Plans, Pandemic, Protests: Time For Cities to Pause & Pivot

This paper describes the immediate and possible future impacts of COVID-19 on planning in the Greater Vancouver area.

The first part introduces three initiatives, launched in 2019, to refresh city and regional plans. The second part identifies new challenges for plans to address and initial responses to COVID. The paper concludes with transferable observations on reframing plan making in the context of COVID and fiscal constraints.

Included are four planning steps that combine inspirational objectives for economic and equitable recovery, with aspirational plans for longer term resiliency, and offer actionable programs to move forward in the context of available resources.

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CityLab University: A Timeline of U.S. Police Protests

When a white police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck during an arrest on May 25, eventually killing him, the incident followed a longstanding pattern of unchecked police brutality toward African Americans. The civil unrest that has erupted in city after city is not unlike the protests that came after other high-profile police killings of African Americans such as Tamir Rice and Michael Brown in 2014, Freddie Gray in 2015, and Philando Castile in 2016 — as well as the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991. The following year, 1992, marked a turning point in calls for police reform, triggered by violent riots that came after the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen responsible for severely injuring King.  

In the years since, however, change has been incremental. And as with the most recent demonstrations that began on May 26 in Minneapolis, past peaceful protests often gave rise to violence as police responded with brute force.

“What protests have been effective in doing is raising the public consciousness about the level of public violence that communities experience,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of African American history at Georgetown University​​​​​​. “They have also exposed the amount of money that has been spent on police forces and weapons, and have helped expose the level of brutality.”

The 1960s marked the beginning of an increased militarization of police forces, according to Chatelain. The U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign was also used as a justification for increased policing, as was terrorism after the attacks of 9/11, she said. But the widespread use of mobile-phone cameras and social media now allows the public to witness more abuses firsthand.  

The following is a timeline of major protests in response to police brutality, especially instances where officers remained in their jobs or weren’t held accountable for violent or fatal arrests. These demonstrations are part of a broader movement against systemic racism in America, and don’t include the killings of people such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin by fellow civilians. Arbery was chased and shot in February by an armed white resident in Atlanta, and Martin was shot by neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida back in 2012.

This list also doesn’t encompass many others who were killed by police or while in police custody, such as Sandra Bland, whose death in jail was ruled a suicide after she was pulled over by an officer in Texas, in 2015. That officer was later put on leave, but never charged, prompting renewed calls for her case to be reopened amid the protests for Floyd.

Los Angeles, California

Rodney King (25 years old — died 20 years later) — March 3, 1991

Rodney King in Los Angeles, California, in April 2012, in front of the Eso Won bookstore, where he was signing his new memoir. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Events: Rodney King was driving away from police officers who were trying to arrest him (King was allegedly under the influence). When they finally did get him in handcuffs, the officers proceeded to beat him with their batons more than 50 times, leaving him with permanent brain damage, among other health problems. The beating was filmed by a bystander. The four officers involved were acquitted in 1992. King survived and died in 2012, at the age of 47 years old.

Protests: The footage of the beating sparked protests in Los Angeles, but after the officers were acquitted , they turned more violent. Over the six days of riots, more than 50 people were killed, 6,000 arrested, and thousands wounded. The violence of the protests fed upon the deep racial inequalities entrenched in the city, and the National Guard, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps were summoned.

Aftermath: Two of the policemen who bludgeoned King were later jailed after federal prosecutors filed their own charges. President George Bush, who had called the actions of the officers “sickening,” opposed the riots that unfolded and called the actions of the protesters “revolting.”

In the wake of the beating, the Christopher Commission (also known as the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department), was created to examine the methods of the LAPD, including recruitment, training and the use of force. However, the impacts of the commission on LAPD operations were limited. Its most important achievement was perhaps that it ended lifetime terms for police chiefs — and Daryl Gates, the police chief during that period, resigned.

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New York, New York

Amadou Diallo (23 years old) — Feb. 4, 1999

Kadiatou and Saikou Diallo, parents of Amadou Diallo, address the press after the officers were found not guilty on all charges. (Will Waldron/Getty Images)

Events: Four plain-clothes officers shot Amadou Diallo near his home. They fired 41 shots, thinking he had a gun. It was his wallet. They were acquitted of second-degree murder.

Protests: Thousands marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after the officers were acquitted, and protests were mostly peaceful, even though hundreds of police officers wearing helmets met the protesters in the streets.  

Aftermath: The Street Crimes Unit of the NYPD, of which the four officers were members, was disbanded in April 2002. The unit had been heavily criticized for stopping black Americans and Hispanics in high numbers, and was the target of a civil rights action. It was only years later that the city released hard data that showed the degree of racial disparities in police stops and frisks.

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New York, New York

Sean Bell (23 years old) — Nov. 25, 2006

A protester is arrested at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in May 2008 following the acquittal of three police officers in the Sean Bell shooting trial. (Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

Events: A group of five police officers opened fire on Sean Bell and two of his friends in Queens, New York, a few hours before Bell’s wedding. The officers fired a total of 51 shots, killing Bell and wounding Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were with him. The two survivors were shackled to their hospital beds, which drew massive outrage. Charges were pressed against three out of the five officers, but they were found not guilty.

Protests: The acquittal of the officers involved in the case sparked peaceful protest. Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton addressed the press during the demonstrations, saying: “Some in the media seemed disappointed, they wanted us to play into the hoodlum, thug stereotypes. We can be angry without being mad.”

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St. Louis, Missouri

Anthony Lamar Smith (24 years old) — December 20, 2011

The third day of protests in St. Louis, Missouri, in September 2012, after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, who shot Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011. // Scott Olson/Getty Images

Events: Anthony Lamar Smith was shot dead by police officer Jason Stockley, after Smith tried to run away from him — Stockley suspected him of dealing drugs. Stockley wasn’t charged until 2016 after a recording of him surfaced saying he was “going to kill this motherf—er.” He was acquitted of first degree murder in September 2017. Stockley said he saw a gun before he opened fire, which in the eyes of the law, was enough to justify the shooting.

Protests: The decision to acquit Stockley sparked days-long protest in St. Louis, with police forces responding in riot gear after “agitators” started “throwing rocks and breaking windows,” according to the police forces on the ground. Demonstrators marched toward the house of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and were stopped by police in riot gear. The officers used rubber bullets on the crowd, and made hundreds of arrests.

Aftermath: Though Stockley never faced jail time, the St. Louis police settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 with Lamar Smith’s family for $900,000. In 2018, a judged allowed the family’s lawyer to reopen discovery in the civil case after learning the defendants had withheld DNA evidence that indicated Stockley had planted a gun in Lamar Smith’s car. A year later, the family was awarded an additional $500,000.

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New York, New York

Eric Garner (43 years old) — July 17, 2014

Demonstrators hold a “die-in” in Grand Central Terminal protesting the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Undercover police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a prohibited chokehold — quite similar to Floyd’s death —  after accusing him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Protests: Peaceful protests erupted after after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo. They lasted several nights, with thousands congregating in Times Square, carrying fake coffins and chanting “I can’t breathe.” Protesters also held “die-ins” in public spaces, often moved by police forces wearing riot gear. Some demonstrators flooded highways and bridges, effectively shutting down traffic. Protests were also held in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Aftermath: Pantaleo was fired five years later, in 2019, after a trial that was started by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). This trial was the first opportunity for public testimony in the case, after both a Staten Island Grand Jury and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. On June 8, 2020, the New York Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill named after Garner that criminalizes the police use of chokeholds — more than five years after the first version of the bill was drafted in response to Garner’s death.

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Ferguson, Missouri

Michael Brown (18 years old) — August 9, 2014

Police officers in riot gear and National Guard troops in Ferguson on November 28, 2014, during protests after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Events: Police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he was leaving a convenience store, in which a security camera had recorded him stealing small cigars. He was unarmed. Wilson fired 12 times, and was never charged for Brown’s murder. A grand jury decided not to indict him, citing the lack of a probable cause.

Protests: A wave of violent protests erupted after Brown’s death, and after the grand jury decision. The police used particularly violent methods to repress protesters, from tear gas to an extended arsenal of military weapons received through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, created to give surplus military weapons to local law enforcement agencies.

The protests over Brown’s killing gave rise to a new generation of young black political activists and to the cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” They also led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had initially begun as only a hashtag on social media following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin.

Aftermath: In March 2015, legal reforms were started in Ferguson, after the Department of Justice started an inquiry. And as the police use of military weapons increasingly came under scrutiny, President Barack Obama canceled the 1033 program, ending the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments, in a move to demilitarize the police. (President Donald Trump fully restored the program in 2017 through an executive order.)

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists launched “Campaign Zero,” a platform detailing policy proposals to limit the police use of force.

Not long after Brown’s murder, two Cleveland policemen approached Tamir Rice in a park, where one of the officers shot and killed him under the belief that the 12-year-old was wielding a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and when Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced in December 2015 that both officers would not be charged, he called the incident “a perfect storm of human error.” That didn’t sit well with the community, which led a peaceful protest of more than 100 people to McGinty’s home demanding his resignation. He didn’t resign, but in the 2016 elections, Cleveland residents voted him out.

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Baltimore, Maryland

Freddie Gray (25 years old) — April 12, 2015

Protesters marching in Baltimore, on April 30, 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Events: Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers for the illegal possession of a “switchblade” — though his attorney said he had a legal-sized pocket knife — and thrown into the back of a van. Police then subjected him to a police practice known as a “rough ride”: Cuffed at the hands and feet but not put in a seatbelt, Gray slammed into the walls of the van when drivers suddenly braked. He died a week later from a severe spinal cord injury.

Protests: The Department of Justice opened a civil rights case into Gray’s death, and protesters led a peaceful march in Baltimore. Those demonstrations turned more violent after his funeral, on April 27. The police started using pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, and policemen in riot gear were deployed. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and the Maryland National Guard was deployed. The police arrested more than 200 people. Protests eased as local authorities brought charges against the six policemen involved — ranging from second degree murder to reckless endangerment — but three officers were eventually acquitted while the other three had their charges dropped. When the DOJ refused to bring civil rights charges against the officers in July 2017, it lead to more protests, though they were mostly peaceful.

Aftermath: According to Samuel Sinyangwe from Campaign Zero, police brutality has decreased slightly in Baltimore, but progress has been slow. The police department followed some of the recommendations from the DOJ, after an investigation into the police department’s methods. President Barack Obama said after Gray’s death that “it isn’t new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired, and Rawlings-Blake abandoned her re-election campaign as criticism mounted over her handling of the protests. The unrest after Gray’s death also gave rise to Baltimore’s social activist community comprised of young black leaders who have largely kept the current protests over Floyd’s death peaceful.

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Alton Sterling (37 years old) — July 5, 2016

Protesters in front of the Louisiana Capitol, after Alton Sterling  was shot to death by officers from the Baton Rouge police department, in July 2009. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Events: Two white officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department pinned Alton Sterling to the ground after an anonymous caller reported Sterling for selling CDs outside a convenience store. After shouting that Sterling had a gun, one of the officers shot him dead. The officers claimed that they felt threatened by what they believe was Sterling reaching for his gun, but videos of the shooting showed Sterling seemingly immobile before the killing.

Protests: The weekend after the shooting, non-violent protests erupted in Baton Rouge, where multiple protesters were arrested. They confronted heavily militarized police. The protests led to one of the most iconic photos of anti-police protest: the arrest of a lone woman, with her calm demeanor and flowing dress juxtaposed against the line of officers in riot gear in front of her.

Aftermath: The DOJ opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting. The officers were not charged in the killings. But Blane Salamoni, who shot Sterling, was fired from the police department. Barack Obama spoke out about the shooting and Philando Castile’s (Castile was shot dead the day after.)

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St. Paul, Minnesota

Philando Castile (32 years old) — July 6, 2016

Protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 16, 2017, carrying a banner commemorating Philando Castile, after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Castile in July 2016. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: Philando Castile, a school nutritionist, was driving in the St. Anthony suburb of St. Paul with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter when police officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled the car over and asked him for his license and registration. In complying, Castile alerted the officer that there was a gun — one that he was licensed to carry — in the glove compartment where his documents were also placed. As Castile reached over, Yanez shot him multiple times. Reynolds live-streamed a video of the aftermath on Facebook but it wasn’t enough to convict Yanez of manslaughter. In 2017, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Protests: The first round of protests started soon after the shooting, bringing out teachers and children, and spreading across the U.S. They escalated in the Twin Cities as demonstrations spilled onto the highway and blocked traffic, with projectiles thrown, police injured and multiple arrests. Castile’s family and members of the Black Lives Matter movement denounced the violence. A year later, protests resumed after Yanez was found not guilty. Once again, they started in St. Paul, spreading to Minneapolis, New York, and across the country.

Aftermath: The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was starting a review of the police department of St. Anthony in December 2016. According to the police department, all officers went through additional training starting January 2017, and put together additional plans for increased data transparency, body cams for all officers, and banned a controversial police training that encouraged officers to shoot if they felt threatened. However, even though the Justice Department drafted objectives for the police department in March 2017, “it never followed through with recommendations on ways to improve the police force,” according to the Star-Tribune.

President Barack Obama gave a speech after the shooting, sending his condolences to Castile’s family and calling the police violence an “American” issue. “These are not isolated incidents,” he said. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

George Floyd (46 years old) — May 25, 2020

A portrait of George Floyd on a streetlight pole, in front of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a protest on May 27. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Events: When convenience store employees called the police on George Floyd for using a counterfeit $20 bill, Derek Chauvin and three other now-former officers quickly escalated the situation in trying to arrest him. The full eight minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground with a knee to his neck played out in several videos recorded by bystanders watching in horror. Before he died, Floyd repeated that he couldn’t breathe, and when Chauvin and his team did not relent, he pleaded for his late mother.

An independent autopsy would later show he died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Though a separate report from Hennepin County Medical Examiner attributed his death to underlying heart disease, it concluded his death was a homicide. All four officers were fired.

Protests: The protests came swiftly, spreading from Minneapolis to dozens of cities across the U.S. as the public called for the officers to be arrested. But as demonstrations continue, they have evolved into a national uprising over police violence and the lack of police accountability. They’ve also included a cry for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot after forcibly entering her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March. Protesters have taken to cities, to major highways, and even out in the suburbs, shouting, “No Justice, no peace.”

The protests began peacefully, with several demonstrators urging police to take a knee in support of the movement. But some intensified as cities enacted curfews and officers enforced them through the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and — in an escalation of events in the nation’s capital — a heavy military presence. Meanwhile, some people began looting and rioting, injecting confusion and disorder into the early days of the demonstrations.

Protests have spread to all 50 American states, bringing out people of all backgrounds. They’ve even reached global cities like London, Sydney and Paris. The demonstrations have been multi-racial in a way we haven’t seen before, according to Louis Hyman, a historian of work at business at Cornell University. “White people are starting to get that their experience is so different from black people’s experience,” he said. “Whether you’re a wealthy African American or a poor African American, you’re still black in the eyes of the police.”

