Earlier this week, I attended two Northwest Arkansas Justice for George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests. Bentonville’s demonstration on Monday ended with the Benton County Mobile Field Squad firing tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention, and rubber bullets into the crowd. Fayetteville’s protest on Tuesday ended with Fayetteville police officers taking a knee and chanting “Black Lives Matter” in solidarity with the protestors. The responses from the officers at each rally could not have been more different, but both should make us ask, “What do we do about the police?”
Trying to answer the question while contemplating the two events has only led to more questions. Which protest will we look back on as the most effective to bring about real change in policing? The one where the police actually demonstrated the behavior being protested against or the one where the police stood in solidarity with the protesters with a commitment to listen? What does that change look like? Should we follow the lead of human rights lawyer and organizer Dereka Purnell and call for “the opposite of building relationships with police” and instead “reduce and eliminate contact?” Or do we try to work within the system to make incremental changes? Is the current policing system even salvageable? Do we have a good system with a few bad cops? Or do we have a bad system with a few good cops?
— Autumn Tolbert (@AutumnDamnIt) June 2, 2020
Over a thousand people showed up to protest in Bentonville even though the organizers announced on Monday it was to be postponed, reportedly due in part to threats from white power groups. It was a diverse crowd full of families, older adults and young people. The slogans on the signs ranged from “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” to “Fuck the Police” and “ACAB.” The crowd was buoyed by the announcement earlier Monday that the Daughters of the Confederacy had agreed to move the Confederate Statue out of the Bentonville square.
If you read some government and media accounts, you might think the Bentonville protestors were primarily violent and destructive. From my vantage point, most were peaceful but spirited. In the minutes before the first tear gas was fired on the crowd, I was at the back of the square photographing attendees who were chanting and dancing along with a sousaphone that played throughout the night. A few people were standing around in small groups laughing and talking while the majority of the protestors headed toward the courthouse to chant. No audible warning to disperse could be heard where I stood. I heard screams and the crowd ran. I turned and ran, too.
I stopped a couple of blocks away to catch my breath. The Bentonville square is open to the public until 11 p.m. It was not yet 9:30, so I headed back. The remaining protestors faced the courthouse steps where a team of black-clad, military-looking riot police now stood. The mood was much different. People were angry. Screaming at the police. It was disturbing to see heavily militarized officers under the Memorial Day bunting that decorated the courthouse in addition to red, white and blue flood lights. By this time, standing directly in front of the officers were armed men, one wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, holding an American flag. Why were they allowed to stand there? Whatever the reason, it contributed to the impression that those officers’ were not acting as protectors of the right to assemble but as counter-protestors. It was a bad look for Benton County and the City of Bentonville.
As the protesters continued to chant and yell, according to Benton County officials, a few threw water bottles and rocks. The Benton County Mobile Field Force deployed a large amount of tear gas. I ran again, but this time I wasn’t quick enough. I managed to make my way down the street where people were offering milk and saline to flush our eyes. After the burning subsided a bit, I tagged along with a friend headed to the medic area after being hit by a gas canister. The volunteers described some of the injuries they treated: a protestor with an open wound from a rubber bullet and a badly shaken teenage girl whose feet had to be soaked in milk for 10 minutes to stop the burning from the tear gas. After leaving the medic area, the square had mostly emptied out after another round of gas, so I headed home.
Social media was full of accounts similar to mine. No audible warning to disperse before tear gas was deployed. No widespread knowledge of any destruction or violence beyond a few bottles thrown at the police and fireworks set off in the street. However, the city of Bentonville Facebook page reported at 9:16 p.m. that police cars were damaged near the square. At 9:19 p.m., the Facebook page reported the police had issued warnings to disperse, and at 9:21 p.m., tear gas had been fired upon the protestors. At 10:53 p.m., the city of Bentonville Facebook page posted a denial that rubber bullets had been used on any of the protestors. The local news reports described a peaceful protest turned violent.
I reached out to Bentonville and Benton County officials to find out more about why the police narrative differed so much from the accounts from so many protestors. Debbie Griffin, director of community relations and economic development for the city of Bentonville, referred all questions about the updates made to the city of Bentonville Facebook Page to the Bentonville Police Department, the agency running the page during the protest. I spoke with Bentonville Police Chief Jon Simpson, who described a joint operation between the Bentonville Police Department and the Benton County Sheriff’s Office for the event. Simpson informed me that the Facebook page was updated during the protest by an employee of the Bentonville Police Department at an offsite mobile command unit and, due to a communication failure, posted incorrect information about rubber bullets.
