MONDAY, June 1 — In the aftermath of Sunday’s anti-police brutality protest that turned violent, the mayors of Lansing and East Lansing differ on whether the police response was appropriate.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor defended the response of police with tear gas to disperse protesters after they set a car on fire, broke windows and graffitied downtown Lansing buildings.
“I understand people’s frustrations, but there were some people that took advantage of the situation to do damage, light fires, destroy property and put a lot of people’s safety at risk,” Schor said. “I won’t lay it on protesters. There were only a few attempting to damage the city.”
East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier had a different take.
“Our goal was to let everybody protest and not interfere, even if there was some damage,” Beier said. “We just don’t need to police people so much. Unless someone is posing a danger to themselves or others, we need to leave them alone. Give a ticket if you have to, but walk away.”
Protests turn into riots
A peaceful march through downtown Lansing, protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, kicked off from the Capitol soon after 11 a.m. yesterday and finished about 1:30 p.m. without incident.
Then a second march formed that went to East Lansing. A police cruiser parked at the East Lansing Police Department was badly damaged — with several broken windows — before crowds started circling back toward Lansing. Some protestors briefly approached the downtown Target but were warded off from causing damage.
Social media videos and other first-hand accounts from yesterday evening showed a white woman driving recklessly through the march toward downtown Lansing, just missing several people that were otherwise peacefully walking back from East Lansing on Michigan Avenue.
LPD officials said a group of demonstrators later attempted to assault the woman on the 100 block of South Washington Square. Michigan State Police troopers circled in and escorted her away, but were overrun by people throwing bottles and rocks, officials reported.
The woman’s car was overturned and its windows were smashed before it was set ablaze in the street. Several minutes later, windows were being smashed out at the Chase Bank downtown. And that’s when the tear gas — or “pepper spray,” as Schor prefers to call it — was launched.
Demonstrators went on to smash windows at a dozen or so businesses as it turned dark. At least one dumpster fire burned in an alley. Cops also took reports of some violent fighting among protesters. Schor enacted a retractive 9 p.m. curfew at 9:15 p.m. The streets were mostly quiet by 11 p.m.
The damage is assessed
East Lansing officers made no arrests, officials said. Aside from damage to one ELPD cruiser parked at the Police Department, no other vandalism was reported within the city. But as crowds returned from East Lansing to Lansing by sundown, cops were ready to bust out the tear gas.
Windows were broken at the Romney Building, at Michigan and Capitol Avenue, where the governor and her staff work. Other places that suffered broken windows included Comerica, Linn & Owen Jewelers, the Knapp's building, Sultan's Express, Firehouse Subs, MLive, the Downtown YMCA and AT&T. Graffiti was peppered across windows and walls across the city.
The Boji Tower, where crowds were pushed west off Washington, was among the last buildings to be damaged yesterday night. Protesters had knocked out most of the ground floor windows before police could arrive on scene — like several other locations across the city.
All told, the Lansing Police officers made 13 arrests yesterday and have requested a series of criminal charges against the suspects, including arson, damage to property, vagrancy and resisting arrest. The Michigan State Police arrested three more, reports The Detroit News.
It’s unclear if the driver of the car was arrested. An LPD spokesman didn’t respond to questions.
About 35 Michigan National Guard members were also deployed to Lansing. The toll of the damage is expected to rise above $10,000, including about $1,500 to remove graffiti from the Capitol steps and to restore some damaged landscaping, officials told The Detroit News. Police are likely to investigate additional instances of vandalism by reviewing security camera footage.
Meanwhile, dozens of volunteers arrived early today to sweep debris from city streets. The burned car was towed. Most businesses with shattered windows already had crews boarding up storefronts and assessing repairs. Others were scrubbing graffiti from windows and brick walls.
Michael Doherty’s massive marijuana company Rehbel sponsored 200 lunches for volunteers. Schor and a few City Council members also took to the streets to pitch in on the cleanup efforts.
Boarded-up windows were being repainted with colorful flowers and messages of solidarity. Windows at Strange Matter were covered in sentiments like “Justice,” “Hope,” and “Equality.”
Did the police go too far?
At least 15 separate squads of regional cops, including officers from the Michigan State Police, Michigan National Guard, Lansing Police Department and MSU Police Department, were scattered across downtown Lansing to form lines and to disperse the more unruly crowds.
Schor suspects that most of last night’s destruction was caused by a small group of people who drove from outside of the Greater Lansing region. Just “a few” people turned the protest violent, he said. But police decided to launch tear gas at the entire crowd without a warning. Schor told City Pulse it was necessary to prevent more fires after a Lansing Fire Department engine could not get through the people to put out the car fire.
