Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement, Black Lives Matter protests took place in cities across the U.S. to combat racism and injustice. Rochester’s own rally, like so many others nationwide, was peaceful for the vast majority of the day. But after the demonstration ended in the mid-afternoon on Saturday, May 30, the situation erupted into chaos by nightfall.
Each year, approximately 18 million events and meetings are organized in the United States. Since being founded in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has held thousands of protests across the country in order to eradicate white supremacy and take action against the violence perpetrated upon the black community.
After a recent string of incidents involving undue threats against Chris Cooper and the deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd, protestors took to the streets in major U.S. cities to take a stand. Despite the ongoing threat of coronavirus (which, like the flu, can be more severe for adults over the age of 65 but can have major health impacts for people of all ages), it’s clear that attendees felt the call to action was much more powerful than the potential for viral contamination.
In Rochester, hundreds gathered at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park to denounce police brutality and honor the victims of these recent deaths. Several speakers took the stage, after which protestors marched towards the city’s Public Safety Building. But while the mood was definitively peaceful for the first few hours of the event, things took a turn once the rally officially ended in the late afternoon. Some participants tagged light poles and other city property, while others eventually clammored aboard a Rochester Police Department car to spray paint and smash it. Later, cars were flipped over and some were set on fire. Bean bag guns, pepper balls, and tear gas was later used on the crowd, as attendees became desperate to escape.
And then came the looting.
Although there are anywhere between 2.3 million and 2.6 million robberies that take place every year in the U.S., these crimes most often take place in the cover of night. Following the protest, a group moved down to the Liberty Pole and broke into DTLR Villa, a name-brand shoe store, and effectively pillaged the shop for over an hour without police presence. Looting continued at other stores throughout the city, with threats of theft moving beyond the city center and over to areas in Greece and Irondequoit. Sirens blared and the sound of whirring helicopters could be heard by local residents for hours.
As a result of the cacophony and destruction, the city of Rochester and Monroe County as a whole were placed under a 9 pm curfew on both Saturday and Sunday nights and a state of emergency was declared. In an official statement, local leaders were unanimous in their shared belief that outsiders, rather than the black community or BLM as a movement, were responsible for the bulk of the violence and destruction that took place.
On Saturday, Lovely Warren told news media: “Outsiders — and I do mean outsiders — not from our city, not from our community, decided to set police cars on fire… Today’s actions on our streets show that the anger is real and it must be recognized and it has to be addressed.”
Warren added on Sunday morning, “These people set a trap and our community fell for it. And last night, it was our community that destroyed our neighborhoods… The Black Lives Matter people had a peaceful protest in Martin Luther King Park yesterday.”
Although many business owners tried to prepare for potential damage and looting in advance, most had no other option but to pray and brace themselves for the worst. Thousands of residents came together on Sunday morning to volunteer their assistance in the clean-up. And while there continues to be much debate on the actions of protestors and looters, even within the black community of Rochester, it’s clear that Martin Luther King Jr.’s sentiment about riots being the language of the unheard still holds water to this day.