Event organizers and the Mobile Police Department didn’t want to see an escalation, but as protesters made their way toward an Interstate 10 on ramp near Water Street downtown, tensions boiled over.
Well over 1,000 protesters initially showed up at Mardi Gras Park to begin a march in a show of support for George Floyd, the black man who died after Minneapolis Police officer Darren Chauvin was shown on video kneeling on his throat May 25. Marchers shouted “I can’t breathe” in solidarity with Floyd.
“What I told my people — my people meaning blacks, whites, latinos, everybody — is we’re going to come together and we’re going to have a peaceful protest,” Local civil rights activist and protest organizer Sabrina Mass said. “We will not destroy our city.”
Speaking to Lagniappe, Battiste said the initial march had been peaceful, adding he understood the protestors were “emotional” and “have a right to show that emotion.” Unlike police forces in other cities, Mobile officers showed up in regular uniforms and not in riot gear.
Battiste said officers did not want to do anything to agitate the crowd.
“We wanted to allow them to express their position without fear of conflict,” he said.
Mass said that tactic was appreciated, as she blamed police in other cities for riling up protesters.
Shortly after the march ended, tensions escalated and police fired as many as two canisters of tear gas into a small crowd of protesters and the window was smashed out of a police-issued Chevrolet Tahoe, according to Assistant Chief Roy Hodge.
A line of police officers — both on foot and on horseback — blocked the on ramp, while protesters yelled at police and each other. Public Safety Director James Barber spoke with some of the protestors who remained in the area and tried to disrupt traffic, and with help from some of the event’s initial organizers, was eventually able to convince the group to leave the area.
Mass, who stood between officers and other protesters, told Lagniappe at the scene a group not affiliated with her efforts was responsible for the escalation by moving toward the interstate. She accused the group of trying to incite a riot.
“I’m keeping the peace,” Mass said, standing between the officers and other protesters. “The inciters tried to get on the interstate.”
Ariel Parker said the group she was with was not inciting a riot, but was instead trying to peacefully protest when police attacked them with tear gas.
“There were a lot of people worked up after the tear gas,” Parker added.
Lashay Yost also said the group she was with was peacefully protesting and that “citizens just want to be heard.”
Like Mass, Barber also blamed the escalation on “local and outside agitators.” He called them “professional,” and said moving onto an interstate is an escalation tactic used all over the country.
“They knew it would draw police over,” he said.
Hodge confirmed that while there was damage to a Tahoe and tear gas was deployed, officers were able to de-escalate the situation without any injuries or arrests.
Earlier, along the route of the initial march, there was a verbal altercation with two men, one of whom was chanting “white lives matter” in response to the protestors. The situation nearly escalated before it was broken up by a pair of MPD officers. At least one of the two men, both of whom were white, had a handgun by his side.
Some members of the crowd broke away from the march to confront the men, who began backing up as the group moved closer.
Eventually, another protestor interjected telling the crowd “that’s not what we’re here for” and “this is exactly what they want.” After a few choice words it was enough to get the splintered group of protestors to rejoin the march down Dauphin Street.
The police then exchanged words with the two white men after ordering them to leave the area, though they eventually complied and left on foot.
Elsewhere on the route, Battiste actually personally intervened to take what he called an “assault style” weapon from one man participating in the protest, who identified himself as Antonio Moore. Speaking to Lagniappe, Moore said he was exercising his right to openly carry his weapon, adding it wasn’t loaded and his magazines were kept separately in his pockets.
Battiste told Moore there was a city ordinance that prevented the open carry of weapons at Mardi Gras and other events with large numbers of people, though he could not specifically identify the name or number of that ordinance. Lagniappe has tried to identify that code but has not yet received additional information from the Mobile Police Department.
Moore initially compiled without incident and Battiste told him he’d have his weapon returned at the end of the demonstration.
However, when he later questioned Battiste and asked for more specific information, he was escorted by officers to take the weapon back to his car. More information will be posted on this once it’s received from MPD.
Moore, who is black, noted that the white man who got into an altercation with protestors and placed his hand on his loaded weapon did not have his gun confiscated by officers.
Following the march, Cory Penn stood at the back of Mardi Gras park, taking in the scene.
However, he was somewhat conflicted by it.
“I feel good in a way because we are together in a peaceful way,” he said. “I wish I wasn’t out here. It’s sad Mr. Floyd was killed that way. We have to find a better way and do a better job to find justice.”
Standing a few feet away from Penn, Roderick Moss said he sometimes fears for his 19-year-old son. He said black parents try to teach their children to comply with the police, but sometimes even when they comply they’re killed. The diversity of Mobile’s crowd sent a message to Moss that change is on the way.
“We’re all just tired of it,” he said. “It’s time to make some change.”
In a message on his social media channels Sunday morning, Mayor Sandy Stimpson posted about the Floyd case and racism that still lingers in American society.
“We share the pain and frustration being expressed by so many in the wake of the tragedy,” he wrote. “We join the voices demanding justice. There is a systemic problem which must be addressed at every level in America, from local to federal government.”
Stimpson added the city has “worked hard to build a relationship between law enforcement and the community,” but also acknowledged that its work is still not done.
“We have more work to do,” he wrote. “As elected officials, community leaders, police officers and citizens, we must work together to achieve justice.”
Both Batiste and Stimpson spoke to a crowd of protesters in Mardi Gras Park Sunday, with varying levels of success. When asked by the crowd about a somewhat recent case involving MPD officer Blake Duke, Stimpson seemed unable to answer many of these questions.
The crowd became agitated with his lack of knowledge about what actions were taken before Duke was allowed to return to active patrols, following a high profile use-of-force incident that involved an African American man earlier this year.
“There are things I don’t know and there are things you don’t know,” Stimpson said.
As Lagniappe reported, Duke was disciplined after a viral video in February showed him placing suspect Howard Green Jr. in a brief choke while he was being arrested. Duke told officers that Green had allegedly spit on him while resisting arrest before the hold was used.
Duke was immediately placed on desk duty and removed from patrols. A month later, MPD officials said “appropriate actions” had been taken to hold Duke and another officer on the scene accountable for violating MPD policy, but the department has never given any indication as to what those actions were.
Before leaving, Stimpson did tell the crowd he came to listen to them and support Battiste.
“When we do that we can hear your complaints and what we need to do better,” he said.
Clarification: The original version of this story implied two men who engaged in a verbal altercation with protestors chanted the phrase “white lives matter” in response. A Lagniappe reporter personally witnessed one of the men say the phrase as tensions escalated and police separated the men from the crowd. The second man, who reached out to Lagniappe, claims this is untrue and the men actually said “all lives matter.”
Lagniappe reporter Jason Johnson contributed to this report
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