According to Simpson, the Benton County Mobile Field unit had initiated the use of tear gas and had shot rubber bullets during the protest. Simpson acknowledged the city of Bentonville police did use bean bag rounds and a small amount of tear gas later in the night when an officer was in a direct altercation with protestors. He also mentioned the officers in that department take part in de-escalation training above and beyond the training at the police academy. Simpson said two occupied police vehicles were damaged by protestors before the first tear gas was fired with one vehicle suffering an estimated $8,000 worth of damage near a coffee shop outside the square. I asked if the Bentonville city officers had body cams on during the protest and was told they do not wear them and, instead, use only dash cameras. I emailed and left a phone message at the Benton County Sheriff’s Office to ask more about the department’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters, but have not received a response.
I’m in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas at the protest. Huge crowd. pic.twitter.com/8HZQP0CNiz
— Autumn Tolbert (@AutumnDamnIt) June 3, 2020
Unlike Bentonville, the Fayetteville protest had an organized program with speakers who shared the stage with Fayetteville Chief of Police Mike Reynolds and other officers. I had a hard time hearing due to the massive crowd, but the speeches seemed well received except for an awkward moment when a white protester attempted to lead the singing of the national anthem. The protestors and police officers kneeled together for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck. For the next four hours, the protesters marched around the Fayetteville Square, accompanied by the same sousaphone player who played through all the rounds of tear gas in Bentonville, alternating between chanting “Fuck the Police,” “Fuck Donald Trump,” “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” There was talk on the police scanner of some aggressive behavior and minor incidents here and there, including protesters setting off fireworks and throwing eggs and water bottles. One of the protestors walked through the crowd with a bullhorn around 10 p.m. asking everyone to go home. “We won tonight. We have to keep it that way.” Eventually, the crowd, estimated at 4,000 at its peak, dwindled down to less than a 100. After midnight, the police asked the remaining protesters to head home. Police in riot gear, stationed out of sight, never made an appearance.
Later in the week, I spoke to Sgt. Anthony Murphy, Fayetteville Police Department’s public information officer, who described policing as a dynamic job and acknowledged the department learned from what happened in Bentonville the night before. Murphy said the Emergency Response Team was posted up near the Fayetteville Square in the event it was needed. He credited the department’s de-escalation training and years of patroling Dickson Street and the Bikes Blues and BBQ Rally in preparing the officers to deal with the crowd on Tuesday night. He expressed his appreciation to the protestors for policing themselves and putting a stop to the bottle throwing. According to Murphy, Fayetteville officers attend over 200 community events yearly and work closely with the city of Fayetteville’s African-American Advisory Council.
It isn’t for me to say which protest was more successful. The Bentonville protest likely opened a lot of eyes to the reality that police violence doesn’t just happen in far away places like Minneapolis or Louisville. It happens here in Northwest Arkansas. The Fayetteville police demonstrated exceptional crowd control, listening skills and de-escalation techniques that should be emulated by police departments around the country. As a criminal defense attorney who has dealt with many police agencies, I believe Fayetteville has one of the better departments in the state. However, I fear the event, which at one point seemed more like a pep rally for the police than a protest against systemic police brutality and racism, gave a false sense of comfort to many in the white community. I fear they may believe the mission was accomplished on Tuesday night and the Fayetteville Police Department is somehow an anomaly in an entire system that harms black men and women and other vulnerable communities.
Opinions on social media from black community members concerning the Bentonville event range from anger at the Benton County Sheriff’s Office for escalating the situation by using excessive force to frustration at white attendees for co-opting the event with aggressive behavior that took attention away from the intended cause. Regarding Fayetteville, some have expressed appreciation for the show of unity with the hope it will lead to more cooperation and dialogue. Others have expressed frustration that the Fayetteville Police are being celebrated for doing exactly what they were supposed to do by protecting the protesters’ First Amendment right to assemble. Others have recounted abuses they or their family members have suffered at the hands of Fayetteville officers as a reminder that not all is well.
So back to the question: What do we do about the police?
If our goal is to merely see fewer black men and women imprisoned and dead, then working toward incremental reforms within the current system is the way to go. But as Alex Vitale points out, measures such as wider use of body cams haven’t worked. Police all over the country know they are being watched and filmed, but the brutality and violence continues. If we truly mean it when we say “Black Lives Matter,” we must put an end to our current system of policing and begin diverting significant funding from police and prison budgets and put it directly into public and mental health, education and other social services in the communities they’ve harmed.