Activists use informal tools to maintain peace during protests

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When Berto Aguayo heard that the protests in Chicago turned violent over the weekend, he called on a few dozen people to meet in front of a colorful mural in a South Side neighborhood.

“Number one, we’re here to protect small businesses peacefully,” Aguayo – co-founder of Increase the Peace, a community-based community group in the city – told the small audience. He said the businesses were locally owned and residents trusted, “That’s it. If someone tries to plunder, don’t greet them with hostility. Ask them if they want water, a snack or a dialogue. If that doesn’t work, don’t endanger your life. “

There was no formal training, just a pep talk and a short prayer. Then the group took its place in the storefronts of a street, many of which were owned by immigrants: groceries, restaurants, and a homeless shelter for young people.

Aguayo, a former gang member and activist for many problems in Chicago, said the group managed to remain calm that day. It is part of several efforts across the country that aim to quell the tension – and thus potential violence – in protests, while encouraging people to march and express their views on the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other African Americans. With daily protests across the United States in dozens of cities – some lasting a week and showing no signs of slowing down – organizers say it’s essential to de-escalate any conflict and prevent theft, vandalism and clashes with the police.

Some groups, such as Black Lives Matter, have years of protesting experience and use training and proven strategies: fluorescent vests or colored ribbons to indicate legal aid, volunteer medical help or peacekeepers who can try to spread splashes on the spot. Other people are creating more casual networks as protests emerge daily in new corners of their cities and states, with many attendees who have never protested before.

“We want to be vocal and peaceful at the same time. Those two coexist, ”said Bruce Wilson of South Carolina. “As soon as you throw a bottle, your message is gone.”

He and about twenty others met briefly for protests in Greenville over the weekend to discuss strategies. He urged his group to carefully study fellow demonstrators and watch out if anyone seemed extremely excited.

“You can look at someone and tell them they are about to cross the border,” he said. Like Aguayo, he offers snacks, water and space to speak. “I tell them,” I feel the same as you. “You have to lead by example.”

In Tampa, this weekend Black Lives Matter organizers had nearly 100 safety marshals in fluorescent vests patrolling their march, trained in de-escalation tactics, and commanded to look for antagonists. The group also had physicians, used walkie-talkies to identify and suppress outbursts, and engaged lawyers and others with legal training to monitor demonstrators’ rights from the sidelines.

“We wanted to be able to make their voices and anger heard safely in a controlled environment. It is part of their change rights for them to express themselves, “said Chaikirah Parker, who helped organize the event.

The veteran activist said they deliberately held the event early on Sunday despite the blistering heat. After that, a younger crowd protested, saying that the experienced activists felt obliged to help.

“We really think it is our duty to pass the torch and teach the kids to organize,” she said. “They are stubborn, and then they realize that the rapid response organization is a completely different level.

“You need everyone to advance the mission … you need the garden dogs, but you also need diplomacy.”

In Cincinnati, as hundreds of protesters marched to City Hall, safety marshals wore fluorescent vests, and some wore megaphones. Organizers with newly formed Coalition of Queen City occasionally stopped the crowd to ensure that the volunteer marshals remained at the front, protester Abbey Smith said.

As the group approached an intersection, a police car tried to make its way forward. The Marshal quietly stood on the bumper, between the patrol car and the crowd. The officer inside motioned for the marshal to avoid.

“The Marshal just stood there holding up their hands and shaking their heads at them, like, ‘No, I’m not going to move’ as everyone walked by,” said Smith. Under the guidance of the Marshal, the crowd and the officer proceeded without incident.

“Having the people there who very clearly made sure we were safe also helped make things more peaceful,” said Smith. “If you feel like people are making sure you’re safe, it’s easier to focus only on the message you’re trying to get across.”

While protesters in the country’s capital chanted Floyd’s name on Tuesday evening, a single demonstrator climbed up to a light post and knocked down a street sign. The crowd groaned. Some threw bottles at him; others tried to grab him before jumping down and disappearing into the crowd. But soon there was a chant, “Peaceful protest,” and the crowd eventually calmed down.

The same evening in Houston, the police chief stayed after a demonstration and a march to talk to the crowd of about 65 people and explain his department’s efforts to work with local activists. He encouraged people to follow and help fellow protesters informally, to prevent violence from cutting the protests.

“God as my witness, things are going to change,” said Acevedo. “And we’re going to do it the right way.”


Lush reported from St. Petersburg and Kennedy from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Journalists from Associated Press Ashraf Khalil in Washington, Juan Lozano in Houston and Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed.

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