Published June 3rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM5 minute read
The sound of glass shattering competes with my own hurried steps hoofing it through the Country Club Plaza, anxious to reach my car.
A plume of tear gas, not the first nor the last of the night, floats behind me as I head west through the center of the shopping district.
Those streets comprise only a few city blocks. But they’re so laced with my family’s and Kansas City’s history that emotion could have overtaken me in that moment, not the noxious fumes. And most certainly not the other people running with me.
I had a head start. Moments before, those running behind me had been among a group of marchers circling the area, protesting not only the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but so, so much more.
This was Saturday night in Kansas City, my lifelong home.
Something shifted Saturday night.
The air surrounding police and protesters felt different — tense, buzzed.
By that point, people were well aware that many American cities were burning. They had watched the 24/7 news coverage, including the inhumane footage of the last moments of Floyd’s life.
Floyd had been trapped, handcuffed and face down with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, now stands accused of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Three other officers were present while Floyd died. They have not been formally accused of a crime.
(Update: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced Wednesday that charges against Chauvin are being upgraded to second-degree murder, and that the other three officers are expected to be criminally charged.)
Like elsewhere, people absorbed the aerial views of the waves of people marching in outrage through America’s streets and made individual and very conscious efforts to join in — or sit it out.
On Friday, there had been a sense of order about things near Mill Creek Park. Faceoffs carried on for hours. A line of police stood nearly chest to chest with a line of protesters who alternatively chanted, taunted or at times held substantial conversations with individual officers in the area.
Saturday night, the crowd milled. It was a different vibe.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith paced the street just west of the Cheesecake Factory, just as he did during part of the night before. He was intent, watching everything.
Smith has not been, as he’s been accused, in some secret command bunker, inaccessible to the officers under his command.
But he wasn’t barking orders. He seemed nearly paternal at some crucial moments, bending in, speaking closely with one officer among a group that was readied with gas masks and riot shields at their knee.
Canisters of tear gas soon launched.
People screamed, some ran toward the park, but then, for the most part, regrouped. Some, but not all, decided to begin marching north, toward Westport and Downtown.
A pattern had begun.
Public protests are not new to policing. Not here, not anywhere in the United States.
The split screen reality that is Kansas City understandably confuses its citizens. It’s like a Rorschach test, tapping our life experiences, prodding our prejudices, encouraging what we wish to emphasize, to avoid, to believe.
One minute, police stand as protectors. They block traffic, open streets for marchers, declare that they’ll stay all day, every day to guarantee citizens their right to protest peacefully.
Some take a knee and congenially hold up signs that encapsulate the point of this moment in history — “Black Lives Matter.”
But seemingly in the next moment, they use pepper spray to cull people from a line of protesters — a spray that rarely only affects one person. They release flash-bangs to scatter some of those same fellow Kansas Citians. The roar resonates into Hyde Park and Brookside.
The competing scenes have gone on for days.
Kansas City had the luxury of time during one of the most recent episodes of mass public outrage with policing. It was after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, a beating of an African American man by Los Angeles police. He lived. But the police were acquitted of what Americans knew they had seen in the film footage.
The nation erupted in response. Sections of Los Angeles burned.
In Kansas City, a public rally was carefully planned, where people took a microphone and spoke for hours and hours. Police, in concert with then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver, spent days behind the scenes deciding what the visible police presence would look like. Images of a militarized force were to be avoided.
It was a different era in other ways too. Police had more latitude to legally remove firearms from people they thought might be incited to violence. Deep relationships with religious and social justice leadership were tapped. Street activists spent days meeting with young black men, listening to their frustrations about police, about simply being African American in Kansas City.
Then everyone went home, and not a lot changed, especially this core truth: Black men keep dying at horrifyingly disproportionate rates.
The widespread use of cell phones now yields evidence, at times indicting police, at times exonerating them.
Protesters now call out names brought to prominence by recent cases of black people’s deaths by bullets shot by police, or fatalities that occurred while in police custody.
There’s a vocabulary to it: “I can’t breathe” and “don’t shoot.”
George Floyd’s death adds “mechanical asphyxiation” to that grim lexicon.
Kansas City, on both sides of the state line, has its own list of names to be recited and written on poster boards: Ryan Stokes, Terrance Bridges, Cameron Lamb, Donnie Sanders.
It’s cumulative, a pain rolling down through generations, a grief that might not even carry a specific name or a face.
My list includes Antoine Weatherspoon. Antoine, a Kansas City, Kansas 15-year-old, was found dead after being chased by police in 1985, when I was a cub reporter. Years later, fate and the interconnectedness of Kansas City intervened. One of Antoine’s childhood buddies became my friend, my partner in guiding a youth leadership camp.
Disrespect and disregard for African American life is rooted in our national history, and is ruthlessly persistent.
Likewise, the righteous fury about that fact cannot be contained or satiated by an extended period of marching, by a few opportunities to throw F-bombs at a line of police or spray paint the sentiment as “F12.”
As the days wear on, the marchers increasingly discuss this. The police know it too.
By Tuesday afternoon, a new approach emerges. Police won’t be automatically lining up along Mill Creek Park near the Plaza.
Absent the confrontational approach, it remains to be seen what will transpire, who will keep showing up and why.
Laundry lists are offered of more tangible fixes: body cams, returning local control of the Board of Police Commissioners and the somewhat nebulous term of accountability. When asked, that means very different things to different people.
Besides, police in Kansas City, in virtually every American city, are products of systems that predate their service and may flow well past their retirement. Culture fights reform, no matter how well-intentioned.
Younger people of all races, by far the most numerous among protesters by day and night, are more apt to speak in general terms of reconciliation, of more equality and less strife for black people.
One young woman, aged 22 and white, was among the last to leave Monday night.
She had been at the protests every night. And she vowed to keep showing up.
By 11 p.m., two young people stood adamantly in the middle of the street next to Mill Creek Park, which had been blocked from traffic. They had been warned repeatedly that the gathering had been deemed unlawful. Fireworks and glass had been lobbed at the line of police previously by a crowd that had left.
Finally, a group of officers simply walked towards the two in the street. They moved on, leaving the scene. The line of police soon dispersed, concluding the night’s drama.
As she headed back to her home near Westport, this young mother said what she desires isn’t specifically about how police treat people, but how their behavior reflects society.
“People deserve to be happy,” she said. ”They shouldn’t have to be scared.”
Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer.