When a long and tumultuous evening of protests against American police violence ended close to 3 a.m. in central Oklahoma City, more than a dozen people had been arrested, a handful of businesses had been vandalized and police had repeatedly fired tear gas into crowds of aggrieved individuals in an effort to make them disperse.
“What’s happening tonight — damage to small businesses, damage to public property — that is unacceptable,” OKC Mayor David Holt said after midnight in a live interview broadcast on News 9. “[This rally] was organized by people we don’t know, and that caused concern all day long.”
Frustrated by watching years’ worth of national examples of police violence against minorities, hundreds of Oklahomans shut down a 10-lane intersection around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 30, and marched to OKCPD’s downtown headquarters for a showdown with officers.
“Everyone is fed up with the bullshit,” a local rap artist and business owner who goes by the name O.G. FloBama said around 10:15 p.m. as a diverse group of men, women and children blocked traffic in the intersection of Northwest 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard. “There is a whole white coalition against this (police violence) shit, and that make me the proudest American I can be.”
‘I’m getting a little worried, too’
If I’m being honest, I was more worried than proud Saturday evening. While I recognize the undeniable fact that worry and fear are disproportionately felt by American minorities when they interact with police, that meaningful message sometimes felt out of balance as I watched frustrated drivers shout, honk, burn rubber and speed around a human blockade filled on and off by dozens of children. The risk for impending tragedy was real.
“I’m getting a little worried, too,” a woman named Londa Meekins told me from the sidewalk. “The kids (are) in the middle of the street.”
A native of Clinton who emphasized her pride in Oklahoma, Meekins was one of the people OKC Mayor David Holt said he “didn’t know,” and neither he nor police department representatives nor other establishment figures were around to meet her before Saturday night turned sour after sundown.
Meekins had helped spearhead the evening’s show of civil disobedience after watching similar rallies in American cities earlier in the week. The tragic death of 46-year-old George Floyd at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25 had sparked a series of demonstrations across the country. Several had become violent in a manner that left black leaders bemoaning extra agitation they believed was being added from outside their communities. White people had been recorded smashing windows on videos broadcast nationwide under the purported auspices of Black Lives Matter, an official organization whose OKC chapter has its own rally scheduled for today at 2:30 p.m.
While BLM OKC is known for its peaceful protests, Saturday night’s OKC demonstration mirrored events in other cities this week: Most attendees pushed for peaceful demonstration; police clashed with small groups; some in the crowd advocated violence and caused harm to local storefronts.
As Holt told a live television audience that he and his police force did not know people like Meekins, the mother of five who once lived in a motel said she did not know who some of the more aggressive rally-goers were.
“Fuck the city of Oklahoma!” a man screamed while waving a sign in the middle of the intersection.
From the sidewalk, Meekins and others laughed.
“Man, don’t fuck the city of Oklahoma,” a man yelled back.
Meekins shook her head.
“He ain’t from here,” she said. “He can’t be because we don’t talk like that. If you’re Oklahoma, you’re Oklahoma no matter what. It’s not ‘fuck our city,’ it’s ‘fuck what they are trying to do to the people of our city.’ That’s what they’re tired of. I’m proud of Oklahoma. I’ve been all over this world, and I let everybody know I’m from Oklahoma.”
‘They had their knee on his neck’
At 8:15 p.m. as tensions flared between protesting citizens and Oklahoma City police roughly a mile from my house, I found my camera rolling and my body somewhat between the police and the protestors — two groups of frustrated humans.
“You go, we go!” a man screamed from my right.
To my left, an officer holding a taser raised his other hand in acknowledgment: “We’re going to back out.”
Eventually they did, but not before taking away the man who a pair of OKCPD officers had grabbed and tackled two minutes before as he walked north along Classen Boulevard toward the intense intersection.
When members of the crowd saw the arrest in progress, many ran south to confront and record the scene. Anger built as an officer briefly held the man’s neck to the ground with his knee, an image eerily reminiscent of the infamous video of George Floyd, who died after being knelt on by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer who was subsequently fired and charged with murder.
