When Washington Square Park felt like Tiananmen Square
by David Kramer
[Originally published in Talker of the Town]
Last Friday, September the 4th, I heard that leaders of the Daniel Prude protests called for the resignation of Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. In mid-to-late evening, I left home to see the demonstration at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Manhattan Square, bringing one two-part question: “Should Warren resign? Will Warren resign?” I only asked a few people about Warren, instead finding myself encountering probably the most violent scene I’ve personally experienced.
Upon arrival, the protesters had left MLK Park, leaving behind hundreds of water bottles piled high on the center stage speaking platform, now looking like white plastic ivy entwined around the steel steps. A few people were playing loud music that to my auditory perception was ear splitting. My ear drums pulsating, I realized – to its credit — how much the BLM agenda is a youth movement. I also met Ashley Montalvo. We moved far enough away from the blaring music – anthems of solidarity – that I could hear her.
When I mentioned the Warren question, Ashley said that based upon what she was hearing, the crowd at MLK Park would be overwhelming in support of a Warren resignation and were particularly dismayed that Rochester’s first Black woman mayor may have been involved in a cover up. At the same time, Ashley did not think Warren would resign. Ashley did think that as events unfold and new information comes to light, Warren might well forgo running for another term.
Ashley pointed me to where to the protestors had gathered on Court Street near the Central Library. As I approached, the scene looked like a war zone. One man had been tear gassed, escorted and held up by four others who poured water onto his eyes. Never having experienced tear gas, for a moment, I felt like I was in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 where — for the first time — French and Algerian troops were thrown into panic when German chlorine gas wafted across no-man’s land and down into their trenches.
Barnhart — who was hit with a pepper ball — notes:
When we were on Jefferson Avenue, I noticed that there were tons of people with homemade defensive equipment. Among them were shields fashioned from Rubbermaid lids. They were practicing how to be in formation and how to protect each other. I got very alarmed. I thought “these are kids and it’s like they are marching out to war.”
When Barnhart ventured into the center of the protests, she was engulfed with a burning chemical that made her cough and sneeze. Barnhart heard booms and shots, adding that she “felt like I was in a war zone.”
Unlike Barnhart, I did not go to the focal point of the protest, but I could see an armored vehicle and the police behind concrete barricades periodically firing tear gas and shooting pepper balls at the surging crowd that hurled insults and occasionally various projectiles. Looking down from Washington Square Park at the two quasi-armies on the intersection of South and the Court Street Bridge facing off, I was reminded of the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
Suddenly, my sense of voyeurism was shattered when someone, apparently responding to movement by the police, yelled. “This is it. Run!” In an instant, dozens of us wildly bolted back towards MLK Park. At first, I did not know why we were running. Was I surrounded by expert protestors who could sense danger at a moment’s notice? It felt like a movie set: as if the protesters were extras were doing yet another “take” as the director told them to flee on cue.
But mostly, I experienced a low level of terror. First, as I pushed my bicycle along the sidewalk in the relative dark, I could see myself knocked down and injured, like when hooligans trample each other at European soccer matches.
More terrifyingly, although I knew it was a hyperbolic thought, I suddenly had a flashback to images of Tiananmen Square in 1989. For a moment, I imagined that if I turned around, I’d see a Chinese tank mowing us down with missiles firing just above our heads.
In Washington Square Park, people fled on bicycles, but no tanks.
I reflected later that these events were pretty much the first time I was in midst of such violent confrontations or the threat of such confrontations. Of course, I’ve seen countless images of violent protests my whole life. However, while I attended many of the demonstrations in Rochester following the death of George Floyd, I left before events turned ugly.
