In most cases, protests started peacefully during the day, but as night fell and many protesters dispersed, looting and rampage began. I saw protest organizers in Los Angeles urge people to go home after the protest and explicitly condemn looting or violence. But some protest rhetoric and the vulgar graffiti some spray on walls—full of profanity and urging people to kill cops—send mixed messages to the public. I heard one man tell his friends, “We should burn all this [expletive] down.” Another man said he wished someone would shoot police officers dead, because “all cops are pigs.”
With emotions running high, one challenge for protest leaders is maintaining unity and focus with diverse groups of protesters who have different motivations.
That’s what Elevn St. James, 43, is trying to address in his “No More Names” protests in downtown LA. As a black man who grew up in LA, he said he’s experienced racism since he was 6 and still does. But he saw a lack of leadership in the protests, and also saw how quickly they can escalate into violence when an already distrustful crowd faces a line of police officers with riot helmets and batons. One belligerent action from either side could unleash terror. So each time someone began screaming at the cops during a protest on May 31 in downtown LA, he jumped forward and reminded the crowd: “Peaceful protest! Don’t give the police any more ammunition to hurt us!”
When one protester started tagging the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, St. James yanked the spray can away from him and disavowed his behavior in front of the crowd. Then he turned to the officers behind him and said: “This is what accountability is. This is what we expect from you.” He asked them to take a knee to show solidarity with protesters, but the officers refused, saying they had orders. “The police department is more outraged against the looting and the rioting than they are to the murders happening against black and brown people not only in LA, but all over the country,” St. James said.
Still, many police officers across the country—chiefs of some of the largest departments in the United States—have publicly condemned the actions of the four Minneapolis police officers in the Floyd tragedy. In many areas, officers also displayed support by marching alongside protesters or kneeling in solidarity. Even Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said she thinks “people’s minds are changing, hearts are changing.”
At a June 3 protest in Hollywood, where more than a thousand mostly young people gathered to demonstrate, I saw 26-year-old actress Keke Palmer passionately exhorting three National Guard members to march with them: “We have people here that need your help. This is when y’all stand together with the community, with society, to stop governmental oppression.”