Ithaca, N.Y. — Dubian Ade had no idea what to expect when he went to downtown Ithaca early Tuesday evening to commemorate the life of Michael Brown.
Why I shop downtown — Naomi
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The Ithaca College student knew he was furious when he heard that a grand jury the night before decided against indicting the police officer who killed Brown. He knew he considered the decision to be wildly unjust and the result of a criminal justice system that devalues black lives.
Ade then saw a Facebook page about a candlelight vigil held outside the Tompkins County Courthouse. He wanted to share his emotions with others — but had no idea that a few hours later in the night he’d be part of a group that blocked intersections, argued with police and caused a major disruption to life in the city of Ithaca.
“It was just supposed to be a vigil. It wasn’t planned to be like this,” Ade said as the rally came to an end, “but it was spontaneous anger. Spontaneous resistance.”
Leader: College students to blame for unproductive disruption
The explosion of anger in Ithaca took many forms from the protesters, who marched into and through intersections (including those of a major highway), screamed expletives at police officers, and sat on the cars of bystanders simply trying to get home.
Far over 100 people gathered initially for a candlelight vigil outside the Tompkins County Courthouse. That forum was calm, peaceful and contemplative, and primarily featured speeches from those, including Ade, groping toward solutions to problems of racial justice in policing.
Those speakers were interrupted when a little over a dozen people marched into the intersection of North Tioga Street and Court Street and drowned out the words of those at the candlelight vigil. This second group, eventually joined by some members from the first, would be the ones that went on to cause the major disruptions in Ithaca and hurl the insults at IPD.
Jaimi Hendrix, who helped organize the candlelight vigil, said the escalation of rhetoric and aggression against Ithaca police was totally separate from the event she helped set up.
Hendrix strongly criticized those who took the protest in the more combative direction, saying it was mostly the result of Cornell and other college students who have no interest in the long-term work required to make meaningful change in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
“There is a group in the community that is low-key, talking with their neighbors and in the various neighborhoods and looking for a way to work together with the IPD,” she said.
“There is nothing glamorous or sexy about the type of work that’s showing up at meetings and sorting out disagreements with people, and these were the people at the vigil.” By contrast, she said those in the other group were primarily interested in having “an emotional event.”
Hendrix added that she recognized the rights of the protesters to march and challenge the police force.
“It’s an initiative they chose but it has nothing to do with what many community members are doing,” said Hendrix. “It’s not the people who are working together to improve the relations with the Ithaca Police Department.”
Still, it wasn’t only students who were pleased to see the outpouring of frustration on Ithaca’s streets last night.
“People had a right to express frustration at a system that seems to allow authority to go way beyond their bound to the point of even causing someone’s demise,” said Ithacan James Ricks. (Though joining the marches at the intersections, Ricks did not yell at the police or get into altercations with drivers, as some of the other protesters did.)
“I thought what happened out here was great; a lot of people out here were upset and they expressed it in a very helpful way.”
One woman was identified by most of those the demonstration as the principal antagonizer. That woman rejected an interview request. She was spoken to by police on several occasions, shouted obscenities at a police officer from a few feet away and sat on vehicles trying to drive around the protest.
Cornell students who wanted to make a splash had their fun Tuesday night, Hendrix said, but that will not make a difference for those who have to live here for the long haul.
“The community is really trying to work together with the IPD. There is no value in being antagonistic,” she said. “We live all together in this community and have to try to get along.”
Ade, the Ithaca College student, expressed similar sentiments to those of Hendrix. While he didn’t disavow the power of the protest’s noise, he emphasized that the important work in Ithaca was forging connections between people.
He said the protesters sent a strong message: “That we’re in solidarity with the people in Ferguson and in solidarity with everyone who suffers from police brutality and policing violence.”
But beyond the message, Ade said the most important outcome from the night was that, “We now know each other by name so next time we organize something we have a network of people who are here.”
Police defuse situation
Despite the disruption and high tensions, the protests did not lead to any violence or any arrests.
Police Chief John Barber had to tell many of the protesters that if they did not exit the street they would be arrested; though some of them didn’t heed his order right away, the situation was eventually defused.
There were multiple instances of police showing restraint in the face of furious anger and attempts at provocation, and deciding not to arrest protesters, including:
— At the intersection of North Tioga Street and Court Street, when one protester in the middle of a heavily trafficked street screamed that police were racists a few feet from an officer.
— When a young man smoking a cigarette refused to get out of the way of a police vehicle near the courthouse after being warned that he risked arrest if he continued to do so.
Police ended up waiting while asking the young man to move; he did so eventually.
— At the same intersection, when a young woman in a car started honking at the protesters to get them to move, a police officer was able to talk her out of an escalating confrontation with protesters.
“I have nothing to do with this…I was at work for 12 hours today,” she said, sounding her horn, to the marchers in the middle of the intersection. The protesters jeered her in response, with one of them shouting questions about if she knew who Michael Brown was.
The police officer explained to the driver that she wasn’t going to win the argument. She initially insisted on driving east on Court Street but eventually listened to the officer and turned her vehicle around.
— A high watermark in tensions between came when protesters walked into the intersection of Seneca Street and Meadow Street/Route 13, which has three lanes.
At this point, northbound traffic had a green light. An officer, parked on the side of Meadow St., turned on his lights and swerved in front of two oncoming cars, putting his own patrol vehicle in between them and the protesters. This move forced the two oncoming cars to brake suddenly.
The officer left his vehicle and a Voice reporter asked why he was blocking traffic.
“For them,” he said, gesturing toward the protesters who were decrying police racism and brutality. “Just want to make sure nobody gets hurt.”
— Shortly after the protest spilled over down Route 13 toward Joe’s Restaurant, Chief Barber warned demonstrators that they risked arrest if they remained in the path of a vehicle that needed to continue on.
Many of the protesters remained, and then things got even worse when a driver got into a heated argument with a protester, with each threatening to trade blows. Chief Barber intervened, however, and the situation was soon defused. No arrests were made.
Poems from a Cornell professor
Most who attended the candlelight vigil expressed sentiments similar to those of Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, an English professor at Cornell. She said she had been troubled by the implications of the grand jury verdict on black families across the country.
“It affects anyone and everybody. … If everyone’s children aren’t safe, nobody’s children are safe,” she said.
“I think it’s really, really disturbing the way that testimony effectively tried to portray that child as though (Brown) were a beast.”
Particularly galling, she said, is that the officer referred to Brown not as “he” or “him” but “it.”
“That’s not an ‘it;’ that’s somebody’s son. And it could be any of our sons,” she said.
She said she had thought about the poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith throughout the day, among others so The Voice is republishing it here:
“I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.