After racist rally, scale of police intervention questioned

Kalamazoo police initially took a hands off approach to a white supremacist rally and subsequent fighting over the weekend, a different tactic from mostly nonviolent protests against institutionalized racism in law enforcement three months ago that were closely monitored by dozens of police and then tear gassed.

Scores of Kalamazoo residents and visiting opponents of a racist group’s rally downtown forced the organizers, calling themselves “Proud Boys”, out of town after a short march and clashes.

Nine people were arrested, none believed to be part of the Proud Boys group, some of whom city officials also said spent the night prior at local hotels.

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The police response was criticized for not shutting down the white supremacists’ march and rally immediately after the violence began, and for the differing approach taken when policing recent anti-racism Black Lives Matters protests compared to the Proud Boys, whose ideology — against Jews, Muslims, and immigrants and in favor of white supremacy — is rooted in violence against people and into which their protests have historically devolved.

“Once the event turned violent, the officers responded quickly and restored order. To restore order to the area, the officers declared a police zone and dispersed the crowds,” the city of Kalamazoo said in statement around 6:30 p.m. Saturday night. 

NowKalamazoo pieced together a timeline based on accounts by our own reporters on the scene, other eyewitness accounts, and video recordings including some that were posted online in near-real time on social media.

There was nearly an hour between the time the first fights broke out and when Proud Boys had returned to their vehicles and left, at which time the police began arresting counter-protesters as it secured the downtown area. 

The group had already marched, fought, and rallied, however, underscoring the difficulty city police seem to be having in determining the use- and show-of-force proportionate to the threat to the public when large crowds are gathered.

The Proud Boys racist group marches prior to clashing with opponents on Aug. 15, 2020 in downtown Kalamazoo.

Police did not immediately intervene and were not visibly seen when fighting first broke out Saturday afternoon in the streets adjacent to the Arcadia Creek Festival Place —  the original location of the rally before a local church strategically reserved it for an all-day prayer event. 

The police plan for the Saturday rally was to watch events unfold nearby so as not to escalate tension with their presence, and then deploy strategically positioned forces when violence began, said Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) Chief Karianne Thomas at a press conference Sunday.

When the Proud Boys started their march a half hour earlier than expected, fighting with counter-protesters soon began, and police were forced to begin before everyone was in place, Thomas said.

Thomas said there was at least one officer in a strategic high “sniper” position, and almost as soon as the group turned on Water Street toward the festival site, an undercover police car was behind it. Fighting began within minutes, and the Proud Boys group was seen using what appeared to be pepper spray.

City officers eventually began moving toward the skirmishes, which then stopped as counter-protesters pulled back and the white supremacist group marched to Bronson Park.

It’s at this time that a police zone was imposed, Thomas said Sunday. There were 111 members of law enforcement from five jurisdictions called, including state police, county sheriff, and other local forces, who were setting up the perimeter of the police zone as KDPS worked inside.

The Proud Boys group walked past the Radisson Hotel waving American and their own flags, chanting racist slogans, yelling about re-taking control of city streets. There were frequent Trump flags, hats, and chants seen in the crowd as well. 

Pepper spray was used again during a confrontation while crossing Rose Street toward Bronson Park.

Both “Proud Boys” and some counter-protesters utilized weapons, Thomas said. Video of events shows an organized white-supremacist group tactically engaging in violence and then retreating into a loose formation while marching, including shooting pepper spray or some other irritant. Thomas said city police did not utilize tear gas.

The police presence grew as the white supremacist group was in Bronson Park for a short speech before returning to cars in the parking garage across the street from the Radisson Hotel. Police prevented counter-protesters from entering, and secured the exits where vehicles — some without license plates — are believed to have then left the vicinity. Thomas said they could not perform traffic stops on non-licensed vehicles during the operation since they were focused on re-imposing order downtown.

At this time, the enlarging security forces’ focus had turned on those remaining anti-white supremacist protesters. This is when arrests were made, including a clearly identified reporter from MLive, for which Thomas publicly apologized and said all charges were dropped. 

“Many of the things occurred after the Proud Boys were out of town, but we still had a chaotic situation caused by the Proud Boys,” Thomas said. “We needed to restore order.”

Concerned with the way police treated counter-protesters and the “Proud Boys”, around 50 people relocated outside the KDPS headquarters with signs against white supremacy, and then around 10 p.m. protesters started blocking traffic at various intersections on Michigan Ave,  until around 12:30 a.m., demanding to talk to police about their response on Saturday.

Some members of the late night protest group were invited to the Sunday press conference to ask questions and voice concerns.

“What does accountability look like from last night?,” said Khadijah Brown, one of the half dozen members of the public invited to attend the press conference. “Accountability for KDPS not responding to the citizens of Kalamazoo wanting to have a conversation about the lack of urgency to protect those who were in turn protecting the image of Kalamazoo by saying ‘hate isn’t welcome here’.”

The Proud Boys claim to not be racist, but rather promote “western values” as a superior way of life and claim to be defending the United States as the upholder of such values. People who show up and are organizing their rallies are members or espouse values of white supremacists and other types of hate groups, the symbols of which are common at their often violent rallies. They had a significant presence at the ultra-racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017, which led to the killing of one protester. The Anti-Defamation League has called the Proud Boys “an unconventional strain of American right-wing extremism” and the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies it as a hate group.

Posters for the rally began circulating online three weeks ago, with rallying cries about coming into Kalamazoo in order to protect the city against “leftists” and “liberals”, and claiming to be against people who are protesting against fascism and in support of the police.

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