Jacob Blake shooting raises equality issues anew for Columbia protesters
“I saw it on Twitter. I hate that I’m numb to it at this point, but when the (Jacob Blake) video started playing, I kind of knew how it was going to end,” recalled Kirubel Mesfin, MU student and media representative for Peoples Defense of Columbia, Missouri.
“I really wasn’t surprised,” he continued. “That just sounds like America to me.”
For some 90 days, Peoples Defense has led protests — prompted by the May 25 death of George Floyd — throughout the streets of Columbia, starting downtown and moving through surrounding neighborhoods.
For 90 days, they have chanted the litany of names of those victimized by police.
The protesters continue. They have added Blake’s name to the list of those they chant. Blake was shot seven times in the back Aug. 23 by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police while walking back to his car.
The shooting led to demonstrations in cities across the country and prompted players in professional sports leagues — the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League — to suspend games to call attention to issues of racial inequality.
“Here is a different group of officers — a different state, a different city — and the same situation. The result is almost always the same,” said Roy Lovelady, president of Peoples Defense. “It just so happens that he didn’t die this time. He is just paralyzed.”
Lovelady and Erika Lynn, vice president of Peoples Defense, were in Washington this weekend joining the annual March on Washington, where thousands gathered in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963.
“My protest does not just start and end in Missouri. I am taking it as far as possible,”
Lovelady said on being the representative of his group in Columbia.
Lynn calls for diplomatic change in policing and the legal system.
“There has to be real action taken not just to pacify us,” she said. “Every time it happens, they are like, ‘We will see what we can do now.’ But then it happens again.”
Mary Ratliff, president of the Columbia chapter of NAACP, says that police officers are afraid to step forward and afraid to lose their job when they witness police brutality.
“A culture change has to come within the police department in general,” Ratliff said. “That is what we are working on here in Columbia.”
In June, Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones made a statement about the use of force policies about officer intervention when another officer deems it necessary to use excessive force.
“Our policy requires officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force,” Jones said, as previously reported in the Missourian.
For most of those 90 days of protest in Columbia, Mesfin was on the streets.
Some nights after hours of leading the chants, he would walk back to his apartment in tears because he didn’t understand why he could not reach people. He could not understand why others did not comprehend the protesters message of “love, peace and unity.”
Some nights, he would go for midnight walks.
“Am I doing anything wrong?” Mesfin would ask himself. “What can I be doing better?” he thought. Those contemplative walks would continue till sunrise.
He says he has had to cut off friendships with those who would not get what he is trying to do, hoping someone else could help them understand.
Chanting daily in the summer heat, losing friends and trying to break down implicit bias is emotionally draining, he noted. It causes burnout, and recently he has given himself a break from the protests.
“Up until I experienced it for the first time a couple weeks ago, whenever I feel tired, (I would) think about the families of people that have been lost, like Breonna Taylor and her family, George Floyd and his family,” Mesfin said. “And that kind of just gave reason to keep going. Contrary to what I thought, it does get to the point where you need to take a step and realize it’s emotionally against you.”
But sometimes, he does connect with people. He is able to break down the political barriers.
In June, he texted all the people in his contacts who were in Columbia. He would note he hadn’t seen them at the protests and ask to talk about it with them.
“One of the people that I talked to said that they were not allowed to show political bias because they’re a journalist. And we talked about getting pulled over and compared them to mine. We talked about their experiences with college and compared them to mine,” he recalled. “You break it down long enough it’s no longer a political issue. It’s just a human issue. At that point they understood and came to a couple protests.”
A few weeks ago, Mesfin was driving the three-hour trip back from a wedding in Nixa, Missouri, in the car of someone else who was taking a nap in the passenger seat.
Pulled over along the highway, he woke up his friend asking for proof of insurance. He said the officer collected his license and registration and headed back to the patrol car to process the information while the two sat there wondering what he did wrong.
“I was not speeding. I was driving fairly well. My lights were on. It wasn’t my car, so I’m being a lot more careful when I’m driving,” Mesfin said.
Looking over to his right, he said he saw two more officers walk past the side of the car.
“I ask them, ‘Hey why is there a second car? Why are there two people aside of me?’ It was almost like they were treating it like a circus,” Mesfin said. “In my head that rubbed me the wrong way. But if I say the wrong word, put my hand in the wrong pocket, that might be it. I kind of just let that brush off.”
The officer gave him a verbal citation for “driving at various speeds.”
“For some reason they thought I was drunk. I wasn’t. I didn’t drink at all. Driving at various speed. That’s how the speed limit works. It goes up from 55 to 70 back down to 60. I was going with the speed limit,” he said. “I look that (citation) up, that doesn’t exist. So, they gave me something that doesn’t exist.”
He continued back to Columbia.
“I had a conversation with the person I was with. He was white. They were like, ‘Is this what being you is like?’” Mesfin said. “For me that’s just another thing where you move on. It was interesting to see how big of a deal it was for that person.”
“That’s just America at this point,” he said.