Aftermath: These protests come at an unprecedented time, when the U.S. is in the midst of a highly charged election year and an active pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities. The ongoing threat of coronavirus has complicated the voting process as election dates are pushed back and as states consider the use of mail-in ballots. But on the local level, officials have started promising some changes. In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to cut as much as $150 million from the local police department’s budget and invest it into programs that benefit black communities. And in the city where the protests began, the majority of the Minneapolis city council has pledged to disband the police department. Meanwhile, all four former officers involved in Floyd’s death have been arrested and charged; Chauvin with second-degree murder and the other three with aiding and abetting murder.

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Now What?

The unfolding of the George Floyd protest feels familiar to those that precede it. And while it’s not uncommon for these events to spread across multiple major cities, it is worth noting that the scale of the current demonstrations is unprecedented. By the third week, they had spread to more than 650 cities across all 50 states — including small, majority-white towns, according to the Washington Post.

That’s an optimistic progression for protesters who are not only demanding justice for Floyd, and police reform in Minneapolis, but a complete overhaul of America’s justice system. They want the police to be disbanded, and for their funding — which often takes up the bulk of cities’ total budget — to be diverted into black communities. They want to replace President Donald Trump and his administration, which has flatly denied the existence of systemic racism in the U.S.

The similar timing to this year’s presidential election, as well as the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression due to Covid-19, hold some promise that the demonstrations could have far-reaching effects in U.S. policy. At the same time, racial attitudes have shifted over the last four years, reports the New York Times: According to a new study from Monmouth University, 57% of Americans believe that police are using excessive force against African Americans, compared to just 34% of registered voters in 2016 after the police shooting of Alton Sterling.

And while killings of African American men have sparked the most protest, it’s important to note women haven’t been spared from police violence either — most people know the stories of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, but there are many more, including Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis and Shelly Frey. The hashtag #SayHerName has been sprouting up across social media to draw attention to these women and make sure their deaths don’t go unnoticed and unpunished. That said, men of any color are far more likely to be killed by police, with black men, American Indians and Latinos the most at risk, according to research released last year.

It is perhaps too early to say for sure what happens next. Deep-rooted racism requires policy changes across the board, from housing to transportation to food security, which some advocates argue is still low on America’s priorities. But the current momentum offers hope that maybe this time really will be different.

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To Sustain the Protests, They Brought Snacks

The online flyer that drew an estimated 10,000 protesters to San Francisco’s Mission District on Wednesday didn’t say to bring food. It mostly showed the name and image of George Floyd, the black man whose May 25 death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has lit a fuse of outrage and unrest around the country.

But Briana Lawson, like many in this crowd, still came prepared.

“It’s really anything a protester could need,” said Lawson, a San Francisco State University kinesiology student whose folding table at the corner of 18th and Dolores overflowed with pizza boxes, boxes of orange juice, fruit snacks and other reserves.

She’d heard that friends at other anti-police brutality gatherings this week had been getting hungry during these massive marathon demonstrations. So Lawson fundraised $700 from friends and family to keep marchers fed and hydrated. She said she plans to donate the $300 left over from her shopping trip to Black Lives Matter and justice funds for Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the black woman who was shot and killed in her home by Nashville police in March.

A group of friends swarming the table helped Lawson hand out items to appreciative sign-holders walking past. Soon they’d break down the stand and join the protest themselves. “I’m already thinking about doing another one of these, if we’re successful,” Lawson said.

Scores of like-minded people arrived in the area with full inventories of pandemic-sensitive protest materials. They came with face masks, Rice Krispie treats and Fritos. They pointed signs to the cases of drinks at their feet and Mylanta mixtures — used for counteracting the chemical sprays that police have used on protestors in the last week — in their hands. Many said they’d spent hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets or from collected donations.

The pro-bono snacks of the Floyd protests reflect a common feature of mass movements in response to crisis — mutual aid. “Mutual aid means that every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one-way street of charity,” Rebecca Solnit explained in her 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell.” “In this sense it is reciprocity, a network of people cooperating to meet each others’ wants and share each others’ wealth.”

Although formally organized mutual aid networks have popped up at other protests around the country, none of the snack-givers CityLab spoke with on Wednesday identified themselves as part any group: They just said that they came out of a spirit of peace and support for a cause that they felt deeply connected to. Such impromptu no-charge community support often emerges in response to crisis and disaster. After the 1906 earthquake, San Franciscan residents set up cooperative kitchens in the Mission District and beyond; more recently in the coronavirus pandemic, neighbors have self-organized grocery and supply-delivery networks. Mutual aid efforts involving donations and medical necessities are a feature of protests all over the world, including in many U.S. cities during this recent wave of unrest.

A block down Dolores, a camera-toting high school student handed out bottled water spilling from the underbelly of a vintage yellow school bus tricked out for Burning Man. He decided to help despite not knowing who its owners were, or where the drinks came from. An SFPD officer’s rubber bullet had bruised him at a downtown protest on Saturday after people nearby started throwing objects.

A school bus becomes a snack station at a protest in San Francisco. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

On 18th Street, a married couple was handing out $300 worth of refreshments; after losing their bartending and restaurant jobs due to coronavirus, they said they’d become “full-time protesters.” Across the street, three women held cardboard signs advertising water, snacks, first aid, and phone charging, courtesy of a $130 battery block they’d purchased for the occasion.

At the Mission Station of the San Francisco Police Department, where thousands of people rallied, chanted, and kneeled, another trio of friends from Oakland stood by with two backpacks stuffed with Gatorade and medical supplies — donations that one said she’d collected from her dog-walking clients. A separate group from San Jose said they’d spent $100 at a dollar store to pack up 200 baggies of gloves, masks, and earplugs.

Back on Dolores, an East Bay resident named Eliana Morales said she’d raised nearly $800 in donations to build her inventory. “I went with healthy and fun,” she said, pointing to a box of pastries, bananas, and a few remaining N-95 masks, which were going quickly. She had attended another protest in the Los Angeles area this week that had turned rowdy with police encounters, and wanted to find other ways to support San Francisco’s big day. Any leftovers would be brought to another march on Friday. “I hope for all peaceful Bay Area protests,” she said.

Not all Bay Area protests had been calm — police in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Vallejo, and other communities have used force on demonstrators in recent days, and protesters have thrown projectiles at officers. Looting and property damage has also occurred. But on Wednesday night Morales got her wish, mostly. Though about 20 people were arrested after 10 p.m. for breaking curfew in San Francisco that night, there were no reports of arrests during the heart of the Mission District march, nor among the 8,000-strong who gathered across the bay in Oakland.

Maybe the Pop-Tarts and Doritos helped; maybe it could keep helping. A mountain of bagged lunches and Clif bars in front of Mission High School would be distributed to the homeless after the march, said Erik Geovany Locon, who said he’d been raised in San Francisco and was at the protest to try to build a world where his son wouldn’t face discrimination for being Latino. As for the donations he was handing out, “we’re trying to help everyone be safe,” Locon said. “It’s OK to show love and give to others.”

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Why Baltimore’s Protests Are So Peaceful

On Monday in Baltimore, Brandon Scott witnessed something that amazed him: members of the Baltimore Police Department taking a symbolic knee in sympathy with a cheering crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in front of City Hall.

