Almost two weeks since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protests against police killings of unarmed Black people across the country show no signs of stopping. Clashes between law enforcement and protesters have so far resulted in more than 11,000 arrests in the US as some demonstrations spiral into scenes of unrest and violence.
But several Black protesters and organizers told BuzzFeed News they’ve been targeted by police at these protests for not doing anything at all — and viral cellphone videos are reinforcing their feeling that police are carrying out the very behavior that has compelled people to take to the streets: targeting and responding violently to peaceful Black protesters.
Nakia-Renne Wallace — one of the main organizers of the protests in Detroit, alongside her uncle, Tristan Taylor — told BuzzFeed News that police arrested more than 100 peaceful protesters this week. Taylor was anticipating being charged with inciting a riot, but the Detroit police chief later said his actions ultimately didn’t warrant the charge.
“The only people who were there for violence were the police,” Wallace said.
Khalil Coleman, an organizer in Milwaukee, said he too has experienced police arresting nonviolent Black demonstrators during the protests. “Black lives don’t matter to the police and to the system overall. Black lives is a commodity,” he told BuzzFeed News. “They know that there has been a system [allowing police to] get away with what they have always been getting away with, and that’s the abuse of Black people.”
In the past two weeks, police have been filmed reacting with disproportionate violence toward protesters and even bystanders, displaying the kind of behavior Black and brown communities say they have long been familiar with.
At a Las Vegas protest on May 29, a protester captured on video the moment police officers swarmed an unarmed Black man in the crowd. In the video, the man lies on the ground in front of the police, then gets up and does not appear to move. The police then rush at him suddenly, as several of them tackle him to the ground while the crowd screams.
“There was absolutely no warning,” the person who took the video, Maya, told BuzzFeed News about the arrest. (Maya asked to only be identified by her first name).
There was no indication that protesters were provoking police, Maya said. “The only sense I got of why they arrested him was because they could. We were peaceful, talking to them, trying to speak peacefully. They didn’t want that. They wanted us to stop protesting,” she said.
Maya said she was “terrified and confused” when the police arrested the man. “Cops are the ones that have the guns, the batons, the tasers, the pepper spray. What do we, the protesters, have? Our voices, our words,” Maya said. “Why are the police using so much force on people who have their hands up and hearts out?”
The Las Vegas Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Wallace said she has “absolutely” seen police single out Black protesters. She said this was partly because Black organizers are the ones leading the demonstrations and are therefore “automatically” more prominent.
But police are also targeting Black protesters, Wallace said, because “that’s what they know, that’s what they’ve always done. They know how to single out Black people.”
Michael Houston, a 24-year-old Black man, was at a protest in Oakland, California, on Sunday when he decided to give a speech in a show of support for the demonstrators. Two officers then approached Houston, who was standing near the designated media area, to tell him that he did not have press credentials and then proceeded to remove him from the crowd.
A video of the interaction was taken by journalist Shane Bauer, who posted it on Twitter. Bauer noted in a tweet that he himself did not have media credentials, and was wearing a black hoodie and carrying a skateboard.
Oakland police did not respond to a request for comment, but Houston told BuzzFeed News that he believes police removed him because he was a Black man who spoke up. “It wasn’t until I started speaking out — that’s when they decided to arrest me,” he said.
“It just goes to show, you have to just shut up and be quiet. And if you don’t and you speak up, then you’ll definitely be arrested,” Houston said. “And with Shane, him not having his credentials, and him being white — that was OK.”
Maya, the woman who took the video in Las Vegas, said she believes police reacted with such force “absolutely” because the man she filmed was Black.
“If the protester that did get tackled was white, it would have never happened,” she said. “Because he was Black, they felt that they needed five cops to tackle him to the ground and drag him to behind the other cops.”
Of course, not all the people injured or arrested by police while acting in a nonviolent manner have been Black. One of the most high-profile incidents of viral police violence occurred on Thursday evening when officers in Buffalo, New York, were filmed pushing an elderly white man to the ground. The man had to be taken to a hospital in a serious condition after he hit his head and began bleeding on the pavement.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright, an activist and legal director at PANA San Diego, a group advocating for refugees, has been calling for more scrutiny of how police deal with protesters. She told BuzzFeed News that from what she’s seen in the past two weeks, police have frequently been escalating the already-high tensions with protesters. “The protesters are not inciting the violence. It is the police coming into the protest [and] inciting the violence a lot of the times,” she said.
That appeared to be the case during a protest in Kansas City, Missouri, where police in riot gear were filmed over the weekend spraying a chemical agent in the face of two peaceful Black protesters.
The video shows a Black protester criticizing police from a distance about “prematurely using excessive force.” A row of officers then approach the man and a Black woman next to him and spray a chemical directly into their faces. They then drag the Black man away, while several white protesters next to them remain untouched by police.
Sgt. Jake Becchina told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the man’s arrest is one of 151 police made over the weekend. “The protestor in the video was arrested for municipal/city protest related charges. He did not resist his arrest. However, the associated response from the crowd was aggressive and violent by throwing various objects and physically interfering with the arrest, which is also a crime for which they were not arrested for at that time, that is what led to the officer’s response with pepper spray,” Becchina said.
The video, however, does not show protesters throwing objects or interfering with the arrest.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas’s office directed BuzzFeed News to his tweets addressing the protests, and announcing that the county prosecutor is conducting an “external review.”
Wallace, the Detroit activist, said police officers’ behavior toward Black protesters today is nothing new. “We can go back to almost every pivotal moment in this country in terms of the struggle of Black and brown lives. We saw what the police did at the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We saw what the police did at Bloody Sunday. We saw how the police treated the Black Panther Party,” she said. “This is not new. It is, in fact, their purpose.”