“We learned that when we were visible, we became the target,” Karianne Thomas, chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety says about a large police presence in protest situations.
That has been her department’s experience since early June when outraged citizens took to the streets of Kalamazoo and many other cities to protest the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis.
She says there have been nine sizable protests here since a tear gas-laden clash in early June in which Kalamazoo Public Safety worked with area police agencies and the Army National Guard to set a public curfew and close off downtown Kalamazoo to prevent vandalism and looting.
“We had our cars surrounded. Police cars were pounded,” Thomas told reporters Sunday afternoon of the early June incident. “They were physically going after some of those officers.”
Using a megaphone adorned with the flowers, Rev. Nathan Dannison speaks to counter-protesters on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020 in downtown Kalamazoo.
She says KDPS used what it learned in that experience to help craft its plans to manage last Saturday’s protest downtown by neo-fascist hate group the Proud Boys.
“We learned in early June from feedback and review that a large-scale police presence of officers often created a contentious situation,” Thomas says. “We then changed our operation to allow for presence at events -- but from the background and less visible so that we did not become the target or become something that got away from what the original protest was about. And then we would respond if the situation dictated.”
Social media postings that members of the Proud Boys were planning to meet on Saturday (Aug. 15) at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place were countered by a plan by the pastor of First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo to simultaneously host a prayer vigil at the festival place. Rev. Nathan Dannison says, “I felt that it was an important time to pray for the victims of domestic terror in America and to pray for the young men in the Proud Boys themselves.”
But he called them cowards and said he would be surprised if any of them showed up.
From left are counter-protesters Brianna Mull, Winston Ssessanga and Chad Lenczycki, all of Kalamazoo.
“I wanted to confront some of these Proud Boys,” says Winston Ssessanga, 29, of Kalamazoo. “I wanted to see the type of energy they’re bringing to this community -- if they’re trying to be dangerous. I was planning on stealing a couple of confederate flags if I ever saw one. I didn’t see any.”
He says he doesn’t like what the Proud Boys represent.
“I know if they’re allowed to fester in this community, it grows like a mold,” Ssessanga says, “and I have to deal with it when it comes to police, when it comes to court, when it comes to getting employment. I can’t let that fester in this community.”
Saying the threat level of protests against police shootings of unarmed African-American men -- held here primarily by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement -- was not equivalent to the potential threat of the Proud Boys, whose mission is to spread their alt-right and fascist rhetoric, one reporter asked Thomas and city officials, “Since you knew that the Proud Boys protest was anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, pro-White, (pro) Western supremacy, with a documented history of violence, rhetoric and holding rallies that turn violent, … why not (have) a larger police presence -- like officers at corners as part of your primary mission of public safety for both people and property?”
Counter-protesters, foreground, begin to clash with members of the Proud Boys, background, at the intersection of water Street and Edwards Street.
Thomas says that from what KDPS has seen in other cities and here, when officers have assigned posts, they become a target that can sidetrack protestors from the message they are trying to send to the world.
“Our goal was to be in the background and be available and that was our operational plan,” she says.
The question of whether KDPS was not positioned to stop a melee that occurred Saturday afternoon was one of the main inquiries that arose during a Sunday press conference at Kalamazoo City Hall. The press conference allowed time for some counter-protesters to question Public Safety. They were among about 30 people who used their bodies to block vehicle traffic along Michigan Avenue for several hours on Saturday night. That occurred after they were angered by what they say was insufficient police protection during clashes between the Proud Boys and counter-protesters.
They say KDPS was nowhere to be seen when predictable fighting between the two groups started at Water Street and Edward Street as the Proud Boys marched past the Arcadia Creek Festival Place chanting and carrying American flags, a Gadsden flag, and a Trump flag. They also complained that when Public Safety officers did arrive, they were late, and appeared to be trying to safeguard the Proud Boys more than the counter-protesters.
