Protesters rally in Lawrence for largely peaceful march against police brutality

photo by: August Rudisell/Contributed Photo

Protesters make their way down Massachusetts Street during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

Protesters took to the streets Sunday evening for a largely peaceful march, Lawrence’s first major organized event following the recent death of a black man during an arrest in Minneapolis.

Protests have sprouted up across the country since May 25, when George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after pleading for air while being pinned under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the Associated Press has reported. Chauvin and three officers who stood by during the incident have been fired, and Chauvin was charged last week with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, the AP reports.

The march against police brutality began around 8 p.m. at Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., and moved down Massachusetts Street to South Park. For lack of a more precise estimate, what appeared to be thousands of people stretched across blocks of the street and filed into the park at the start of the protest.

photo by: Nick Gerik

Demonstrators march against police brutality in downtown Lawrence, Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Protesters — most of whom wore masks or face coverings — carried signs with messages including “Black Lives Matter,” “White silence is white violence” and “Stop killing us.” They chanted Floyd’s name, along with messages such as “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.”

There were a few minor altercations, but Journal-World reporters at the scene did not observe any violence between police and protesters throughout the evening. Uniformed police officers appeared to keep their distance from the march, and police cars were seen only in the distance in an apparent effort to block traffic.

Updated story

Overall, organizer pleased with Lawrence march against police brutality; incident involving vehicle in crowd under investigation

Organizers and other demonstrators led a largely successful effort to deescalate potential incidents during the march, including helping to block cross-traffic along the route and redirect any drivers who neared the protest. One person was injured when a car quickly accelerated through a group of marchers that was attempting to redirect it. The person did not appear to suffer significant injuries and was able to leave on their own, according to Nate Morsches, a registered nurse at the scene who helped treat the person’s injuries after hearing fellow marchers call for medical help.

It was not clear late Sunday night if any additional people had been injured in the incident or other instances involving vehicles that came close to the crowd. No ambulances were seen treating patients along the route during the march.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Protesters fill the street at the intersection of Eighth and Massachusetts streets during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020. The march stretched for blocks.

At the South Park gazebo just south of the downtown Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, and along the march’s route, black demonstrators spoke about their experiences with discrimination. In addition to chants, some sang, leading the crowd in “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”

The march eventually moved back up Massachusetts Street to Ninth Street, where demonstrators filled the intersection and sidewalks in a scene similar in size to recent post-victory sports celebrations. In contrast to a night filled with chants and speeches, at one point the crowd knelt and observed a moment of silence in the intersection. Marchers went as far south as 13th and Massachusetts streets and returned multiple times to protest in front of the Law Enforcement Center and 11th and Massachusetts streets. The crowd had mostly dispersed by 11 p.m. Sunday.

photo by: Nick Gerik

Demonstrators kneel for a moment of silence during a march against police brutality in downtown Lawrence, Sunday, May 31, 2020.

At tables along the route of the march and at the start near City Hall, several demonstrators provided water bottles and snacks. Some marchers on the route also held signs saying that they’d brought supplies for fellow protesters.

Two organizers of Sunday’s march, both University of Kansas students and women of color, spoke with the Journal-World prior to the event.

Mazzy Martinez, a rising sophomore from Topeka studying strategic communications and history, said that Sunday evening was chosen because marginalized people often don’t have the privilege of having Sundays off work, and she and fellow organizers wanted to allow as many people to attend as possible.

photo by: Nick Gerik

Demonstrators gather in South Park during a march against police brutality in downtown Lawrence, Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Azja Butler, a rising junior from Lansing studying secondary education and African and African American Studies, said prior to the march that she thinks it’s a common theme in the Midwest for people to think police brutality only happens in larger cities, but she said that’s not the case. She cited the May 2018 shooting that injured a black man who was stopped for a seat belt violation near Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

The officer involved in that case, Brindley Blood, later told investigators she meant to grab her Taser after a physical altercation broke out between the motorist and another officer, but she instead grabbed her gun. Blood was on paid administrative leave for more than a year as the incident was investigated, city salary data shows. Eventually, a judge dismissed charges against her, saying that the evidence didn’t show that she acted recklessly.

