Home City Two demonstrations collide on Court Street

Two demonstrations collide on Court Street

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Although Independence Day had passed, a meeting between two demonstrations in Athens made sparks fly the following afternoon on Court Street. A Black Lives Matter protest formed in response to a Defend the Police rally scheduled Sunday at noon.

In the sweltering July sun and a blistering heat, the Defend the Police rally gathered outside the Athens County Clerk of Courts building. Out of about 50 attendees, several carried firearms. Very few wore masks.

About a block down the street, Black Lives Matter protesters amassed on Ohio University’s College Green, where mask use was almost ubiquitous. They listened to speakers discuss their experiences with injustice. 

Many Black Lives Matter protesters expressed a desire to defund Athens’ police force. Some supported abolition in the same vein as Minneapolis, whose city council voted to dismantle the police department.

Back at the courthouse, an argument broke out between Defend the Police members and a few counter protesters from the Black Lives Matter group, ending in a fist fight broken up by police and protesters. It’s not clear who started the altercation, but the Athens Police Department confirmed no arrests were made at the demonstration.

Shortly after — around 1:20 p.m. — a chant near the corner of Court Street and Union Street heralded the imminent arrival of about 100 Black Lives Matter protesters, who marched from College Green. These protesters posted up on the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse. Court Street soon became a chamber hall for a cacophony of car horns and motorcycle engines, led by a choir of police ralliers and dissenters.

Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, stood on the Defend the Police side and was the subject of heavy criticism from the Black Lives Matter protesters.

“What are you doing to protect black people?” they yelled.

Edwards, who is also the Ohio House Majority Whip, said in an interview that he’s worked on several issues that disproportionately affect Black people, including abortion and infant and maternal mortality.

“To say that we haven’t done anything for the African American community is silly,” he said. “Now, have we done enough? Absolutely not.”

Edwards discussed police reform legislation he has been working on with other state representatives, including Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, and Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, both former police officers. He said it will help filter out “bad apples” in Ohio police departments.

The legislation, which has yet to be introduced, would improve officer training, diversity and disciplinary procedures, according to a June press release.

Edwards is against defunding the police, an idea that many Black Lives Matter protesters support. 

“If something happens to you or your family, similar to a fire department — you might not need them, but you pay for them all the time, you might never need them in your life — you’d much rather have them there when you do need them,” he said.

Edwards left the demonstrations shortly after. Officers from the Athens Police Department escorted the lawmaker down East Washington Street to his car in the Athens parking garage as Black Lives Matter protesters followed close behind, shouting “F*** Jay Edwards.”

Damon Krane, who ran against Athens Mayor Steve Patterson in the past November election, claimed that Athens has a problem in the abuse of police power, and said the city’s administration eagerly defends police actions.

“We not only have the problem of police abuse of power,” Krane said. “We have the problem that anytime it happens, city officials just jump at the chance to back up police and enable them.”

Krane pointed to the Baker 70, an event named after the 70 people who protested President Donald Trump’s travel ban and were arrested at Baker Center in 2017.

“Not only (does the city) prosecute the people, they pressure 15 of those arrested to accepting conviction via plea bargain on charges that were lesser but equally false before the original charges get thrown out,” Krane said. “So, the original charges get thrown out, but the city weaseled its way into 15 convictions of people who were wrongfully arrested to begin with.”

Krane said that he did not observe any issues with the police at the demonstration Sunday, but he said he wished that they wore masks. He also said that he’d like to see police defunded and more money allocated for poverty reduction, bystander intervention training and substance abuse harm reduction.

John Haney, who organized the Defend the Police rally on Facebook, said that its purpose was to show support for police officers.

“This is to defend them because of the fact that they don’t have anybody else sitting there screaming that they actually need more funding,” Haney said. 

Haney said he is upset that his rally has been labeled as one for Nazis and white supremacists just because Defend the Police protesters back the police department rather than wanting to defund it.

“They don’t even know what they’re asking for,” he said. “You honestly believe that if we defund the police and you called a social worker to a domestic violence call, do you honestly think that person is going to listen to someone of no authority whatsoever?”

Haney added that he does not agree with the Black Lives Matter movement because he claims it has done more harm to communities than good. He went on to say that he has not met anyone who agreed with the police’s handling of George Floyd.

“You want to fix the issues that happened with George Floyd? Give them more funding for training. Training’s never hurt anybody. It’s gonna teach them to deal with new situations as the time changes,” he said.

Despite the altercation and the name calling coming from both sides of the street, delfin bautista, who helped organize the Black Lives Matter protest, believes that the two groups share the same goal.

bautista said that some of the posts on the Defend the Police rally’s event page acknowledge the need for better police education and training, tenets that many Black Lives Matter protesters also agree with.

“There needs to be actual dialogue with folks at the table discussing all of this,” bautista said.

“I think if we actually sat down and had a conversation, we’d find out that our goal is the same,” bautista added.

Some individuals did cross Court Street to participate in discourse with the other side. A man, who wished to be identified only as Dave, stood by the courthouse with a holstered revolver and an AR-15 around his neck and was questioned by many protesters as to why he brought weapons to the demonstration in the first place. 

“I’m here to protect everybody, the way the cops should be,” Dave said during an interview after the demonstrations dispersed. “Not just a certain group, not just a certain person — everybody. And, if it means me getting yelled at because I have an AR-15 and a revolver at my side at a protest, so be it.”

During the demonstrations, Dave at one point placed his AR-15 on the ground at the request of a group of demonstrators and shook hands with one of them.

Dave puts down his AR-15. Photo by Bo Kuhn.
Dave puts down his AR-15. Photo by Bo Kuhn.
Dave shakes hands with BLM supporter after putting down his AR-15. Photo by Bo Kuhn.
Dave shakes hands with BLM supporter after putting down his AR-15. Photo by Bo Kuhn.

“For somebody to actually put down their weapon where they’re in a scenario where they feel it is appropriate — it’s pretty nice,” said a Black Lives Matter protester who wished to remain anonymous.

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