“As a kid growing up in Park Heights, it’s not something I thought I’d ever see,” says Scott, a 36-year-old West Baltimore native and  City Council president. Scott, who has been running for mayor (he’s trailing former Mayor Sheila Dixon, but election results from Tuesday remain incomplete), has been a fixture at the protests against police violence that have sprung up citywide since the death of George Floyd on May 25. Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police has a particular resonance here: It echoes the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimore man who died from injuries suffered in police custody, touching off days of unrest that included violence, arson and looting. Invoking the city’s name in the five years since has become a shorthand for urban chaos.

Playing against stereotype, Baltimore has so far been one of the few U.S. cities where mass protests against police violence have remained peaceful. No curfew has been imposed. Governor Larry Hogan sent Maryland’s National Guard to Washington, D.C., not Baltimore. Despite daily and nightly protests for several days, including a huge downtown march on Monday to City Hall that lasted well into the early hours of the morning, the “Deadliest Big City in America” has emerged as an oasis of relative calm, even with only minor damage and a handful of arrests over the past week. “I’ve left feeling inspired,” says Scott.

That’s a big difference from the Baltimore of five years ago. What happened?

Part of the credit may go toward law enforcement. As the episode outside City Hall shows, the city’s police has managed to avoid using the escalation techniques that many other departments have deployed, and its messaging during this crisis has been more sure-footed. In a video statement on May 29, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison called the killing of Floyd “disgusting” and “horrific and heartbreaking.” He praised the Minneapolis police commissioner’s quick decision to terminate the officers and added police officers “must intervene” in the bad actions of other cops. The Baltimore Police Department later posted photos to their Facebook page showing several uniformed officers marching, linked arm and arm with protesters downtown.

But despite pledges of post-Freddie-Gray reform and a slew of youthful turnover among the city’s political leadership, it’s not like police corruption and brutality disappeared in Baltimore after 2015 (see the almost unfathomable documented crimes of the police department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force, which carried on a three-year campaign of detaining and robbing civilians of cash, property and drugs that they later sold). And Baltimore’s overall crime rate has remained stubbornly stratospheric: Homicides in the city claimed 348 people in 2019, the highest number in a quarter century. With 58 murders per 100,000 residents, Baltimore is still the deadliest city in the U.S. with a population larger than 500,000.

Some local leaders say that the relative calm this week is a hopeful sign that the city has made progress in its efforts to rein in the violence. “We’re in the midst of healing and reconciliation in Baltimore,” City State’s Attorney General Marilyn Mosby, who brought charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest, told CNN Wednesday morning. Mosby was the youngest chief prosecutor of any major city when she was sworn into office in 2015. “That’s why you see peaceful protest in Baltimore.” Mosby also touts several accountability reforms that grew out the Freddie Gray case and subsequent Department of Justice consent decree, including the placement of cameras inside all police vehicles and the launch of the city’s police body camera program.

But most observers in Baltimore give credit to the city’s social activist community — led now by veteran community organizers who have already been tested by the protests of 2015.

“President Obama and [former Baltimore] Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called us ‘thugs,’” says Baltimore photographer Devin Allen, who shot the iconic Time magazine cover image of a protester sprinting away from club-toting cops in April 2015. He now mentors local youth and works as an acclaimed photojournalist. “People expect that reaction from Baltimore. A lot of us didn’t want the city burned then. But it was different. We were alone then. Now we have leaders who have been through all that and don’t want it to happen again.”

Civil rights activism and protest have always been in the city’s DNA — this was the birthplace of Thurgood Marshall and the home of a groundbreaking NAACP chapter in the 1930s; in 1955, Morgan State students staged a pioneering lunch-counter sit-in in downtown Baltimore that marked an early civil rights milestone. That spirit has now moved to the forefront of Baltimore culture. A rising number of still-young black leaders, including artists, writers, activists, educators, and elected officials, have emerged in recent years. Black-led grassroots organizations such as Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Baltimore Bloc have advocated for policy initiatives such as bail reform and led the effort to block the constructions of a new youth jail. The Ceasefire anti-violence movement, led by community mediator Erricka Bridgeford, has established a calendar of quarterly anti-violence demonstrations that have become part of the city’s fabric.

Ceasefire founder Erricka Bridgeford has been a fixture of the city’s activist community. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West was killed by police, and Kelly Davis, whose husband Keith Davis Jr., was shot and nearly killed by police, also have become key police reform and protest leaders. Supporters of the imprisoned Davis have been fighting for his acquittal in a controversial, years-long homicide case that includes three previous unsuccessful prosecutions.

Younger elected officials like Scott are also in this mix: In 2018, Scott authored legislation that established the city’s groundbreaking Equity Assessment Program, aimed at eliminating structural racism and other forms of discrimination in the city’s budget process.

It’s on the streets, however, where one can best see how efforts to keep the peace amid Baltimore protests are playing out.

On Monday night, a large and increasingly tense crowd of people milled about downtown, long after the original day-long march ended; police had repeatedly asked them to disperse. With helmeted officers waiting nearby, 26-year old Kwame Rose grabbed a megaphone and told fellow protesters it was time to go home.

“That was the third warning. If you’ve never been to a f—ing protest before, that means now they [the police] can do whatever the hell they want,” Rose, dressed in black T-shirt and ballcap turned backwards, informed a tide of still-restless youth. “The third warning means if you are a minor and you don’t want to go to jail — go home. Go home. We did what we came here to do tonight. Do not turn this into something this doesn’t have to be. I’ve been where you’re at, five years ago.”

In a scene later posted to Twitter by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, Rose continued. “Tomorrow we come back and show again. Do not give them what they’re looking for — do not give them another excuse. The goal is for everyone to get home safely.”

Rose was only 20 when he famously got in the face of Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera, confronting him over the network’s coverage of the protests while ignoring Baltimore’s underlying poverty crisis and social issues. He’s since became a sought-after public speaker and settled into a City Hall position, helping launch a program to transition the city’s “squeegee kids” into more formal employment. More recently, during the Covid-19 outbreak and unemployment crisis, he’s been working with the D.C.-based World Central Kitchen to deliver meals to Baltimore families.

Also on the scene at local protests has been artist and activist Aaron Maybin, a former pro football player who teaches art at a West Baltimore elementary school. Together, Rose and Maybin proved to be effective in tamping down on aggressive protesters who were throwing water bottles at police. At one point, Rose was seen turning a white protester over to nearby police officers; the man, he said, had been throwing fireworks.

“People were mad and beating on the guy,” Rose says. “I did not want it to devolve like that. I did it for his own safety. I knew the cops wouldn’t hurt a white guy. I marched the entire route, marshaling the protest, trying to keep people safe. I want to go to bed with a clean conscience.”

With Allen, Rose, and Maybin at recent protests have been dozens of other black community leaders who have gained the respect of the city’s new youth protesters, who Rose and Allen, 31, already call “the next generation.”

“The peaceful protests, that’s a testament to the community leaders who have emerged and work they have done since 2015,” says Rose. He and Allen specifically highlight the boots-on-the-ground efforts of activist Carlmichael “Stokey” Cannady (a recent candidate for mayor), East Baltimore ex-offender and activist Terry “Uncle T” Williams, and Ralikh Hayes, a member of the Baltimore City Youth Commission. Allen also mentions the nonprofit COR Health Institute and its 35-year-old founder Munir Bahar, who previously directed the local anti-violent movement known as the 300 Men March. Bahar and seven to 10 of his youth members each night have also been instrumental in keeping Baltimore’s protests from losing their focus.

So far, those efforts have paid off. It’s a sign, says Rose, that this community has learned a lot since the spring of 2015. So has he.

