Erin O’Brien, former FreshWater Cleveland managing editor and current staff writer and editor for moCa Cleveland, attended the George Floyd memorial protest in downtown Cleveland on Saturday, May 30. She reports on her personal experiences at the march before things turned violent and escalated into looting and rioting that night.
The Facebook event page taunted me.
"'I Can't Breathe' Justice for George Floyd"
Saturday, May 30, 2 PM – 5 PM
Photo: Erin O'BrienThe Free Stamp
I was torn. I wanted to go for George Floyd and for all of the Clevelanders who couldn't go. I wanted to give them unvarnished street-level reporting.
The words tipping the other side of the scale were coronavirus, tear gas, and the inscrutable Boogaloo Bois. As morning turned into afternoon, those words shrank. I headed downtown.
I parked at East 18th Street and Euclid Avenue and walked the empty streets, feeling like Will Smith's character in “I Am Legend.” When I got to the Free Stamp at Willard Park at about 1:45 p.m., it was like stepping onto yet another movie set, albeit one I hadn't seen before.
The desolate streets were behind me and the crowd before me was young and diverse. They numbered in the hundreds and thrummed with an acute and unmistakable energy. Helicopters circled overhead. Chants rang like thunder.
Photo: Sydney KornegayNO JUSTICE NO PEACE
SAY THEIR NAMES
BLACK LIVES MATTER
A general bonhomie hummed beneath the spiky protest, with people offering one another water and hand sanitizer. Impromptu conversations bloomed everywhere. People said, "pardon me" and "sorry" when accidentally stepping into each other's path.
And when I came upon no less than five of my coworkers who I hadn't seen for nearly two and a half months, it was an unparalleled gift. I never wanted to hug other people as badly as I did at that moment, but of course, an invisible monolith stood between us: COVID-19.
I was among friends just the same. This was my Cleveland.
Despite the gravity of the protest, the experience was purely American. This is who we are, I thought. I felt safe. I was on the right side of something. I updated my followers via Facebook live.
The procession from the Free Stamp to the Justice Center was a raucous stream of humanity, 20 or so deep, that took eight minutes to pass me. I know. I filmed it. So it went: rowdy, emotional, loud. I stayed mostly on the perimeter of the crowd observing and being in the moment. Notably, media was scant and kept a low profile. There were very few visible cops.
At about 3:15, a switch toggled.
The lone team of bicycle cops rode into the belly of the crowd. Minutes later, something—I didn't know what—triggered part of the crowd to calve off and start running straight toward me. I started running too, but I was momentarily trapped by a rail and concrete curb. Obviously, I got around it, but for the first time that afternoon, fear washed over me.
Had the situation been more severe, I might have had a very disagreeable confrontation with that thick steel rail. Then something else happened and unleashed more panic running, although I wasn't in its path.
Sirens began to wail. A group of uniformed cops gathered on Ontario Street. The protest had spread around the block and down to Public Square. The whole time, my steps traced a weird biorhythm on the ground.
My heart would compel me to move into the crowd, and then my head would pull me back. When I saw three police vehicles screaming down Superior Avenue, my head won out.
Photo: Kat QuinnI returned home to reports of tear gas and burning police cars on the streets I had just walked. The reports got worse as the night wore on: broken windows, looting, violence, fires.
What really happened when things turned? I later learned that while most of the marchers moved on from the Justice Center, some stayed behind and became reckless on the Justice Center steps. Police responded by firing off flash grenades and canisters of tear gas.
Were the first canisters what caused the panic running that unnerved me so? Probably, but I cannot know for sure. I do know this: In July of 2016, I spent four long hot days covering the Republican National Convention here in Cleveland and the policing I witnessed yesterday didn't come close to what played out back then.
Where was the de-escalation? Where was the surgical precision of force? Of course there is a great disparity between the two events when it comes to resources and preparation. The stark contrast, however, cannot be denied. Nor can the one decisive component that stayed the same: Cleveland's Chief of Police Calvin D. Williams.
May 31 dawned on this torn and frayed town with temperatures more appropriate for October 31. I rummaged through my drawers and pulled out a jersey emblazoned with the Cleveland skyline as imagined by artist Chris Deighan.
And as I turned to face the deeply troubled days ahead, the ghost of George Floyd sighed across America.