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The crowd of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters who gathered in front of the Shasta County Courthouse Tuesday evening shared similar signs, including Let me Breathe, End Police Brutality, and Stop Violence, Be the Change. A small group of black men led the crowd in chants, including, “no justice, no peace.”
Slowly, the crowd swelled in size, from 50 to 100 to 500 or more. Exuberant yet peaceful, as the crowd increased in size, the group gradually expanded off the sidewalk and then spilled onto the street, blocking some lanes.
Most drivers adapted to the growing crowd, slowing to pass. Many drivers signaled their approval by honking. Others drove by with fists extended high from their windows in the black power symbol. Some had BLM signs hanging from their windows.
But another type of attendee began to join the protesters ranks. Men with vests, tattoos and scruffy beards soon appeared on street corners, hands in their pockets, no signs. They did not chant or sing.
I approached one group of those men and asked what brought them to the protest. “We’re here to back up the police; if called upon,” one replied. A few men said they respected the protesters, but they were concerned about possible destruction of property. They declined to give their names.
Across from the Courthouse, in front of the Christian Science Center and the Day Reporting Center, the crowd continued to grow, and included a mix of BLM protesters (easily observable by their black shirts and signs) and “observers” as they usually called themselves (some would call them counter-protesters), some had large dogs, some wore bullet-proof vests. Most of the counter-protesters were men.
By the courthouse itself, far back from the crowd, police gathered in small groups, with riot gear at the ready, and weapons at hand. I saw no interaction between these members of law enforcement and the crowd.
The peacefulness of the protest was briefly broken when a truck pulled to a stop in front of the crowd. A water bottle was thrown, the driver jumped out of his vehicle. Protesters swarmed. Observers shouted “drive, drive, drive,” and the car skidded away. I was told by these observers that the truck’s tire had been slashed by protesters, which was why he had stopped. I was unable to confirm this.
Straight across from the courthouse, but one block down, vehicles were arriving and stopping in the vicinity. Police cruised slowly past this group, too, that had gathered in the streets, the sidewalks and an empty parking lot. Most of their vehicles were trucks, many with large American flags mounted on the back. Men in camo, some with additional militaristic gear, stood around in groups.
The first man I spoke with from this group identified himself as Dan Scoville, 2nd Command, Alpha Company, California State Militia.
“I’m out of Cottonwood,” Scoville said, adding that he and his fellow militia were there to protect property and the rights of everyone to protest.
“This is about all of their rights to be here,” he said. “ Most of my guys hated what happened to George Floyd,” he said. “We understand the police officer who did it was wrong.”
It wasn’t just California State Militia in this group though, there was a mix of others. I spoke with another individual who identified himself as “American” and “pro-Trump”. He said he approved of what the protesters were doing, but added that he was also there to protect property.
“The police are happy we’re here,” he said. “They keep driving by, giving us the thumbs up.” He declined to give his name.
I spoke with another two members of the California State Militia, also from Cottonwood. They had come, one told me, because they had heard about the issues with protests in Klamath, Oregon, and they were concerned the same might happen in Redding. The counter-protesters had brought weapons. I asked if they were prepared to use their firearms.
“We shoot only in self defense,” the other man said. “And only against a weapon. That’s our orders from the CO.”
The two men said that the Sheriff had called them a half hour earlier and had asked them to “get down here now to keep the peace,” one man said. He added that the Sheriff was becoming “very concerned” about the safety of his guys.
“Woody Clendenen, our CO, got a call,” one of the men said. “The Sheriff told us where to go, to come right down here.” At that, the other militia member nudged his friend. “Too much man, too much,” he said, and the two wouldn’t speak any more after that.
Back on Court Street protesters continued to chant as small groups occasionally clashed. A woman in a Trump hat shouted at a black man, “ALL lives matter!” The man was sweating, holding his megaphone, as he calmly responded, “It’s not about that.”
Nearby a young white male barely restrained his anger. His girlfriend held him back, dragging him away from the crowd.
I spoke to him moments later, and asked him about his strong emotions. “They promote a promising sounding message,” he said. “Obviously all lives matter … but in the end ‘all lives matter’ means that they do not understand that this is a systemic issue. We give everybody their chance and now it’s the chance of under-represented minorities to have a voice. You can use my name,” he said. “Julian Durr.”
A white man who had inserted himself into the altercation between the woman in the Trump hat and the black man, also stopped to explain to me why he got involved, identifying himself as a Marine veteran.
“This is the most fierce of freedom,” he said. “It rubs me the wrong way when people come out not to support our right to protest but to get others not to protest. I served nine years in the military for this freedom.”
Dusk was falling, and back across the street, I noticed a group of young men held a large Trump flag. As the crowd chanted, “Black lives matter!” one of the young men shouted back “Black Jeeps matter!” His friends laughed, repeating the phrase. I asked why they were carrying a Trump flag at the event.