“I didn’t know what I was doing that day,” Rose says of the night he got in Rivera’s face. “I was just angry. I’m only 26, but I’ve been there. Now, I know we have to think strategically.”

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What Mayors Are Saying About the George Floyd Protests

What did the weekend of terrifying civil unrest that has seized America’s cities look like from City Hall? For the mayors of major U.S. cities, what began as protests over police violence triggered by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 has intensified into something else — a national uprising that’s also a complex, fast-changing threat to public safety, driven by forces and actors not yet fully understood and threaded with the unseen menace of a still-active pandemic.

One week after Floyd’s death, this convergence of urban crises is shaping up to be an unprecedented test of municipal governance, one that’s putting city leaders in a global spotlight. Here’s a sample of what they have been saying in recent days as events unfolded.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey delivers an update to reporters at City Hall. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

At about 1:30 a.m on May 29, an exhausted-looking Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis held a news conference to explain why police had abandoned the city’s Third Precinct building as crowds of protesters gathered around the facility throughout the evening.

It became clear that there were imminent threats to both officers and public. And the danger became necessary. And I made the decision to evacuate the Third Precinct. The symbolism of a building cannot outweigh the importance of life, of our officers, or the public. We could not risk serious injury to anyone, and we will continue to patrol the Third Precinct, entirely. We will continue to do our jobs in that area. Brick and mortar is not as important as life.

The decision that I made was for the safety of our officers, and the safety of the public. It’s a decision that I did not take lightly. I understand the importance of a precinct, but we are able to regroup and continue providing the same service to the Third Precinct, as a geography. … The resources that we offer to the people of the Third Precinct will continue, period. The building is just bricks and mortar.

Atlanta

A protester faces a line of police in Atlanta on May 29. (John Amis/AFP via Getty Images)

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms spoke at a press conference at City Hall on the evening of May 29. A day of largely peaceful demonstrations had turned destructive after sunset; the city’s CNN Center became a focus of vandalism, and several police vehicles were set ablaze. Bottoms appeared with two other speakers, the Atlanta hip-hop stars T.I. and Killer Mike, to appeal for calm.

Above everything else, I am a mother. I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And yesterday, when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do. I called my son and I said, “Where are you?” I said, “I cannot protect you, and black boys shouldn’t be out today.”

So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care me about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day, and I pray over my children each and every day. What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city —  this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners — if you care about this city, then go home.

Washington, D.C.

D.C. police officers are deployed in front of the White House during May 31 protests. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Saturday, May 30, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded to tweets from President Donald Trump alleging, falsely, that she wouldn’t let D.C.’s police get involved in Friday night’s protests.

People are tired, sad, angry, and desperate for change. And we need leaders who recognize this pain and in times of great turmoil and despair, can provide us a sense of calm and a sense of hope.

Instead what we’ve got in the last two days from the White House is the glorification of violence against American citizens.What used to be heard in dog whistles, we now hear from a bullhorn.

So to everyone hurting and doing our part to move this country forward, we will look to ourselves and our own communities for this leadership and this hope. Our power, we know, is in peace, in our voices, and ultimately at the ballot box.

Pittsburgh

Wearing a yellow Steelers cap. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke to reporters after a day of peaceful marches against police violence turned violent when at least one police car was destroyed and dozens of businesses were attacked.

It’s been an interesting day for Pittsburgh. It started out as a peaceful demonstration, a march for justice organized by young leaders through Pittsburgh’s African-American community, that had a mission — to be able to have a voice heard, in order to call for changes necessary throughout our country. We mourn together the tragedy that occurred in Minneapolis, and today we came together as Pittsburghers and supported a First Amendment right to gather and say more must be done.

And then it was hijacked. It was hijacked by a group that put its own self interests above the interests of the movement, who took away from those organizers and those who wanted to have a voice about social justice and the demands that are needed in order to see real change happen. It not only jeopardized that movement and that mission, but at the same time put the lives of the individuals in jeopardy. The individuals who they marched with two hours before hand and said they were a part of being able to see something better occur.

Pittsburgh is not new to protests, far from it, and we’ve had protests over incidents that have occurred right here in our own backyard. And never in that time did Pittsburghers turn it into an opportunity for vandalism and violence. Pittsburghers have always stood up calling for social justice, calling for peace, and doing so in a way that brought us together, instead of ripped us apart.

New York City

Police face protesters in Brooklyn on Saturday night. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Sunday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to discuss rioting in Brooklyn that they said was caused by a small group of outsiders.

The underlying issues are profound and meaningful, again expressed by those who are peacefully protesting and seeking change. The X-factor here [is] a small set of … people who came to do violence in a systematic, organized fashion. That is a different reality we need to grapple with. We did not see that in 2014 and 2015. We are seeing something new, and not just here in New York City but all over the country, and we have to recognize it and we have to address it.

I’m going to keep saying to anyone who is protesting for change, do not take your anger out at the individual officer in front of you, that man or woman who is simply trying to keep the peace. Work for change in our society, hold the elected officials accountable, vote — do all the things that can actually lead to change. But don’t take your frustration out on a working man or woman in front of you who did not make the policies that you disagree with.

St. Paul

Mayor Melvin Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell address the media at police headquarters in St. Paul. (Nick Ferraro / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images)

After a Saturday night of widespread violence in the Twin Cities, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter was asked on CBS’s Face the Nation about the long history of complaints directed at fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Right here, we’re totally understanding the anger and the rage that people have. Our call today and moving forward into the future is for peace, but not to be mistaken with patience. We cannot be patient. We cannot sit back and patiently wait while these things change on a slow and incremental basis. We have a lot more work to do on not just how we hire officers, but how we allow chiefs to fire officers. My father is a retired St. Paul police officer; I’ve heard all of my life how important it is to lift up that badge and to not tarnish its reputation. What we’ve seen when officers fall far below our expectations — it’s happened in St. Paul, it’s happened in Minneapolis, it’s happened across the country — police chiefs who tried to remove those officers end up being forced to pull them back on the force through arbitration.

Our request for our young folks is to take this energy which has consumed our nation this past week. It’s a fire that could destroy us, but could bring us together in a way that we’ve never been together. Use it not to destroy our neighborhoods, but to tear down those laws, to tear down those legal precedents, to tear down those police union contracts that make it so difficult to hold officers accountable for their actions.

Chicago

An emotional Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke on Sunday, hours before Chicago endured its second night of unrest, asking Chicagoans to observe a moment of silence at 5 p.m. As the weekend ended, police had made almost 700 arrests for looting.

The decisions that I have had to make in the last 24 hours are not decisions I wish on any leader. None of them were easy; they were all hard. And I know that these are decisions that mayors all across the country have been making, because I have been in contact with many of my peers for the last few days. I know many people are feeling scared and unsettled, but I make no apologies that I’m always going to make the tough by necessary choice if it means protecting the people.

Chicago is strong. This is our home. This is the city that we built with our blood, sweat and tears. This is the city that we must protect so it can provide for us. We know it’s not perfect. But if it gets destroyed ,we are all left to pick up the pieces. In this city we care for each other, we’ve seen that over and over again, this is a time for us to unite. we have to turn our pain into purpose in order to get through this moment together and do the work needed to unite our city and move us forward in a way that is more equitable, inclusive and just.

Philadelphia

Marchers make their way down a Philadelphia street on Sunday. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement on Sunday afternoon following damage to Center City the night before.

I toured the damaged blocks of downtown this morning, and despite my deep sadness, what I saw gave me hope. Residents turned out — on their own — to help clean up. They devoted their time and energy on a Sunday morning to restoring their city.

