May 31 was the most eventful —and traumatic — day of the otherwise mostly peaceful protests that have been held in Lancaster city in recent weeks. “That day, a Sunday, police and protesters clashed for the first and only time since citizens took to the streets here to mourn the death of George Floyd, protest police brutality and call for sweeping reforms to law enforcement and public policy,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko wrote in Monday’s edition as part of her in-depth look back at that day.
May 31 will long be remembered here.
The large crowds of passionate demonstrators in the city.
The large police response, too. It included backup from surrounding municipalities and the Pennsylvania State Police. Plus an armored vehicle and two aircraft.
Arrests were made. Police said they were targeted with rocks and assaulted. There were bomb threats.
And pepper spray was used by the police.
It left us with many questions.
In the June 2 editorial, we wrote: “The two rounds of pepper spray deployed that day seemed to us to be excessive, especially with young children in the crowd. Moreover, a rally against police brutality shouldn’t yield more evidence to those in attendance that the police resort too quickly to harsh measures.”
We were also concerned about the health aspects of deploying pepper spray. These protests are happening during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Respiratory issues caused by the virus can be fatal, “and chemical agents like pepper spray cause throats to swell, and skin and eyes to burn, so people cough and tear up; those who help them need to get close to pour water into their burning eyes,” we wrote.
We weren’t alone in wanting to review that day’s events.
Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace and city police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser both said during a June 2 online discussion with LNP | LancasterOnline Opinion Editor Suzanne Cassidy that they would review body camera footage to see if each use of pepper spray was appropriate.
Meko’s article, which “reconstructed what happened on May 31 through a series of interviews, social media, and statements from state and local police,” shed more light on how that day unfolded.
The events began around 11 a.m., when “protesters gathered ... in front of the city police department, spilling into the street and blocking traffic on Chestnut Street,” Meko wrote. According to police, the crowd was soon too big for the department to manage alone. Berkihiser estimated that about 70 additional police officers from outside the city eventually arrived.
Isaac Etter, co-founder of Safe House (an advocacy and education organization established during the first couple days of the Lancaster city protests), described to Meko the harrowing scene after he received a text message indicating that pepper spray was being used on the crowd: “We ran down to the protest, we saw it (pepper spray) and then we ran to the CVS and I bought like 10 gallons of milk because we thought that’s how you were supposed to fix it. We were just trying to figure out how do we help these people?”
Etter summed it up this way: “It was a super scary day. ... I really was not sure I was living through that.”
We can only imagine how terrifying those moments were for so many who had shown up to demonstrate.
And we continue to wonder if the use of pepper spray was truly necessary.
We appreciate, though, that Berkihiser has been open about discussing that long day through the eyes of the police department. In a June 9 email statement, he wrote: “Demonstrators were shouting threats at officers, racial slurs at minority officers, among other hateful language. Officers could see armed individuals in the crowd, one in particular wearing a motorcycle helmet completely concealing his identity. Officers also identified individuals who were wearing body armor under their clothing because of the imprint it leaves on the outer shirt.”
That’s just a short excerpt from Berkihiser’s detailed statement, about which he noted, “I sincerely hope you print most of my comments ... for proper context.” His full statement can be read in Meko's online article, and we agree that it helps to provide fuller context. The full statement is within the online version of Meko’s article.
The review of what happened that day is not over. Jess King, the mayor’s chief of staff, said recently that the city cannot comment on the police use of force until finishing its investigation, “which we endeavor to have completed in a timely manner.”
We hope it is timely. And that the results are made fully available to the public.
In the meantime, it is encouraging that there hasn't been another local clash like the one on May 31. Ongoing protests in the city — and elsewhere in the county — this month have been marked by peaceful demonstrations and respectful interactions between citizens and law enforcement.
We’d like to think that lessons learned May 31 informed the approach of local police departments moving forward.
We are cautiously optimistic about new approaches being taken by police across the nation in dealing with the George Floyd protests. One example has been Camden, New Jersey. In an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Drexel University student Zane Kaleem noted: “While unrest unfolded in Philadelphia, across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, police in Camden took a different approach to the trauma and emotion being expressed. Instead of fighting back, Camden police came together with protesters to march in solidarity with black American communities. ... (Camden’s) community policing is a public health approach to public safety that tasks police and community members with collaborating to improve safety and quality of life in their neighborhoods.”
There’s the other side of the equation, too, with a praiseworthy local example. Credit is due to “the kids from the stoop,” as Lancaster city resident Dylan Scott Davis described them in an op-ed for the June 14 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline Perspective section. They are young protesters and city residents who care about making Lancaster better. They are doing their part to make sure that “agitators who seem to be white supremacists” don’t hijack peaceful demonstrations and cause harm.
“They’ve learned to check bushes for explosives and bricks, to search out other instruments of destruction left by agitators,” Davis wrote.
Their courage and devotion to both their cause and the safety of others are inspiring.
These are signs, however tenuous, that Lancaster and our nation are moving in the right direction.