“We wanted to do something that sort of demonstrated that we are aware of the things that go on and we are more than capable, regardless of the status of our community, of participating in marches like these, but also participating in a way that is healthy and supportive of the black community,” Butler said.

Butler said that particularly as people have been in quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to watch violent incidents circulate in the media and feel very helpless.

“How can we be a support to people in our community that are having to watch these things from afar?” she said.

Martinez said another concern she has is how officer-involved incidents are investigated and handled internally in the Lawrence Police Department.

As the Journal-World has recently reported, publicly released reports from the Lawrence Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability for 2018 and 2019 have provided no context about complaints filed against officers and simply state that someone was alleged to have “violated department policy.”

“And that’s the opposite of transparency,” Martinez said.

Butler said the march is also about a larger, systemic issue in the United States — black people and other people of color not being heard when it comes to their safety and relationships with the government.

“I think the thing I want to leave the community with is that while some of these acts might be in anger or seem aggressive, it is important that they are acts of love and solidarity for black people abroad, but also love for our community, and we want to keep it that way,” she said.

Law enforcement response

Area law enforcement brought coolers out to the street in front of the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St., and offered bottled water to protesters as they walked by. The Journal-World also observed officers moving their vehicles to block streets as needed. Journal-World reporters at the march did not observe any negative interactions between police and protesters, and no arrests on the Douglas County Jail booking log appeared to be connected with the protest.

photo by: Nick Gerik

Local law enforcement officers offer bottles of water to demonstrators during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

Lawrence Police Interim Chief Anthony Brixius put out a statement via the department’s Facebook page around 2:30 p.m. Sunday ahead of the march. He wrote that what happened in Minnesota can’t be acceptable anywhere.

“As a profession, we must commit to systems of accountability, training, honesty, and communication,” he wrote. “In the Lawrence Police Department, we have these foundations in place but still must improve.”

He also wrote that the department supports “your peaceful protest.”

“While there are instances where we may be present, please know we are there to protect your First Amendment Rights and protect the safety of everyone involved,” Brixius’ statement concluded.

Martinez, who was speaking with the Journal-World by phone at the time the statement was posted, had first questioned why the department had been silent for so long; then she said it was good that LPD said something, but she questioned the timing, considering that police were aware of the march.

photo by: Nick Gerik

Demonstrators gather outside the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center during a march against police brutality in downtown Lawrence, Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Sheriff Ken McGovern also posted a statement to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. He echoed support for a peaceful protest in Lawrence.

“As Sheriff, I take pride in the relationship my agency has with our community but I am not naive enough to think that there is no room for improvement,” he wrote. “Eliminating bias in policing and increasing our participation in social justice is a journey we have already begun, and will continue alongside our community.”

Some had been concerned about the potential for violence or altercations with police ahead of the rally, as evidenced by posts on the Facebook event page. Those planning to attend shared advice, such as not to wear contact lenses because they can worsen the effects of tear gas. Many other protests across the country, including some in the Kansas City area, have resulted in property damage and police use of nonlethal force.

Butler said prior to the event that the goal for the march overall was to raise awareness and show solidarity with other communities. However, she said that organizers had planned safe places where people could go if anything escalated.

“We want to make sure that everyone who participates is as safe as possible. People have families to go home to, people have goals that they want to accomplish and people just want to show up and do what is best for them,” Butler said. “… We’re not going to try to control or dominate how people want to protest. We want them to be able to do that as freely as possible, because I think autonomy is really important in this context.”

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Protesters carry signs as they walk down Massachusetts Street during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Protesters rally around the gazebo at South Park during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Protesters carry signs as they walk down Massachusetts Street during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

photo by: August Rudisell/Contributed Photo

Protesters file into South Park during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

A crowd gathers around the gazebo in South Park after walking south from City Hall during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Protesters head back down 11th Street toward Massachusetts Street during a march against police brutality on May 31, 2020.

— Journal-World digital editor Nick Gerik contributed to this report.

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