But even when those blocks are cleaned up, when these businesses are restored, I understand that the larger issues that fueled yesterday’s events remain. What we saw both in yesterday’s peaceful protests and the more violent destruction — not just in Philadelphia but in many other cities — was born of decades of systemic racism and the resulting poverty. Poverty and racism: These are twin factors that work hand-in-hand to fuel anger and hopelessness and violence. And when sparked by the murders of unarmed black people, that anger and hopelessness spilled out into the streets of Philadelphia and in cities across the nation.

So remember that after the damage is cleaned up, we are left with solving the greatest challenge — building a truly just society. For every single person who lives in it.

San Francisco

Mayor London Breed addressed a crowd of protesters assembled in front of San Francisco’s City Hall for a peaceful “kneel-in” on Monday, June 1.

Black Lives Matter is nobody’s joke. I’m tired of people treating it that way. I’m tired of people masking their racism in black lives matter. It is not a joke. It is born out of pain. It is born out of racism that we are going to fight against. It is born out of our struggle, our blood, sweat and tears, for all that we have struggled through in this country. Don’t get it twisted — it is not a joke.

So for those of you who are genuine in this struggle, we thank you and we welcome you. But for those of you who are using this movement as a way to push violence to go after other black people, to tear us down, we will not tolerate that. Don’t get it twisted. I am the mayor but I’m a black woman first. I am angry. I am hurt. I am frustrated. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. I don’t want to see one more black man die at the hands of law enforcement. That’s what this movement is about. Not one more. Not one more.

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In Minneapolis Protests, Bus Drivers Take a Side

As demonstrations in Minneapolis continued Friday over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after pleading for help while pinned under the knee of a police officer,  some local bus operators have refused to assist police in transporting protesters to jail.

PayDay Report first reported the news that operators had been asked by police to use their vehicles to facilitate mass arrests on Wednesday. A petition to refuse such requests is circulating among members of ATU 1005, which represents drivers employed by Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“We don’t want our people involved in that,” said Dorothy Maki-Green, the vice president of ATU 1005. “We’re not on the side of justice of that.”

The union chapter also issued its own statement of protest on Thursday against Floyd’s killing. “In ATU we have a saying ‘NOT ONE MORE’ when dealing with driver assaults which in some cases have led to members being murdered while doing their jobs,” it read. “We say ‘NOT ONE MORE’ execution of a black life by the hands of police.”

On Friday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter for Floyd’s death. He and three other officers involved were fired on Tuesday, after video of Chauvin’s fatal use of force surfaced, triggering a wave of outrage. Floyd’s family has said that his death was “clearly murder.” Largely peaceful protests over the killing began on Wednesday but have since been accompanied by looting and violence, with a police precinct and numerous businesses going up in flames; one person was found shot to death near the protests. A separate demonstration occurred Thursday night in Louisville, Kentucky, over the killing of Breonna Taylor, an African-American EMT shot by three police officers inside her home in March. As the weekend begins, protests are taking place in cities nationwide. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, an 8 p.m. curfew has been imposed starting Friday night.

In Minneapolis, much of the local transit workforce is held together by African Americans and Somali immigrants, said Ryan Timlin, the president of ATU 1005. His fellow drivers face racism all the time.“You’re never away from it,” Timlin said. “It’s always there, whether it’s from bus passengers or in daily life.”

Race and transportation access have collided before in Minneapolis, said Yingling Fan, a professor of regional planning and public policy at the University of Minnesota. Like many U.S. cities, it is sliced up by major interstates built in the 1960s. These forced out black communities, including the Rondo neighborhood, which made way for I-94 near downtown. “It displaced and destroyed what was a vibrant African-American community with surgical precision,” said Fan.

By prioritizing highways over public transit infrastructure, the city continued to leave low-income residents of color at a disadvantage, since those communities are less likely to own cars. “There is so much injustice that is built into our city and in transportation infrastructure already,” she said.

Despite the progressive reputation they enjoy, the Twin Cities are among the most racially segregated urban areas in the U.S. The fracture dates back to the days of redlining and real estate covenants, which limited home ownership opportunities for black families and cordoned off entire neighborhoods. Today, access to high-quality transit and job opportunities continues to be issue for majority-black neighborhoods in north Minneapolis. In 2010, when planning for the new Green Line light rail line was underway, black community groups in St. Paul filed a lawsuit to force the city to include stops in their neighborhoods.

“Minneapolis is so racially segregated and we have a long history of forcing people into accessing only small portions of the city,” said Denise Pike, a local public historian focused on race and urban planning. “We have such intense racial and economic disparities, which plays into how people move around different parts of the city.”

The fact that Floyd was arrested and killed on a public sidewalk is a symbol of those disparities, said Ashwat Narayanan, the executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, a street safety advocacy group. The coronavirus pandemic has already recently highlighted the need for safe transportation options for low-income communities of color hit hardest by Covid-19 and who are reliant on public transit, where crowding is a health concern. The actions of law enforcement in those spaces are part of that equation, said Narayanan.

“We really believe that the safety of everyone on our streets cannot be taken for granted until and unless black people are able to move freely in public space without fear of police violence,” he said.

That point is underscored by Minneapolis’ more recent, pre-pandemic strides to improve light rail and bus services and bike corridors, including in underserved communities. “When we think about discrimination, it’s not always about facility access,” said Fan. “It’s also about the culture we have in this society.”

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The Many Protests of the Coronavirus Pandemic

A seething woman wearing USA gear is leaning out of a pickup truck in Denver, Colorado. She points at her sign — “Land of the Free” — while around her, vehicles blare their horns. Facing the metal mass are a pair of men clad in teal scrubs. They’re serene, blocking the crosswalk with crossed arms.

In San Francisco, a line of cars creeps through downtown, sleeping bags and tents lashed on their roofs. The drivers blare their horns, signs posted on their windows demand “#HotelRoomsNotHospitalBeds” and “Test us now! We need to know!” On the sidewalk, advocates wearing bandanas cheer; photographers leap into the street to capture the traffic.

The two genres of protest could not have been more different in intent. One was convened on April 13 by San Francisco housing advocates to pressure the city to house its large homeless population in vacant hotels before cases of Covid-19 spread within the city’s shelters. The other happened a week later, one of several , noting that it was a vehicle that killed Heather Heyer during 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But conflating all auto-centric uprisings as one brutal force can obscure the disparate danger posed by the protests themselves, as well as the protesters behind them.

Denver’s caravan was just one of many acts of coronavirus resistance in U.S. cities in recent days, led by conservative groups that were egged on by the Koch brothers and organized on Facebook. In Michigan, Confederate flags and rifles poked out of the windows of the vehicles that swarmed the state capitol on April 15. About 150 drivers rallied in Buffalo’s Niagara Square on April 20, calling on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reopen the state. Some attendees defy social distancing mandates and gather in person, as several thousand protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, did on Friday. Other foes of stay-home orders have adopted different vehicles to their cause: Anglers in Washington state convened a flotilla of pleasure boats on Sunday to convey their frustrations about Governor Jay Inslee’s ban on recreational fishing during the crisis.

A “Let Us Fish” protest in Lake Washington in Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

The extensive coverage of these protests has largely overshadowed how unpopular such anti-lockdown sentiments are: Pew Research polling shows that 66% of the country is more afraid of social distancing measures being lifted too quickly than lasting too long, and an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that only 12% feel sheltering measures “go too far.” As made-for-cable-news theater, however, these rallies are doing their job.

