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Hijacked: How a peaceful protest turned ugly

Patti Singer

Volunteers for the cleanup after the May 30 unrest get supplies. An estimated 2,000 Monroe County residents fanned out across city neighborhoods. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Sounds on the afternoon of May 30 of people applauding speakers and calls for justice and the end to racism were replaced within hours by shattering glass and shrieking sirens as a peaceful protest to honor Gerald Floyd and others across the nation killed by police turned into a trail of destruction along the business corridors of many city neighborhoods.

On May 31, those sounds were the swishing of brooms against broken glass and debris, rakes scraping grass and pavement and chatter as residents of the city and county working together to clean up after hours of looting and vandalism.

“The 2,000 people who came out here to help clean up the damage and help businesses get back on their feet, that is what our community is about,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said May 31 as people streamed to Frontier Field to collect supplies for the task.

Remembering George Floyd

The rally organized by Black Lives Matter started at 1 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Park to honor Floyd. The video of him in police custody — telling an officer kneeling on his neck and others standing by, that he can’t breathe — galvanized anti-racism protests.

The event in Rochester went on peacefully for several hours and included a march.

By 4 p.m., many people were headed home, and a different temperament took over.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter said on May 30 and clarified remarks the next day that the perpetrators of the violence were not associated with organizers of the Black Lives Matter event.

“The protest was hijacked,” Baxter said May 31, against a backdrop of people streaming to Frontier Field to gather equipment to help clean up neighborhoods victimized by unruliness.

“At the (police) academy, we teach a class called civil disorder and crowd control,” Baxter said. “It talks about a peaceful demonstration or any other crowd that gathers and how that can turn into a mob and how a mob can turn into a riotous situation. What it take is agitators to agitate the crowd intentionally. And then you have a crowd mentality. When that occurs and there’s an act of violence, you take that mob mentality into a riotous situation. I think I’m describing (Saturday) night. Hijacking a good cause intentionally to cause a mob and then a riotous situation.”

From peace to chaos

An overturned car in a parking lot on Exchange Boulevard May 30, 2020. File photo

Warren said that after the peaceful rally, individuals changed the focus. A mob descended on the Public Safety Building, where police cars were burned, other cars were overturned and burned, and a memorial to fallen firefighters was defaced.

Baxter and Singletary said on May 31 that law enforcement “held” the Public Safety Building. Singletary said the goal of the agitators was to spread police resources.

The unruliness spilled into commercial districts.

“These people set a trap,” Warren said of the agitators, “and our community fell in it.”

Warren asserted that Black Lives Matter organizers tried to stop the misdirection. The mayor did not say whether the instigators were from Rochester. She said on May 31 that police had not yet run the information that they had. However, 13 people were arrested after events on May 30.

On June 1, Rochester Police sent a news release seeking the identities of five individuals who were pictured in or near the destruction taking place at the Public Safety Building.

The city and county declared 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfews on the nights of May 30 and 31. Law enforcement from throughout the county helped RPD, and 200 State Troopers patrolled on the night of May 31.

The Rochester Fire Department answered more than 90 calls May 30. RFD reported one injury – a firefighter hurt by broken glass.

Taking the bait

Warren said the agitators started the incendiary tactics.

“When they decided to light police cars on fire and deface our police building and go into the neighborhoods, we followed,” she said. “(Saturday night) it was our community that destroyed our neighborhoods. That destroyed the places where our grandmothers and our mothers go get food and buy clothes for their children.”

Warren said the people that started the trouble should be held accountable, “along with those that took the bait and started to loot and destroy the communities all across our city.”

Warren said her cousin works at a Family Dollar that was ransacked and the woman doesn’t know if she will have a job.

“… (T)he people that own those businesses and chose to invest in many of our challenged neighborhoods, they chose to do that. And how do we pay them back. By going and destroying our own. By taking out where we go.”

Did history repeat?

The aftermath of the May 30 unrest led to comparisons to Rochester’s riots in 1964.

Vince Felder, leader of the Democratic Caucus in the Monroe County Legislature, said that events weren’t the same. Felder participated in the peaceful rally and as he stood at the Public Safety Building later that evening and looked at burned out cars and fire trucks still on the scene said outside agitators brought about the damage.

But, he said that the community has to guard against the frustrations that led to the 1964 riots.

City Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot, speaking June 1, said some of the issues from 60 years ago persist.

“The thing they were screaming about for justice,” he said of Rev. Franklin Florence and his colleagues, “was jobs, housing, education. If you look at 2020, those are the same problems that we have within our community. There’s a lack of jobs. The education system is in disarray. Very few people of color own their own home or own a business in our community.”

Lightfoot said the city has programs to help people with home ownership and to encourage entrepreneurship.

What now?

Rev. Lewis Stewart on June 1, 2020 addresses the vandalism that diverted attention from what had started as a peaceful protest on May 30. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“The looting, vandalism does no honor to George Floyd’s memory,” the Rev. Lewis Stewart said June 1 at a news conference that had been planned before the weekend’s events.

He said the initial rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Park was diverse and a call for justice. He said the criminal violence and vandalism that transpired overshadowed that rally.

“Nihilism, chaos never leads to effective social change,” he said. “… Effective change results in tearing down racism.”

Stewart, head of the United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York, called for activism to follow protests. He urged people to get involved in UCLM’s Community Justice Board, which monitors policies around police body-worn cameras; to help organize community-police summits, and to register to vote.

He also said the community “has to put its house in order” and called on more ministers to address what he called a moral sickness.

“They are supposed to be healers of the community,” he said. “Their voices are muted. They’re not saying what they should be saying, they’re not standing up for righteousness, they’re not standing up for justice. They’re not out here making their voices heard. They need to stop hiding behind the pulpit, stop hiding behind the Bible and come out and do something about the disintegration of our community.”

About 75 demonstrators rallied at the Hall of Justice June 1, 2020. Monroe County Undersheriff Korey Brown talks about watching out for their safety. Video by Patti Singer Media for Minority Reporter Media Group