Brianna Mull, 27, of Kalamazoo, said she wanted to be part of the counter-protest on Saturday, “Because f--k the Proud Boys. They’re not welcome here. I’m here to support the Black community and all people of color.”
She says she was discouraged because Public Safety did not allow counter-protesters to reassemble and continue. “The police were all over us,” she says.
Thomas says advance intelligence about the potential for trouble caused KDPS to have 111 police officers (from five area jurisdictions) standing by to help as needed. She says, “Our response yesterday was three-fold if not more than the other nine (protests) that have occurred since June.” But she says the police response may have seemed slow because the Proud Boys arrived earlier than anticipated.
KDPS says some Proud Boys members were armed with rifles, handguns and pepper spray. Some counter-protesters were armed with bats, sticks, and metal signposts. Several members of a citizens' defense group attended the prayer vigil/counter-protest armed with AR-15 assault rifles and other long guns. Some counter-protesters were doused with pepper spray either by the Proud Boys or Public Safety. But throughout the clash, which started at about 1:30 and ended at about 3 p.m. after officers threatened to arrest anyone still in the area, no serious injuries were reported.
Thomas says nine adults and one juvenile were arrested on charges that included violation of a police zone, resisting and obstructing (police officers), impeding traffic, felonious assault, and malicious destruction of property. The juvenile was arrested for malicious destruction of property and was released into the custody of his parents. Thomas apologized for the arrest of a local news reporter who was wearing media credentials and told officers he was a reporter. He was arrested for impeding traffic. But that charge was dropped and he was released after spending about one hour in the Kalamazoo County Jail, she says.
No Proud Boys were arrested.
“I’m not a policeman and I know that they may have some valid reasons for their behavior today,” Dannison said late Saturday. “But I was very disappointed that the police did not intercede to stop the violence.”
He says he was grateful “for the young people from Kalamazoo who stood up to defend the people who those Proud Boys were attacking” and he says, “I learned that the city of Kalamazoo is filled with brave people who, when they saw the Proud Boys attacking an innocent bystander, came to his assistance.”
He also praised the turn-out of people of all ages, races, and backgrounds who attended the vigil-turned-counter protest.
Asked by a counter-protestor, “Why does it feel like our citizens were being harassed – and not the Proud Boys – by our officers?” Thomas says, “I don’t know how to give you an answer to that.” She says Saturday’s protest was a chaotic and dynamic situation.
“It was never Public Safety’s intent to make anyone feel less than safe or harassed,” she says. “We have one goal in law enforcement, that is to restore that order and walk through that situation. And it’s dynamic. When you look back at a situation you always see how you can improve. But it was a dynamic situation.”
Chad Lenczycki, 25, of Kalamazoo, says he was part of the counter-protest to show his solidarity with the African-American community. “And secondly, my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, more or less. He was a Polish person (not Jewish) who took part in the Warsaw uprising in 1944. But I feel the calling to fight fascism the same as he did.”
Lenczycki says Saturday was also an opportunity to show he is willing “to fight for people of my community whether they look like me or not.”
Asked what she and KDPS learned from Saturday’s events. Thomas says, “I think we learned communication was an issue.” She says she and her officers have to review Saturday’s events to learn what they can do better and continue to investigate some acts that occurred.
In response to questioning about any number of the Proud Boys who apparently drove away from downtown Kalamazoo in cars with no license plates, Thomas says officers did not stop them because traffic violations were not a high priority during Saturday’s events and Public Safety wanted them to leave the area.
Although online comments to early reports of the Proud Boys protest in Kalamazoo indicates that group got what it wanted -- chaos and ongoing social turbulence, Mayor David Anderson and City Manager Jim Ritsema say they are committed to working with others to learn what is needed here.
“Yes, I think we need to be in this together,” Ritsema says when asked by concerned citizens if they should continue to trust KDPS when they seem to be let down constantly. “ … We are continually learning as we move forward. This is something that we are willing to learn and learn with you, and to act with you. So we’re committed to that and we want to move forward with you.”