“The crowd was chanting, ‘fuck Trump,’ ” one man said. (Protesters confirmed that this was briefly chanted by part of the crowd.) “We’re here to support Trump,” he said.
Another man explained that they were there to support the National Guard in case “people mess with them.” I asked when they thought police should be allowed to use lethal use of force.
“Whenever they feel threatened in any way at all,” one said.
The crowd was huge, and the number of cars cruising past on Court Street had slowed considerably by about 9 p.m. I noticed that law enforcement were blocking off roads surrounding the area, and so I approached a group, their cars parked across the road, standing guard at Eureka Way and Court Street.
“We’re blocking the roads so people can’t get through” one officer said. “We don’t know why, we just follow orders.”
Back in front of the Courthouse, the crowd was bigger still, with more of the observers/militia in the mix. I stopped and talked to one, Jesse Lane, and asked why his group had moved from their former staging area into the crowd.
“The police are closing the roads,” he said. “They asked us to push the protesters through.”
“The police asked you to push the protesters that way?” I asked, pointing up Court Street towards Eureka Way.
“Yes” he confirmed, “And they told us we are supposed to stay on our side of the road.” But the crowd was now beginning to blend freely, and tensions were high.
I spoke with Brandon, a young black man who wore a bulletproof vest and held his hands up in surrender throughout much of the protest. Was the vest for safety, or a statement, I asked him.
“Of course both,” he said. I asked if the protest was going as well as he’d hoped, and how did he feel about the police closing of the road.
“It’s only what we expected,” he said. “But it’s going very well. We’re together cheering.”
Then, suddenly, the protesters began to walk. They moved forward, crossing Tehama Street and heading north toward Shasta Street. They chanted and sang, mostly on their side of the street, even singing the National Anthem at one point.
The observers/militia, mostly on the other side of the street, pushed forward, too, but much more slowly.
“What are we supposed to do now?” asked one observer/militiaman, “Chase them down?”
The protesters walked up the block, then halted abruptly as black leaders shouted, “Stop! Let’s get down on one knee!” They had stopped approximately one block from a line of police in riot gear, blocking the road. The protesters dropped to their knees, chanting, then, at the instruction of their leaders, laid down prone as they continued to chant.
Police faced them. Impassive. A few protesters, perhaps heading for their vehicles, tried to cross the police line and were turned back. “No one gets behind us,” one officer said.
When I asked why, the officer said, “Because we’re not letting anyone down this way.” And when I asked the reason why nobody was being allowed to go that way, the officer said, “Because we don’t want them coming this way.”
It was at that moment when I began to feel certain about something: The police had won. They had blocked the BLM group in, and they had closed off their access to demonstrate in front of the public. There was nowhere to go, and little for the protesters to do, because a group of police and other law enforcement were to the protesters’ north, and the large collection of counter-protesters were to the protesters’ south. The protesters, seemingly at a loss for several moments, then began chanting, “Walk with us!” to the police.
After several tense moments, a member of law enforcement stepped forward, out of the line, and toward the protesters, drawing cheers. The crowd surrounded him, hugging and applauding. Several white men, observer types, began discussing the situation with several black leaders. And although some of the black leaders appeared hesitant at first, an agreement was made to have five members of law enforcement march with the people back to the courthouse where they would disperse.
As protesters responded to the shouted instructions of leaders to “move onto the sidewalks!” and “start moving that way!”, the wall of police closed in on the protesters from behind. A line of law enforcement in riot gear and police vehicles, one with a barking dog, followed the group back toward the courthouse.
“No one gets behind the line!” one officer shouted at protesters who tried to walk past them, presumably toward their vehicles.
“They’re herding us!” shouted one young protester. “Why are we letting them herd us?”
He was mostly ignored, but I couldn’t help but feel that he had it very right. Somehow the police had won the photo op AND the battle. Why? Probably because they get to make up the rules as they go, closing streets, blocking access to public places, and coordinating with local militia for backup.
While the protesters were pushed forward by the line of police in riot gear, observers/militia were not pushed forward. Instead, the counter-protesters continued to line the sidewalk, as first the protesters and then the police passed. I stopped and asked several of them why the police wasn’t making the counter-protesters stay in front, as the protesters were being forced to do. “Respectfully, no comment,” one responded. “I’m not authorized to answer that,” said another.
Once the protesters reached the courthouse with police escort, within moments the crowd had dispersed. BLM protesters in small groups headed every way down streets, while observers/militia high-fived each other and moved toward their vehicles.
“This is going to make national news” one of the militiamen said. “What happened in our city was amazing!”
It may make national news, but if so, only because it tells the same age-old story that Americans love to hear: Blacks and their allies may protest, just as long as they follow the rules, and as long as they remember that they are not in charge, not even for a moment. And here in Redding, blacks and their supporters may protest, just as long as they submit to the police, and as long as they allow themselves to be herded.
False justice, false peace.