I’ve mostly lived a charmed non-violent life. About 15 years ago, I was a flag football referee for a championship game at Don Asselin’s now gone SportsPark in Chili. Near the end of the grudge match, some bad blood sparked the teams into a full fledged brawl. Like a writhing multi-colored snake, the two sides battled each while largely prone on the turf. Police and ambulances were called. The players rolled over and mangled the not-to-be awarded championship trophy that I later retrieved and still have somewhere. The spectacle was disgusting. In 1987, the Providence Business News sent me to Smithfield, Rhode Island to cover the Northeast Survival Paintball Game as a participant observer. The game is a war simulation that carries some risks as players shoot at each other with Splatblasters. I did not like the game with its militaristic trappings, but I was also a poor player. At one point, I tried to lead our troops in a headlong attack at an enemy strong point — a splatball Pickett’s Charge — but no one followed me and was left scurrying back beneath a hail of paint-filled pellets. (see “Splat!, Splat!, You’re Dead!,” (unpublished) David Kramer, Providence Business News, 1987)
In some ways, the violence felt surreal or not really happening.
As seen in Bitten by the Civil War bug at the Tinker Homestead Encampment, I attended a Civil War re-enactment in Henrietta. Like the re-enactment with its ritualized and contained expression of violence, the battle between the protestors and the police almost seemed like a staged spectacle, each side performing its assigned roles: the police as apparently stoic and implacable figures of state power while the protesters acted as a kind of progressive militia with its homemade weaponry and its strength in numbers.
The sense of the police as a militarized force intensified as I biked down Broad Street where various checkpoints were set up. On the Broad Street Bridge, I and Philip Boudreaux, a reporter/videographer for Spectrum News, were the only civilians in sight. I learned Philip is from Louisiana and has been in Rochester since January. An actual Rochester winter turned out to be less fearful than he anticipated.
As Philip and I scanned the scene and the police presence, I felt as if I was in a different city as I’d never seen downtown Rochester looking like an occupied zone. It was as if Philip and I were foreign correspondents in, say, Belarus where massed security forces warily patrolled near massed demonstrators.
Like any good reporter, Philip chose not to share his personal thoughts on the protests, but would make a prediction, based on what he’d been hearing, on Lovely Warren’s future. Like Ashley, Philip did not think Warren would resign. He predicted she would run for another term, but would face strong opposition.
After leaving Philip, I pedaled down Broad Street, a lone figure. My impression was of being behind the front lines as an urban battle waged. The police had secured various key strategic points like bridge crossings. They looked like a garrison force rather than officers of the peace. On the outskirts of the zone, individual policeman acted as pickets or sentries.
I was pleasantly surprised that no police officer asked me to leave the area that was blocked off to protesters or tried to prevent me from taking pictures, although one officer did take a video of me taking a photo of him, perhaps for future reference if I did something objectionable. Nonetheless, the officers respected my first amendment rights to freely cover the event. (Along those lines, no matter which side we take, we should be heartened that the video of Daniel Prude finally was released. In an authoritarian state, the video would never see the light of day.)
Hence, I was disappointed to learn that the next night, as reported in “Police use tear gas and pepper balls on Rochester protesters, fireworks thrown at officers”, (D & C, Ryan Miller and Brian Sharp, 9/5 and 9/6, 2020), at 1:06 a.m. police detained a Rochester freelance photographer on State Street.
The man identified himself as Mustafa Hussain to Democrat and Chronicle reporter Georgie Silvarole as the two walked back to their cars together after covering the protest and unrest in the city. Hussain walked across the street to get a better angle of the scene when he was tackled by police, according to Silvarole. Police put him in the back of a cruiser and confiscated his cameras and backpack, Silvarole said. One of Hussain’s photos ran in the New York Times last week. About an hour later, police released him. He was not charged.
When I returned to the Washington Square Park assemblage, tensions were increasing. Vandals had lit the Court Street bus stop on fire, fueling the flames with copies of the CITY magazine kept in the newspaper dispenser.
The man was not ready to completely give up on Warren. If Warren were to begin from scratch with a detailed and transparent account of a timeline and known facts, she could save her job. He definitely thought she should have attended the vigil for Prude. He wished Warren could find a way to be at or close to the protests, noting that it’s better to witness in person than to hear second hand accounts.
The man — who had been to the May/June protests that turned violent — observed that this time the behavior of both sides was different and more aggressive. Unlike the protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Prude had died only a few miles from where we stood. Many police officers viewed the protests as a personal attack on the force, making them more likely to overreact. This time, the protestors had very clear demands they felt could be immediately or quickly resolved: RESIGN (Warren) and ARREST (the RPD officers), making the protesters even more adamant than during the May/June demonstrations.