Ironically, the defining photo of the reopen-everything protests could be of those who oppose it: the small counter-protest of masked health-care workers in Denver, quietly reminding the furious drivers that winning their fight could have grave consequences. That scene  — which was captured by freelance photographer Alyson McClaran — evoked past images of asymmetric stand-offs: Ieshia Evans, the Black Lives Matter activist wearing a long dress who stood stoic before a trio of armored police officers in Baton Rouge in 2016, or the lone man who stared down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“The power of a protest is not directly related to its size — there are moments where the right people taking the right action …  can make a far more dramatic statement than a much larger action could make,” Kauffman said. “We have a whole set of visual references where what we’re seeing is courage on the part of protesters. It’s changing now, in this era.”

Creative organizing work has been done outside the confines of vehicles, too. On April 19, 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, spacing themselves out into an even grid across the square to maintain six feet of distance. The demonstration was formed both to protest the formation of a new unity government by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud with longtime rivals the Blue and White Party, and to challenge new powers the Netanyahu government has granted itself in a bid to fight coronavirus.

Israeli protesters maintained social distance as they gathered in Tel Aviv. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

The site of a huge crowd maintaining such order during a pandemic — and creating an aesthetically striking shape as they did so — likely did far more to amplify their message than anything on their placards. Still, the act itself was antithetical to the social distancing precautions deemed necessary by governments around the world; six feet of distance isn’t a magical shield, and the crowd risked infection to gather.

Under lockdown, housebound Spaniards have revived the tradition of the Cacerolazo, a protest where demonstrators beat cooking pots on balconies that has frequently been used in the past in countries where police crackdowns have made going out to demonstrate dangerous. As they protest the government’s handling of the pandemic and a corruption scandal in the Spanish royal family, people taking part initially hear just themselves and people on neighboring balconies. It is only when footage of the protests spreads that participants see what they really took part in — a deafening national chorus of discontent amplified across social media. The many videos, knit together, become the true site of the protest.  

Other powerful acts of coronavirus-era resistance, aptly enough, involve emptiness: Workers for companies like Whole Foods and Instacart and Target have held strikes for better pay and stronger protections for their employers. In a crisis where the public health risks have been disproportionately borne by a small group of critical workers, withholding one’s physical presence can speak volumes.

Disaster-appropriate protests from past crises have involved pointedly providing the kinds of emergency aid that governments failed to muster, in order to highlight the gaps. After Hurricane Sandy damaged Rockaway, Queens, for example, the Occupy Wall Street movement switched gears from protesting the 1% to providing disaster relief to the 99%. The change in focus caused a rift, the New York Times reported, with some Occupy members afraid it was abandoning its fight against capitalism for charity. But the support itself was in line with its anti-corporate roots; by “teaching storm victims about conducting sit-ins” and printing “the crisscrossed ‘A’ symbol of anarchism” inside “In Case of Emergency” signs, the flavor of resistance remained.

During the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of mutual aid efforts have emerged in communities across the country, offering food delivery and emergency supplies from local volunteers. Kauffman says the pandemic-born groups aren’t as explicit about their anarcho-communist roots as others have been. “The mutual aid efforts have been extraordinarily powerful, but that dual character that they historically have where they are both an attempt to provide a solution to a problem and a critique of the institutions who allowed the problem to fester, that’s been harder to make visible,” said Kauffman.

Whether these uprisings translate into political leadership change will likely depend on how nimble governments will be in adapting their election processes so people can vote safely, she says.

But rallying groups now, even at a limited capacity, will have dividends later, says Leighton Johnson, another organizer with Stop Solitary CT. He believes the techniques the group is adopting now — lawsuits, car protests, social media blasts, shame campaigns — will help them to come out of lockdown stronger. “It’s teaching people how to campaign virtually, and I think it’s going to … give more ammunition for the fight,” he said. One day after the Coalition on Homelessness’ car rally, San Francisco supervisors passed a landmark emergency ordinance to demand thousands more hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. (The struggle continues, as activists press for faster action and San Francisco’s mayor London Breed resists.)

Kauffman is hopeful, too, that the energy will carry through to November and beyond. “It’s too hard to know when social distancing is likely to be relaxed and what that’s likely to look like, but I think the proliferation of experiments that we’ve seen already shows that there are a lot of people who are going to be working hard to innovate in the face of this,” said Kauffman. “The need for protest has only grown.”

Feargus O’Sullivan contributed reporting.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect title for this book.   

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Why Chile’s Massive Protests Started With a Subway Fare Hike

It’s Wednesday afternoon and hundreds of thousands have taken over Plaza Italia, the heart of Santiago and epicenter of any public protest in the city. They carry signs that ask for major improvements in public health, pensions, and income inequality. Among them, 70-year-old Amelia Rivera lifts a sign criticizing the paltry pension money that Chilean seniors get.

For the last six days, Rivera has been traveling from San Bernardo, a district in the far south of the city, to protest alongside her family. She says she is there to criticize the inequalities and classism in Chile. Her daughter is a PhD candidate in education, and Amelia thinks she will never be able to get to a high-ranking job position because of her brown skin. She says that people in the poorer “barrios” don’t have a voice in Chilean society.

That is why, she says, many of the subway stations in the most vulnerable areas of the city are now in ashes.

“If they don’t listen to you, what’s next? To shit all over the place,” Rivera says. “People used anger against the subway because it was the only way of getting attention. They don’t listen only with words.”

It’s not clear who burned the stations of Santiago’s subway—known as Metro—or in what context this happened. President Sebastián Piñera accused groups with logistical skills of “a criminal organization,” but public opinion has been skeptical. What is clear is that last Friday, a series of attacks burned down 19 stations, which moved Piñera to declare a state of emergency and a night curfew in the biggest city.

This declaration hasn’t stopped the public demonstrations, which have been met in many cases with violence by the police and armed forces. Over eight days, massive protests across the country—mostly peaceful and spanning socioeconomic class—have been demanding changes in policy, and that the armed forces go back to their barracks. At the time of publication, the National Institute of Human Rights has already recorded 3,162 people detained, 997 wounded, and 19 people dead, 5 of them allegedly by actions of armed forces or police.

This all started after a 3.75 percent fare hike was announced for the public transit system. It was 30 Chilean pesos, less than 5 U.S. cents, but an amount that matters for low-income families who tend to spend between 13 and 28 percent of their budgets on transportation, depending how you calculate it.

Santiago’s Metro system is already one of the most expensive in Latin America, and had seen an increase in fares of almost 100 percent in 12 years. Some workers who start their journeys at dawn to cross the city weren’t pleased with a recent comment by Minister of Economy Juan Andrés Fontaine:“If you wake up earlier, you can have the benefit of the lower fare.”

Founded in 1975, Metro has been seen as a source of pride for many. Its clean trains and stations full of art have been a metaphor for Chile as the “good student” of Latin America, a country that has been able to increase its GDP more than 1,000 percent in 30 years, while many in the region struggle. And, although the subway has suffered from overcrowding since it was integrated into the rest of the transit system in 2007, its constant expansion has been applauded as one of the most important equity efforts in the city, adding extensions not only to the job centers in the business districts, but also to the low-income residential neighborhoods.

But Santiago’s subway expansion also unveiled one of the city’s most intrinsic characteristics and something quite evident for most santiaguinos: its economic segregation.

“We have very high-income groups living in one area of the city and the rest in other areas, like the periphery,” says Paola Jirón, the director of MOVYT, a Chilean inter-university mobility research center. On the subway, these people interact with one another: In one car, it would be typical to see upper-class business people, construction workers from the periphery, students from all across the city, and the recent immigrants from countries like Venezuela and Haiti.

