-Amendment-protected protests organized by residents who have already endured police killings of at least two black men in the last eight months: Jamar Clark in November 2015 and Philando Castile earlier this month.

Mass Shooting Attack on Black Lives Matter

Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis Police Officer’s Federation, has ties to a white-power-linked biker gang called City Heat and a track record marred by accusations of racist violence, including a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in 2007 by five of his fellow African-American police officers. When community members organized protests last year demanding “Justice for Jamar,” Kroll was not shy about his virulent opposition to the demonstrations taking place at all.

In late November, Kroll told a local media outlet of a weeks-long protest occupation outside the fourth precinct, “The cops feel like it’s the local version of Benghazi. They are under siege, the mayor has directed the police chief to not help, these people need to be cleared out. Arrests need to be made. They need to be given an order to disperse.”

According to Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP and civil rights attorney, while Kroll was issuing these public smears, white supremacists were taking to online platforms to threaten violence against protesters. “We were looking at different websites and threads from white supremacist and hate groups and saw threats constantly being issued against protesters at the fourth precinct occupation,” said Levy-Pounds. In light of this environment, Levy-Pounds explained that protesters “had to create our own security teams to protect ourselves and monitor social media.”

These grassroots efforts ultimately were not enough to stop four alleged white supremacist gunmen from opening fire on the protest on November 23, wounding five people—two of them seriously. According to Sam Richards, founder and editor-in-chief of the North Star Post, the gunmen yelled, “race war” and “Trump 2016” before shooting. David Neiwert, writing for the Southern Poverty Law Center, confirmed that the shooters “left behind a trail of emails, chat rooms, websites, reveling in the extremist right.”

Sumaya Moallin, who is 19 years old, was at the occupation outside of the fourth precinct when the shooting took place. She told AlterNet that she witnessed police refuse to help the wounded. “I ran back to the precinct door where police officers were standing in front,” she said. “I asked, why isn’t there an ambulance, why isn’t anyone doing anything? I asked them what’s going on, in tears.”

“One of them looked at me and said, ‘This is what you guys wanted.’ And then the police retreated back behind the precinct doors,” said Moallin. “I was in complete shock. I had just witnessed someone gun us down because of our skin tone and because of the way we look.”

The police department claimed in a press statement that it responded promptly to the mass shooting, stating: “Dozens of officers responded almost immediately attending to victims and secured the scene.” But every Black Lives Matter protester that AlterNet spoke to confirmed Moallin’s account, which was reported in the Nation by George Joseph. Eye witnesses interviewed in the immediate aftermath said that the individual shot in the stomach was left lying on the ground for at least ten minutes.

Such denial of assistance would not be unheard of. As AlterNet senior editor Max Blumenthal recently reported, the Blue Lives Matter Facebook page has been filled with threats by police and their supporters to deny services to the public.

Protesters say police then proceeded to escalate violence toward protesters who were trying to tend to the wounded.

Jie Wronski-Riley, a 19-year-old organizer with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis, told AlterNet: “There were 30 to 40 people who came up to help the people who had been shot. The police came out in riot gear and started pushing the crowd back and saying we won’t let ambulances through unless you all leave.” Several witnesses say that police then proceeded to escalate the situation, including by spraying chemical agents.

'They Really Don't Care That Much About Protesters'

“After the shooting, when they [the police] talked about the protest, they talked about how violent protesters were,” Mica Grimm, organizer with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis, told AlterNet. “They never talked about how five people were shot. No one will ever bring that up. They really don’t care that much about protesters.”

Indeed, police officers’ public smears against the protesters appears to have only escalated since the mass shooting, with Kroll proclaiming in June that Black Lives Matter is a "terrorist organization." In February, a St. Paul police officer Jeff Rothecker was forced to resign after he was caught encouraging drivers to run over Black Lives Matter protesters slated to gather for a Martin Luther King Day mobilization.

Earlier this month, four officers walked out of a Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball game because players wore warmup jerseys with the words "Black Lives Matter" and the names of two African Americans, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were recently shot to death by police. The officers, who were off duty and assisting with private security, staged the walkout despite the fact that the shirts also included the image of the Dallas police shield in tribute to the five members of the department who were recently killed by a sniper.

As recently as July 20, the Twin Cities Police Federations denounced members of the American Federation of Teachers for participating in a Black Lives Matter rally, declaring: “Educators should demonstrate more common sense than rushing to judgment along with radical activists hell-bent on destabilizing our communities.”

In contrast to the mounting criticisms of Black Lives Matter, AlterNet has been unable to locate a single public official willing to openly condemn—or even comment on—Kroll’s white power ties. While Kroll has come under increasing fire from the Minneapolis police chief and mayor for his inflammatory comments, these officials have fallen short of raising public concerns about his racist history.

“There is a certain dehumanization and a lack of care or concern about what happens to us when we are engaging in nonviolent demonstrations,” said Levy-Pounds.

The Minneapolis police department is already dogged by complaints. According to Randy Furst, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, between 2012 and 2013, 439 civilian complains were filed against police officers but none resulted in formal discipline. Between 2006 and 2012, the city paid out $14 million in settlements for police misconduct.

Inviting Violence

Even after coming under fire, protesters have continued to take to the streets in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, organizing a fresh resurgence of demonstrations after a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.

Those exercising their right to protest are forced to endure repeated acts of violence. Wronski-Riley reports having seen six separate occasions when cars intentionally drive into the crowd at Black Lives Matter-themed rallies and demonstrations.

“A car will stop, see people and decide to keep moving with their vehicle,” explained Wronski-Riley. “How do you think it is okay to run people over? You have seen the people and made conscious decision to run us over with your giant car. Most of the time when cars come at me, I have been able to jump on the hood or windshield or just roll off to avoid getting run over.”

“There is no accountability that I’ve seen for people who have endangered protesters,” Wronski-Riley continued. “Instead of protecting protesters, police actually are protecting the property of the people threatening them.”

St. Paul man Jeffrey Patrick Rice was found guilty of a single misdemeanor charge after he was captured on video hitting a 16 year old girl with his car in the fall of 2014 at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The driver claimed that he was “attempting to flee from the mob,” employing fear-mongering rhetoric that appears to mimic that used by police. The harrowing incident provoked public outcry after it was captured on video.

And then there are direct police attacks on protesters.  Witnesses say that, earlier this month, police sprayed mace in the faces of children who were on board a pickup truck attempting to leave the site of a direct action on Interstate 94 to get to safety. A reporter for the Pioneer Press confirmed that he saw someone who appeared to be a teenager covered in a chemical agent and vomiting.

“It’s at this point where officers are escalating situations and then blaming protesters for their response to whatever they escalated,” said Grimm. “It’s got to the point where I’m watching children in pain and have to decide whether or not to help them or film them in pain because nobody is going to believe me.”

Meanwhile, organizers say that white supremacists are still issuing threats against Black Lives Matter protesters, and they do not trust police to protect them from this real danger. “We keep getting messages from Bob Kroll about how heinous we are," Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, a participant in the Twin Cities Black Lives Matter demonstrations, told AlterNet. “He is basically inviting them to do this to us.”

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.