Organizer Ruth Leonard paced the crosswalk outside of the Toledo Police Safety Building, motivating the gathering crowd through her megaphone. A diverse group cheered her on through masked faces. Many carried signs, and all stood in solidarity for a cause. No one could anticipate the impending chaos ahead.
The Police Accountability March, hosted by the Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo started at 3 p.m., on Saturday, May 30, 2020, with hundreds in attendance supporting the mission to demand police contract changes for better justice and accountability. The event was a peaceful call to action.
Speakers such as Diana Patton were inspirational. Tying in the symbolism of the breaths stolen from so many Black lives, such as that of George Floyd, she engaged everyone in a powerful shared moment. Patton asked everyone to take deep breaths, shouting “Peace!” and “Justice!” in between breathing. She exclaimed, “Do not leave this place unchanged. With every single breath you take, you do something. You speak for something. You stand for something. Don’t be silent! Use your breath for the right reason!” Applause filled the air, and the excitement was electric. Everyone seemed uplifted and determined when the event concluded, leaving people to continue on their own.
Shouts rang out, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Protestors waved flags and signs and began marching north on Erie Street toward Cherry. All races, genders, ages, and backgrounds were calling for justice.
Children watched from an apartment building on Cherry, cheering them on. The march began with hope but soon mutated into distress when a Lenco BearCat, (a vehicle designed for the military,) and a fleet of police appeared. Confusion surfaced. Protestors yelled and law enforcement began pulling on gas masks and loading large guns. A few in the crowd hurled their only weapons, plastic water bottles. Clouds of tear gas filled the air. In an instant, hope morphed into something cold and gray. The smoke dissipated, leaving tension in its wake. The police left, leaving protestors to murmur about the tactics and continue walking.
This resurfaced in waves at least six times throughout the event, police often firing directly at protestors standing on neighborhood sidewalks, with arms raised in submission. Rules were unclear and constantly changing. People would walk, police would arrive and fire more tear gas or rubber bullets, then disappear just as quickly. At one point, roles reversed. Protestors walked on sidewalks as police marched in the street.
Near Bancroft, a circle formed with speeches and music but stopped when police reappeared. Some continued on to march. You know those moments where time stands still, and you can feel your heart pounding? Where you know things are going to alter everything that makes sense of your world? This was one of those moments.
An officer appeared out of the top of the BearCat. Two white protestors, Don Schiewer, local clergy at Dust Church, and Lee Johnson kneeled, facing the tank, hands raised in the air, keeping the police from pursuing protestors further ahead. Police ordered dispersal. People chanted, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Johnson prevailed, holding her position despite taking a rubber bullet to the thigh. When she finally stood, blood ran down her leg.
Johnson later said, “You can’t see my sign in the picture since I’m kneeling on it. It says, “White Silence is Violence.” That’s a powerful, stirring, aspiring slogan for me. As I’m bleeding onto it, I thought how much authenticity that added. Seeing my blood on that sign reminds me that white silence harms not only people of color, but white people as well. I’m marching, kneeling, bleeding because of centuries of white silence and white deafness to the laments of others. I want my actions to reflect my beliefs, that my life is best used in serving others, in limiting my freedom to give others more freedom, in leveraging my position and privilege so that the voices of others may be lifted up and heard. What greater way can I love than to risk my body for others?”
Saray Pratt was holding a sign on Adams Street when she was shot in the leg at close range. Pratt ended up requiring a rod and four screws through her tibia. She is now struggling to get around and take care of her daughter. She said, “It’s like I’m in a bad dream.” Pratt felt the force used was, “excessive and unnecessary.”
An officer throws a tear gas canister toward protestors on the opposite sidewalk on Franklin Avenue. (Photo credit: Christy Frank)
At one point the BearCat shooter pointed at me. I was on a sidewalk, away from the rest of the crowd. I had cameras hanging from me and was clearly not part of the march, yet I too became a target. At first, I thought I should raise my hands up in submission. Then I decided nothing seemed to make sense anymore, so I would raise my camera instead. As I peered through the viewfinder, he immediately pointed his weapon elsewhere. My heart was in my throat. I hadn’t thrown anything. I was on a public sidewalk. Yet, it didn’t matter. With “qualified immunity” backing their actions, there would have been absolutely nothing I could have done. How symbolic were the moments in this protest against the unlimited power of police brutality!
Sunset glowed during the final stalemate at the courthouse. People chanted, police stood their ground. None of us knew a curfew was set to begin. Without warning, immense clouds of white filled the sky. Everyone ran. Eyes burned. Time froze. I heard distant screaming. Dizziness prevailed as I stumbled to a grassy median, letting the tears fall, trying not to vomit into my N95 mask. I cannot fathom what it felt like for the cloth-masked protestors in the center of that poison. I walked toward the courthouse and a young Black officer approached. He asked if I was ok. I told him this was unexpected but I thought I was alright. I looked up at him through my burning tears and asked him if he was ok. He sighed and looked at me and said, “This is really hard. I’m in the middle. But we aren’t all bad eggs.” He began to choke up, “A lot of us are good. We help the community. We aren’t all bad eggs.” The painful expression in his face reflected so much anguish. I told him I knew that. I thanked him for helping me, and I wished him a safe evening.
We have the opportunity to carve out many sacred spaces going forward. We all get to determine if the presence we occupy is used for justice and mercy and positive change. In the days since Saturday, May 30, 2020, there have been growing movements of hope for this very phenomenon. I witnessed over one hundred gathered on the courthouse lawn the following Wednesday evening, where people sat and simply shared stories and broke bread together. I saw over fifty protestors lay face down in a busy Toledo intersection, traffic stopped in support, while chanting, “I can’t breathe,” in honor of George Floyd. These are powerful moments, and just maybe we are beginning to use our breath to start to heal. To stand up for what’s right. To demand equality and justice. We all breathe in, we all breathe out, and together we can choose to make these breaths count.