Activists finding a common voice as protests work to keep momentum

Andy Downing
Denzel Warren, 18, holds a sign at a protest outside Mayor Andrew Ginther's home.

The scene outside of Mayor Andrew Ginther’s North Side home on Saturday morning felt like part protest, part block party, as a couple hundred attendees, most wearing masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, gathered to chant, listen to speeches and generally make their voices heard. Toward the rear, a smattering of children played in the cul-de-sac, darting around strollers pushed by protesting parents.

The gathering, organized by Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC) and Columbus Freedom Coalition (CFC), continued the more than two weeks of protests that have sprung up locally following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests more deeply rooted in a number of high-profile shooting deaths perpetrated by the Columbus police in recent years — the victims of which appeared on signs dotting the crowd: “Justice for Donna”; “Justice for Julius Tate Jr.”; “Justice for Ty’re King.” 

Throughout, organizers delivered impassioned speeches, read related passages from authors like James Baldwin and led the crowd in chants, many driven by an assortment of tambourines, cowbells and hand drums toted by attendees. “Brick by brick, wall by wall,” the people chanted, “we will make the prisons fall.”

In the days leading up to the protest, Dkéama Alexis of BQIC and CFC stressed the importance of this moment in history, which has seen the national conversation around policing start to shift to the point that mainstream publications are writing about previously taboo subjects like defunding the police and abolishing prisons. The event also arrived at a time when local activists are grappling with how to best communicate a message being delivered by a diverse coalition, parts of which might have different aims in both the short and long term. “It’s hard to say there’s any one movement for Black liberation,” Alexis said.

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Rather, actions have been directed by a loose-knit coalition including BQIC, CFC, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Columbus Freedom Fund (CFC) and People’s Justice Project (PJP), among others, with each group fostering a slightly different role. Mia Santiago of CFC, for instance, said the group has acted as more of a signal booster for recent protests centered Downtown, sharing events and information via its social media channels rather than leading direct actions. BQIC, in contrast, has taken on a more active, central role, which Alexis traced in part to the historical role queer people of color have played in social justice movements.

“The fight for Black liberation would be nothing if not for the leadership and sacrifice of Black queer and trans people,” Alexis said. “Black LQBTQ-plus people have always been the ones to hold the vision, to do a lot of work behind the scenes and also to show up on the frontlines. And I definitely see BQIC taking on that role.”

Groups like PJP, meanwhile, have been involved both in street actions and in pushing policy changes, releasing a list of demands addressed to city leaders on May 30 that included the immediate formation of a civilian review board, the creation of a whistleblower hotline to report police abuses and increased de-escalation training for officers, among other asks. The release was immediatelyco-signed by City Council President Pro Tempore Elizabeth Brown.

“It’s not like we’re working solely with groups that fully align with us. The point is to center Black folks and people who are directly impacted by police violence, capitalism, gentrification. … And, in that, there are a variety of tactics and strategies,” said Tynan Krakoff of SURJ. “Some of the groups [protesting] are full abolitionist and other groups, like People’s Justice Project, have taken more of an approach of changing policy from within, and we respect that, too.” 

“And then there are a huge number of people showing up who aren’t affiliated with any group,” Santiago said. “I think there are a lot of people where this is their first protest. … So we’re working as a coalition to try and build space and capacity and plan the next steps for people who are reaching out, excited about this movement.”

Along with that, though, longtime activists have taken cautious notice of newly formed groups, particularly Black Freedom, which sprung up in early June. The group consists of members who are largely unknown to local activists but has somehow already landed extensive media coverage and multiple closed-door meetings with police leadership. (Black Freedom initially agreed to an interview withAlive but did not reply to subsequent messages.) 

“Since a lot of people don’t know the people in Black Freedom, they seem especially ill equipped to speak for everyone,” Santiago said. 

By working with police, several interviewed argued, groups like Black Freedom risked dulling the message, or playing into a narrative that police and protesters have a shared aim, sapping momentum from the movement. 

“They have a different vision of the world because they seem to have a lot of faith in police,” Krakoff said. “We and others in the community don’t have that faith. … It’s a contradiction to think the police are going to reform themselves, or that you can work with them toward change. [The police] are the counter protesters to our movement. … At the same time, we don’t want it to be a big distraction. We want to be fighting for justice.”

To that end, both Santiago and Alexis said more recent discussions within their groups have centered on the idea of building on the current momentum, shifting the public conversation with the knowledge that true, structural change rarely comes from closed-door committee meetings.

“Those are the conversations now, asking how we can keep it going? And not even in its current form, but how can we keep people engaged?” Santiago said. “How do we keep eyes on what police are doing to the Black community and the community at large? And how do we bring people in? And I think that’s going to come down to public outreach and programming and education. Maybe it's not sustainable for everyone to be at the Statehouse forever. … So how do we move to the next phase of this? What can we do to make sure this [progress] is lasting?”

“There’s a lot of power from below that we need to remind people of,” Alexis said. “I think we often get fixated on the people who gate-keep at the top, and, again, it’s our decision to consent to the status quo. … So, while there might be some value, generally speaking, in a meeting with, say, state officials, I certainly think there’s more value in encouraging people to remember that we are stronger together.”