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A scene in Baton Rouge on Sunday. (Photo: Reuters)

Tensions High as Combat-Ready Police Confront National Black Lives Matter Protests

'The rhetoric of the protest in no way matches the violence that police have been inflicting on people,' notes activist DeRay Mckesson

Deirdre Fulton

After a weekend of protests and arrests across the U.S., demonstrations against police violence continued on Sunday in cities nationwide.

As Common Dreams reported, marches and rallies responding to the recent fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile took place Saturday in Phoenix, New York City, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, San Francisco, Nashville, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Rochester, New York. In St. Paul, an overnight face-off on Interstate-94 resulted in more than 100 arrests, while in Baton Rouge, nearly 200 people have been arrested since Friday.

Activist DeRay Mckesson, one of those arrested in Louisiana on Saturday, was released in the afternoon on Sunday. He spoke to CNN on Monday:

Demonstrators took to the streets Sunday for mostly peaceful rallies in Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; Washington, D.C., and beyond; more protests and rallies are planned for Monday.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, however, tensions were heightened. According to the New Orleans Advocate:

What began Sunday as a peaceful march over the death of Alton Sterling turned into a standoff in downtown Baton Rouge between officers threatening to gas the crowds and protesters throwing debris at police.

For at least three hours, officers and protesters were locked in an intense confrontation that occasionally erupted into skirmishes... At least 48 people were arrested. 

More than 100 officers circled the crowd. Many of the officers arrived holding assault rifles, and police used a high-pitched siren called an "LRAD," a long-range acoustic device intended to disperse the crowd with its ear-splitting sound.

Three armored vehicles accompanied officers decked out in riot gear. For the first time since the protests began last week, officers showed up with gas masks.

Such increased militarization drew criticism on social media.

In an interview with the New Yorker published Sunday, Black Lives Matter network co-founder Alicia Garza predicted such an outcome in the wake of last week's shootings in Dallas and urged the movement to "think bigger":

The deaths of these officers will absolutely create the conditions for increased security, surveillance, and monitoring of protesters. It will absolutely usher in additional post-9/11-like measures that allow the state to profile people based either on their political beliefs or on their political activities, and then, of course, I think we will also probably see a push for an expansion of the police state, rather than the reduction of one.

If we can anticipate that, then that means that it’s no longer acceptable to fight for reforms like body cameras, and certainly I think it means that we have to think bigger. The call that I heard from many, many activists and their supporters over the last few days has been, “We can’t just march and protest.” There has to be something bigger than that.

Since a lone gunman shot 12 police officers in Dallas on Thursday, killing five, racial justice advocates have found themselves forced to defend their actions from those who "are using this really unfortunate incident to cast a negative light on our very important and necessary movement," as Opal Tometi, another Black Lives Matter co-founder, put it

"That's what I'm seeing. I hope it does not cause consequences for us," Tometi said. "What I'm seeing right now is that there is an extra amount of attention that's being placed on folks who are doing their civic duty and are protesting and are exercising their rights, and I'm concerned that there might be some efforts that are going to be used to stop that very important expression of their freedom of speech, and the disdain and disgust and very righteous outrage that people have. Because we've been seeing, like DeRay said, almost every day, somebody is being murdered in our nation. It is unacceptable."

With more protests and rallies on the horizon, Jamira Burley, Amnesty International USA's campaign manager for gun violence and criminal justice reform, said Sunday from Baton Rouge: "In the wake of this intensely emotional week, it is understandable that people across the country have been moved to take to the streets to peacefully exercise their right to be heard. Police have a duty to facilitate the right to peaceful protest while still protecting their own safety and that of the public."

She added: "The sheer number of arrests last night raises serious questions about proportionate response to peaceful protests. Law enforcement officers cannot selectively decide which laws to enforce during demonstrations—be it against journalists, legal observers or protestors."

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