As we talked, we suddenly heard loud noises and saw hot ash a few feet above the street. The reporter said they were stun grenades, designed to temporarily concuss, expediting arrests. “Flash bangs” produce a blinding flash of light and intensely loud bangs. Also around this time, a demonstrator threw fireworks at the police. Suddenly, through the smoke, we saw ten or so officers charge at protestors, forcing them back towards MLK Park.
The charging men appearing out of the darkness — a sight I’d never witnessed before — triggered another flashback. I was reminded of scenes from the 1972 film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that eerily look like downtown Rochester, such as the Public Safety Building, the Hall of Justice, the River Walk area and the concrete steps in MLK Park.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 1972. (l-r, t-b) Moviedistrict.com; HeyUGuys,com; Cult Movie Review; Moviedistrict.com
In the movie, the apes rebel against the human police state. The apes ultimately prevail in their encounter with the police state by releasing — apropos to our times — a virus dangerous to the human population, but not to apes. Humans are nearly extincted by a pandemic called the “Simian Flu.”¹
After the charge, protesters began streaming down the hill on Chesnutt Street and towards Monroe Avenue. By then the tear gas could be at least faintly sensed by all. Many of those who had been directly exposed had trouble seeing. People poured streams of water on their eyes; some used milk that supposedly cleanses better than water. The crowd began to disperse. After witnessing the determination of the protesters, I am not surprised the demonstrations have continued unabated.
My impressions as to how the September 4th protests felt like being in a war zone need very much to be counterbalanced by highlighting the heartening non-violent rallies, marches, remembrances and protests that have taken place since. A few days ago, NPR ran a piece showing how violence was only a very small part of the protests that were about hope and solidarity (see “Covering New York’s Racial Justice Protests” (Brian Mann, NPR, 9/7/20)
¹ The D & C‘s Tracy Schumacher shared the article on Twitter and “was promptly accused of comparing Black people to apes – which we both know neither one of us were doing.” The comparison of Black people to apes is, of course, an unfortunate and imbedded racist trope. I discussed the response to Schumacher’s tweet with D & C editor Michael Kilian. Kilian noted: “Yes, those movies and books weren’t meant in that manner. But for people who aren’t aware of them, the titles might make eyebrows raise today.”
Kilian’s point is well taken that someone unfamiliar with the Planet of the Apes series might interpret the titles and images as negative racist tropes. Actually, the movie casts the apes as heroes liberating themselves from oppression. The ape protests are also inflected with imagery from Vietnam War demonstrations, in which protesters felt they were batting a police state. Through the use of time travel and futurism, the series examines how racial categories come into being and are never fixed. As the series progresses the apes move from being oppressed slaves or pets to themselves semi-benevolent masters over the humans.
The next afternoon I went downtown. All was quiet; the empty water bottles in MLK Park were gone; the destroyed bus stop had been removed. On Plymouth Street, I met Mr. Sanders who had moved to Rochester from Queens about four years ago and was a parishioner at the nearby Central Church of Christ.
In the beginning, Sanders was fully supportive of the marches, rallies and vigils, and especially the support shown to the Prude family. But once the protests turned violent, the main objective was lost. Any more violence would doom the laudable message. The time had come to “let the justice system have its due process.” In the end, Sanders believes justice will prevail.
To a small degree, the protest reminded me of the highly ritualized mourning wars fought in our region by the Haudenosaunee and other Native American tribes. Mourning wars were conducted in retaliation for the death of a tribesman by a rival band, i.e. Daniel Prude. Mourning wars were low-casualty conflicts mainly consisting of small raids and the taking of captives. Anthropologists argue that mourning wars offered the chance for young men to display their courage and enhance their social status, as well as provide — especially in the elaborate ceremonies accompanying the raids — a means for increased tribal solidarity. (See “Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars,” Encyclopedia.com)
David Kramer, PhD., is a published author, poet and journalist. He is a professor of English at Keuka College and runs the online magazine, Talker of the Town.