People are able to access better jobs and services, but oftentimes also face long travel times in extremely crowded cars to get there. And what they see when reaching their destination is really different from the neighborhoods, schools, and streets where they live. “Through our mobility we weave together the inequalities that fragment our city,” Jirón says.

And so the fare hike came. On the day it was announced, students started the first “massive evasion,” calling people to jump the turnstiles as a way to protest the increase. For years, high levels of fare evasion—mainly  on buses—has been an obsession for the technocrats in charge of the public transit system in Santiago. Now, angry teenagers had transformed fare evasion into a form of protest. “Evading, not paying, another way of fighting!” was one of the chants of the students.

As the days went by, more people got involved in the protests. While the government refused to change its direction, hundreds of thousands of Chileans also participated in peaceful marches, where they expressed the complexity of public frustration, always centered around the issue of inequality. At the same time, riots and attacks began. According to the latest figures, the total number grew to 21 stations severely burned and around 79 damaged, in addition to several trains, buses, and some buildings, including around 200 supermarkets.

“The protests in Santiago were triggered by the rise of fares, but the whole manifestation is much more complex,” says Paola Jirón. “People became tired of living in an uneven society. We have people making a lot of money, but the majority are profiting very little from the Chilean success.”

For the geographer Juan Correa, who works in the housing non-profit Fundación Vivienda, the subway became a symbol. “People didn’t attack their schools, their medical centers, the daycare centers—all public institutions—but the subway, where they perceived that there was profit,” says Correa. “This was a moment of rage, of stating that this institution was public, but they make me pay and with a hike that is unjustified.”

As the protests escalated, Piñera backtracked and not only called off the fare hike, but also announced some economic measures aimed at reducing inequality. But the marches haven’t lost steam, as protesters have been unsatisfied with the scope of these reforms. On Friday, approximately 1.2 million people gathered once more in Plaza Italia, in what has been called the largest demonstration in the country’s history. On early Saturday, Piñera reacted to the march by lifting the curfew.

Protesters in Santiago on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Metro has started reopening some stations and analyzing the damage. Although some lines are already working, the state company says that the Line 1 won’t be fully operative until March 2020. Experts have said that all the repairs might take up to a year.

In the meantime, the lower-income population of Santiago’s outskirts will suffer. “The subway is the spine of the transit system of the city and of our mobility as a whole,” says Correa. The two most damaged subway lines are in some of the most impoverished areas of Santiago. “They serve precisely La Florida and Puente Alto, two of the most populated districts of the city, that are of middle and lower income. This is going to affect the quality of life of people, increasing commuting times, stress, and overcrowding.”

Some of them have taken matters in their own hands, and started volunteer squads to clean the burned-down stations. “I think that, although the demands are fair, this wasn’t the way,” one volunteer told TV station T13 on Sunday.  He said that he was there because that station was, in a way, his life: He was born near it, he had played there as a kid, he had traveled in the subway for the first time in 1975, with his mother, on the day of the inauguration of Metro.

As the man spoke, fellow volunteers walking by with shovels and wheelbarrows accumulated piles of ash and debris, their clothes blackened. “I want my daughter tomorrow to be able to take the subway. But I also want for this to be a call for attention for the government. They have to wake up. It’s not just 30 pesos, it’s not just pensions, it’s a sum of things and people have said ‘no more’. Maybe with this the government will listen, but it’s a shame that this has been the way.”

For Correa, deeper issues need to be addressed. “We can’t delegate this social weight only on the subway,” he said as he marched during a protest, pots and pans ringing in the background. “Today we have a structural failure of the state system in so many other services, including health, education, and culture.”

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What’s Behind the Barcelona Protests?

Barcelona erupted in protests yesterday, after courts handed out sentences of up to 13 years in prison to nine Catalan separatist leaders arrested for their role in staging a 2017 referendum on Catalan independence.

Protesters filled the streets across the Catalan capital, with an estimated 25,000 massing in the city center and an unconfirmed but substantial number at the airport. Employing a strategy most recently used by demonstrators in Hong Kong, they blocked train and metro access to the airport for several hours, causing over 100 flight cancellations.

The police response to the protesters was aggressive: After assaults with batons and foam bullets, 131 people required medical assistance, including one man who lost an eye.

The spark for the demonstrations was the sentencing of the Catalan leaders—among them, former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras—who were responsible for organizing the region’s independence referendum in October 2017. The trial’s defendants maintained that the referendum was legal thanks to a law hustled quickly through Catalonia’s regional assembly, then overturned the following day by the country’s Constitutional Court. Judges rejected their argument and gave Junqueras and three other ministers 13 years apiece in prison for sedition and misuse of public funds. Former parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell was given 11½ years, two other leaders nine years, and three further politicians were handed fines.

Notably absent from the trial: former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who is still evading trial by living in exile in Belgium. In a fiery op-ed published yesterday, Puigdemont insisted that the verdict yesterday will in the end “inevitably backfire on Spain.”

Things could have been worse for the defendants: They were also accused of the crime of rebellion—which carries a potential sentence of 25 years—but that charge was overturned because their moves came with no campaign of violence. As it stands, the long sentences they received are still intensely divisive. While many Spanish citizens support cracking down on the Catalan independence movement, doling out prison time to the region’s former administration can only compound the impression given to many in Catalonia that Spain seeks to maintain control of the semi-autonomous region by authoritarian means—in part to curry favor with voters elsewhere in the country who are happy to see the central government taking a firm, uncompromising hand in Catalonia.

Tension boiled over on the streets of Barcelona soon after the sentences were announced. Activist group Tsunami Democràtic put out calls on social media for protesters to congregate at the airport. Demonstrators started arriving (often by metro and train) in large numbers until by later afternoon, they filled terminal buildings and car parks. Meanwhile, beyond Barcelona itself, a further 25,000 protesters congregated in the nearby city of Girona, where they briefly blocked several highways to France before apparently removing the blockades themselves. The police response was equally swift, and again social media was flooded with images of street clashes. Coming two years after police beat Barcelonans trying to participate in the attempted independence referendum, images of this crackdown have only inflamed tensions more.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the clashes represent an uncomplicated publicity coup for pro-independence forces. While regional leaders have applauded the protests, they’re also responsible for directing some of the police conducting the crackdown.

As I explained earlier this year in this CityLab article, Barcelona has a complex—and some would say quasi-dysfunctional—policing situation in which responsibilities are divided between separate national, regional, and urban forces. The officers beating back protesters were thus not just from the Guardia Civil, which is under the control of Spain’s national government, but also from the Mossos D’Esquadra, the main force controlled by the pro-independence regional government. This might seem odd, but while the regional government might be in favor of independence, they are also responsible for public order. Placed in the perverse position of being obliged to police civil unrest fed by a cause they profess approval of, the authorities have tacitly put order first. So when Mossos officers fired foam projectiles at protesters, some opponents of the current regional administration—including figures from the city’s municipal government—have been quick to damn this as hypocritical cynicism.

This doesn’t look good. The regional government is in a very difficult position—they may ostensibly support the aims of the demonstrators, but, on a day when their erstwhile colleagues are behind bars, must nevertheless resist giving the impression that they are a chaotic anti-state force. This has led to a bizarre situation: Regional leaders have been applauding the protests on social media while simultaneously giving orders to break them up.

As of Tuesday, the unrest has died down (at least at time of publication), but with national elections coming up in early November—and no party with an unequivocal lead in the polls—this could all potentially just be chapter one.

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