'My Faith in This World Is Gone.' For Protesters Injured by Police, There's No Real RecoveryHistorians in the News
tags: police brutality, Protest
Ellen Urbani shook her head in disbelief as she scanned the cobwebbed shelves of her suburban garage, looking for items that might protect her at a Black Lives Matter protest. “This is absurd,” she thought. “I can’t believe I let people talk me into thinking I need this stuff.”
She dusted off her son’s snowboard helmet and hooked it onto a backpack that held her daughter’s swim goggles, her asthma respirator and a change of clothes in case the long-sleeved yellow V-neck she was wearing burned off from chemical gas. She scribbled her husband’s name and phone number on her thigh in permanent marker, in the event she became incapacitated. With her auburn hair braided into pigtails, the 51-year-old author then left the safety of her 43-acre farm outside Portland, Ore., on July 24 to link arms with hundreds of other mothers demanding justice for George Floyd.
By midnight, Urbani says, federal agents had enveloped the protesters in a cloud of gas, and flash grenades exploded. Projectiles as big as softballs began to fly. As the women around her choked and vomited from the fumes and as bodies began crashing into each other, Urbani reminded herself that she’s “just a mom,” a law-abiding former Peace Corps volunteer and a threat to no one. “Then I felt my bone break,” says Urbani. “It felt like being hit by a 90-m.p.h. baseball.”
While taking part in the largest sustained social justice mobilization in modern U.S. history, dozens of people have been beaten with batons, hit by cars, doused in pepper spray and critically wounded by rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and other police weapons. More than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. have been peaceful, according to an analysis of more than 7,750 demonstrations from May 26 to Aug. 22 by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Even so, at least 115 protesters were shot in the head, face and neck with various projectiles, including bullets and tear gas canisters, from May 26 to July 27, according to a report by Physicians for Human Rights. The nonprofit health-advocacy group compiled its data from news and medical reports, social media posts and lawsuits.
Recent accounts of police aggression mirror those seen multiple times in American history, according to historian and author Heather Ann Thompson, who studies 1960s and ’70s policing and protest movements. Her book, Blood in the Water, about the Attica, N.Y., prison uprising, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History. “There’s a long, long history of this,” says Thompson, citing the 1968 protest at the Democratic National Convention and a massacre that same year in Orangeburg, S.C., in which law enforcement killed three students and wounded more than two dozen others during a civil rights protest. “The level of violence that police officers have used throughout history, against people exercising their constitutional right to protest, is really quite staggering,” she says.
What’s new, Thompson says, is that police are militarized, often with surplus U.S. Army equipment designed for use in wars of occupation. And in 2020, police actions, and those of white, far-right groups claiming to want to protect businesses and towns from protesters, have been emboldened by a sitting U.S. President, she says. “None of these other presidents would have verbally celebrated white-vigilante, racist violence the way that Donald Trump has,” Thompson says.
Trump has generalized Black Lives Matter protesters as “violent anarchists” and threatened to quell demonstrations with federal forces. “These are not ‘peaceful protesters,’” he tweeted in part on Sept. 8. “They are THUGS.”
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