With my phone in one hand and my press badge raised in the other, I captured the take down and arrest of the man seen in the video above. Less than an hour earlier, I had read how three journalists were injured in a Pittsburgh protest. Friday, a Louisville TV crew was shot with pepper balls. Thursday, a CNN reporter was arrested in Minneapolis.
“Don’t let it get any worse!” I said perilously to the protesters on my right and the police on my left.
I desperately did not want to see the night and my neighborhood erupt into dangerous chaos. Couldn’t we have productive conversations? Couldn’t we avoid the agony other cities were facing? Shouldn’t we be talking about the tough topics at the root of this civil unrest?
For whatever reason, I saw no city leaders present early Saturday night to have those conversations. Indeed, as officers made good on their word and departed the 23rd Street and Classen intersection for more than two hours, I was left to reassure the sister and wife of Aaron Snyder, the man the world had just seen get arrested.
I said I would seek a police report, and I said I would make sure police knew I knew his name — an awkward offering of my white (journalist?) privilege intended to signal acknowledgment of a sad reality: American families routinely worry that black men taken into police custody may never reappear alive.
“They double-teamed him and put him on the ground, and they had their knee on his neck,” said Heather Snyder, the man’s wife.
Kendra Berry, who carried a sign saying “not my son,” described her emotions after watching her brother’s arrest.
“Pure anger. This is nonsense. None of this is necessary,” she said.
Berry’s brother and Snyder’s husband had apparently been sought by police for his role in an initial clash between officers and protestors shortly before 8 p.m. Ben Felder of The Frontier captured some of that interaction in a video he posted to Twitter. In it, the same man arrested above can be seen in the initial scrum:
Police using force to clear the intersection pic.twitter.com/FGhjKuMN1q
— Ben Felder (@benfelder_okc) May 31, 2020
Snyder was one of 13 people arrested before 10 p.m., according to Sgt. Gary Knight, an OKCPD public information officer. He said three officers were injured, but none seriously.
“We have identified those people who were becoming violent, hitting cars that were going by, becoming major agitators to the event. We went in and removed those 13 people,” Knight said. “At that point, we stayed until we made sure the intersection was shut down. We didn’t want anyone to get hit by a car. It’s a big intersection. Once it was clear that the main people that were causing the problems were removed from the crowd, we backed off to let them do their marching — let them demonstrate.”
Berry said Sunday morning that she was having difficulty finding a bond company willing to help provide bail for her brother.
‘This isn’t supposed to happen’
Indeed, OKCPD essentially vanished from the intersection of Northwest 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard for about two hours, regrouping at their downtown police station where the protest eventually culminated in a crescendo of flash grenades, rubber bullets, beanbags and tear gas between midnight and 3 a.m.
As hundreds of protestors marched and drove two miles from 23rd and Classen to the downtown police station, a few buildings had their windows broken in. Around 11 p.m., Gannon Mendez arrived at the brick building he and his family have been working to turn into a pizza restaurant.
“Our ultimate dream that my family and I have had is to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” Mendez said. “We came across this place about a year ago and have slowly been trying to transform it in and doing a lot of work. You can at least see a lot of the plumbing work and other things.”
Mendez said he has insurance on the leased property, and he praised News 9 for streaming coverage of the night’s chaotic events. He said he and his family began crying when the anticipated permanent location for their Saucee Sicilian food truck was vandalized while they watched from home.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “I understand protesting. I understand being nice and protesting in the right way. I had nothing to do with this.”
Holt agreed with Mendez’s sentiment.
“Damage to public property is not acceptable,” Holt proclaimed on live TV, noting Clara Luper’s 26 arrests in the early 1960s. “It is not in the proud tradition of civil rights protests in this city.”
Mendez said Oklahomans and Americans need to foster positive dialogue about racial injustice and “talk about the uncomfortable part.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. Everyone has something that has gone against them. How are you going to get through it? How are you going to get through it as a family, a community, a nation? We are at those crossroads right now, and we’ve got to try to figure out how,” Mendez said. “But without it and without conversating and pushing that envelope to see what exactly is wrong, why is there so much tension that I don’t know about — I would love to be educated more. But I think being able to talk and being educated on it is what we need at this time.”