Three reporters at City Pulse, and at least one reporter from both the Lansing State Journal and WILX were caught in the peppery mist along with dozens of non-violent bystanders. Among them: Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz, who said that he was a participant in the protest.
“The use of tear gas was extremely excessive and completely uncalled for, especially because it was aimed at peaceful protesters and not people who were agitating the situation,” Betz said. “They should’ve arrested a few people. Instead, they tear-gassed an entire crowd of citizens.”
Betz was handing out bottles of antacid water to help those who were gassed last night. He said he saw a 6-year-old child and three senior citizens caught up in the “excessive” police response — none of whom could run fast enough to get out of the way as they were cornered downtown.
Christiana Ford, a black WILX reporter, was live on Facebook when the tear gas arrived. At one point, it didn’t appear that she could leave the scene and comply with orders without walking through a cloud of tear gas. The video cuts off as she coughs from the gas on the sidewalk.
“The police could have handled this any other way,” Betz posted to his Facebook page earlier this morning, criticizing local cops. “Instead, they turned to violence immediately. Tear gassing peaceful protesters is a completely unacceptable response to a small amount of vandalism.”
According to LPD, firing off several rounds of tear gas without warning was wholly “consistent with usual and customary police practice.” The goal: Protect property and save innocent lives.
Schor applauded officers for a job well done, but he said the recent response — as with all major police enforcement events — will be reviewed to see what could be better handled in the future.
“There was violence going on and the police needed to disperse people,” Schor said. “You had people burning dumpsters and burning cars and it was really a dangerous situation. It was used to disperse people and it worked. People left the area and that’s the idea, to get them to leave.”
Lessons were learned
The East Lansing City Council sent out a statement of solidarity as the protest arrived yesterday: “We acknowledge that East Lansing needs to make significant changes in its own policing. We promise to continue our work to make sure that minorities are safe and protected.”
Beier called for some wholesale changes at the Police Department, especially after multiple people of color have accused officers in the East Lansing Police Department of excessive force in recent months.
“This has really helped me understand what we might be able to do as a city,” Beier said. “Even if nobody in this city is racist, every white person — just because of the inherent privilege they have — carries some form of implicit bias. That plays out most obviously in the Police Department because they wield so much power. We need a cultural shift in the department.”
An East Lansing cop who was placed on paid leave following allegations of excessive force returned to work last month after a Michigan State Police investigation determined he was justified in using force to apprehend two suspects during controversial arrests on Dec. 29 and Feb. 9.
Beier wants more training on how to avoid implicit bias and de-escalate violent encounters. She also wants officers to ease up altogether on policing against lower-tier offenses, she explained.
“You can’t change history but you can move toward a better understanding of these issues,” Beier said. “We really only need to police people when they’re in danger. You don’t need to drag people out of their cars for an expired driver’s license. We just don’t need the police so much.”
East Lansing officials are still pursuing a citizen-led oversight committee to deal with allegations of excessive force and other police misconduct. Those discussions will still continue, Beier said.
Schor issued a similar press statement, noting he arrived at the peaceful protest to “stand with the Lansing Police Department” as they reaffirmed a unifying message against excessive force. Like Beier, he later went home during the evening protests in an effort to keep himself safe.
“I stood with them yesterday and I stand with them today. Police brutality is wrong,” Schor added. “All police should be treating people equally. No arrests — especially if they’re African American — should be a death sentence. Something needs to be done. We won’t accept it.”
As for what needs to be done in Lansing? Those steps are already being taken, Schor said. Officers are routinely trained on implicit racial biases and a “robust” review system is in place for any allegations of police brutality within the department, he said. But more can always be done.
“I think we have reaffirmed that we won’t stand for that type of behavior in our police department,” Schor said. “It’s certainly a conversation that has been had and will continue to be had over there. Are we perfect? No. But I think our police chief has done a great job in this city.”
Schor wouldn’t say whether he supports a citizens’ advisory board to deal with police complaints, but Betz said he plans to push for the new measure at future City Council meetings.
“If he wants to propose something, I’m willing to have that conversation,” Schor added.
Before the protest, LPD Chief Daryl Green said he was disgusted over Floyd’s recent killing in Minneapolis and that he worries every night that local cops could have a similar incident without continued training in overcoming racial biases and how to de-escalate violent situations.
“I have to be in their head as much as possible. We have to be aware of what happens in Minneapolis, what happens in Georgia, what happened with Eric Gardner. We have to be aware and see those things,” he said. “We’re all trying to create a safer environment in the community.”