‘It’s already bad for us’
If Mendez wants more conversating, he might find it from T. Sheri Dickerson, a local activist who serves as the director for Black Lives Matter OKC. Saturday night before any windows were broken, I found her in the middle of the Classen intersection worried about middle-school-aged children who were also occupying the pavement.
I told her I was worried about frustrated motorists who were beginning to peel out around the crowd more frequently.
“I am too,” she said, before offering perspective as a black woman. “But it’s already bad for us.”
Dickerson said she had been helping organize Sunday’s BLM event but had not been involved with orchestrating Saturday’s, though she had met Meekins. Dickerson agreed it was surprising to see OKCPD abandon the area and unblock traffic from all four directions with children in the busy street.
“It is concerning that they are not here,” she said.
O.G. FloBama was more focused on who was at the rally: hundreds of Oklahomans fed up with racial injustice and pernicious policing practices — and numerous white allies.
“I’m a gangster. I’ve been a gangster my whole life. But through reformation and God working through me, some time he told me to put myself in harm’s way,” FloBama said. “You all don’t have to be out here. You could be at home watching it on TV. But you all brought your whole lives out here. I don’t know what’s coming from around the corner, so I got to love you all for that. And I have to let my people who aren’t educated know they better love you back for that. We’ve got to let racism off the hook. We have to clear America’s whole account on racism because you all are stepping out here today and showing that you love us. The bible says you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t love us. So we can’t deny that ever again. We can always go back to this, that eight out of 10 white people showed us that they cared what happened to us.”
One of those white people was a representative of the Oklahoma People’s Party who would only identify himself as Matt. (Using a GoGetFunding.com account, a man named Matt Daniel created a fundraiser for the Oklahoma People’s Party, which describes itself as a “Marxist feminist party” with a platform that is “explicitly decolonial in nature.”)
“One of the uniting things about all of this is we all give a shit about justice. And right now, it’s not here,” Matt said. “For a split second, the police thought that they were going to overcome the will of the people. And they were mistaken, so they backed up.”
The Oklahoma People’s Party flag features a hammer and sickle, the historic symbol representing solidarity with the proletariat, adopted during the Russian Revolution and used by the defunct Soviet Union.
The flag’s presence befuddled many onlookers, as well as TV anchors and helicopter pilots who struggled to reconcile the night’s narratives.
“We want the poor and working class everyday Oklahoman to know they are being shortchanged by the rich and the powerful. These cops, they don’t work for the people,” Matt said. “They serve and protect the interests of capital, big government and the aristocracy. Real justice comes when the people are in charge of it. Not when the justice is something that is mediated from the capitalist class down to the people. There is never going to be justice in that.”
‘We gonna do this, and we gonna vote!’
Regardless of what people might think of Matt’s ethos, his words emphasized an observation I’d already had about Saturday night’s crowd: It seemed heavily blue collar, a segment of Oklahoma with whom our civic and thought leaders struggle to connect. Likewise, working-class Americans struggle to find representation in their state and federal governments.
Booming his voice through a megaphone, O.G. FloBama reminded the assembled masses about #Election2020.
“We gonna do this, and we gonna vote!” he proclaimed.
FloBama handed the megaphone to a woman who said she was from Minnesota and asked the audience to stay focused on the message of justice.
“(Other places) are fucking up,” she said. “Let’s have a peaceful protest.”
As the woman spoke to the crowd, FloBama wiped sweat from his brow and told me President Donald Trump “is really helping things,” intentionally or otherwise.
“Because he is an absolute asshole, he’s doing things that no other president would have did,” FloBama said. “Even though he’s done a lot of bad shit, we’re going to take the good shit just like we have with every other president.”
But instead of diving deeper into political analysis of the 2020 election, FloBama turned his focus back to Saturday night’s crowd — before it marched south to the police station and encountered a wall of officers and tear gas.
“I think there is something spiritual going on. These people aren’t just standing there. They’re experiencing this. Their energy, their emotion is involved,” he said. “There is a movement all over the world. You aren’t going to see yesterday no more — it’s out of our reach. The system that drove us here is broken down, but we’re going to survive it though. We’re better than any roaches. We’re human beings. We’re going to be here no matter what happens and we’re going to live. I believe when they move these evil people out of the way they’re going to leave the lights on for us.