The 2020 Black lives matter protests in Columbus

Andy Downing
Hundreds of people marched up and down High Street in downtown Columbus on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

When Minneapolis police killed George Floyd during a May 25 traffic stop, it ignited a fresh Black lives matter movement that quickly spread nationwide.

Here in Columbus, East Side residentChristopher Radden kicked off the initial action, taking to the corner of Livingston Avenue and Lockbourne Road to express his anger, overcome by the sense of helplessness he initially felt watching video footage of Floyd’s death.

“I was watching, and it was like, ’Damn, he’s choking him. Oh,hell no!’” Radden said by phone in early June. “So I called my brothers, talked to them, and then went to a couple other friends. We were all pissed, but it was like, ‘What can we do? Really, what can we do about that?′ And we couldn’t come up with anything. And that was blowing my mind. I’m having all of these conversations with friends after having seen something so blatant as the Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd right in front of us, and we really couldn’t understand what we could do to help.”

Radden’s initial actions, for which he was arrested on charges of Failure to Comply, were often cited as a spark by a diverse collection of local organizers who led protests city-wide in the days and months that followed. 

While the protests in Columbus were sparked by Floyd’s death, these demonstrations were also deeply rooted in myriad local injustices,some of which stretch back years, if not decades, including the police shooting deaths of Black teenagers Ty’re King, Henry Green and Julius Tate, Jr., among others.

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Kevin Williams describedthe earliest days of the protest as a battlefield, writing, “The face of the protest is mostly young. I see so many young black faces at the front of the line. I watched one livestream where a Black woman was seated on the ground next to the Ohio Statehouse, eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. ‘I can’t see!’ she screamed. … The tear gas is still wafting towards them and everyone is choking.”

Though a majority of the protests were peaceful, store windows were broken Downtown and in the Short North, and some shops, like Short North shoe boutique Soul Classics, were hit by looters.Soul Classics owner Dionte Johnson took the loss in stride, though, saying the broken windows could force a long overdue conversation about police violence against the Black community.

“As a business owner, I don’t want my business to get broken into,” he said. “However, if my business has to get broken into for police reform to happen, so be it.”

Out of this sometimes-chaotic environment, a loose-knit network formed, with contributions coming from some unlikely sources, including the Short North adult shop The Garden, whichevolved into an essential community hub, providing water, food and medical care for protesters. 

“It’s a community of freaks and geeks coming together and supporting our community in our neighborhood,” said owner Lacey Thompson. “Somebody had to do it, and there was no one else stepping up. ... It was the porn store and the churches.”

Amid this early confusion, a pair of local protest stories became national news. 

First,Columbus police named Nathan Caraway “a person of interest” based on an out-of-context, 18-second video clip in which the young man can be seen distributing money to fellow protesters. These actions led some right-wing Twitter accounts to label Caraway Antifa, and to claim that he was paying people to riot (Caraway has since said the money was for supplies). These accusations were eventually shared on the social media platform by President Donald Trump. In the days that followed Trump’s post, Caraway was briefly confused for a member of indie rock band the National before being forced into hiding after receiving a flurry of online death threats.

Around the same time, Columbus policeposted a photo of a detained bus on social media, writing, “This bus was stopped yesterday at Broad St. & 3rd due for obstruction of traffic. There was a suspicion of supplying riot equipment to rioters. Detectives followed up with a vehicle search today and found numerous items: bats, rocks, meat cleavers, axes, clubs and other projectiles. Charges are pending as the investigation continues.” 

CPD’s tweet eventually made its way to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who hyped the bus as evidence of widespread protest violence. (Here in Columbus, Mayor Andrew Ginther cited the bus when describing “significant safety concerns” he had for the city.)

All of this despite the fact that none of the accusations levied by CPD proved true. The bus, named “Buttercup,”actually belonged to a group of hippie circus performers. The rocks were healing crystals. The clubs, juggling clubs. And the meat cleaver was from a knife block in the kitchen, used to prepare food for the couple who owned and lived on the bus.

Of course, Columbus police never deleted nor corrected the original social media posts, evenafter charges against the couple were dismissed.

Police also caused dissent within the early days of the protests by appearing on camera marching and kneeling alongside protesters, which some interpreted as a sign of solidarity, while others viewed it as little more thana photo-op designed to distract from the issues at hand, with BQIC (Black Queer Intersectional Collective) releasing a strongly worded statement denouncing the practice.

“We felt motivated to release this statement addressing Columbus at-wide, to let them know that we aren’t going to stand in solidarity with anybody that wants to sympathize with police, because the police do not sympathize with our communities,” BQIC’s Dkéama Alexis said. “They have been waging war on our communities. That’s the whole point of everything that we’re doing.”

There were alsoconversations centered on the issue of protest photography, driven by young people who have strong ideas on the concept of privacy, as well as a growing desire to maintain control over how their image is used, particularly in a social media environment where a single image or video taken out of context can have far-reaching and sometimes unintended consequences.

“I feel like it’s the younger generation coming out to protest that wants to have more control of their image being out there, which I understand, especially since they are the ones who grew up with social media being so all-encompassing,” said Katie Forbes,who has been documenting the activist scene in Columbus for years. “An image can be sent to anyone’s employer, or go around [the internet], and it can be scary because there’s no getting that back.”

Generally, though,the various factions driving the protests operated harmoniously, filling needed roles while attempting to move the greater conversation forward.

“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 (Showing Up for Racial Justice). “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.”

Some even embraced the concept of joy as an act of resistance within the protest movement, centering actions on poetry, music and meditation.

Eventually, the Black lives matter protests stretched well beyond Downtown, taking placein rural areas and majority white communities such asCanal Winchester andBexley. Seniors and other folks more at-risk from the coronavirus even organizedBlack lives matter car caravans, determined to show support for the movement.

Within Columbus City Schools, students led an ongoing movement to haveCPD officers removed from district school buildings. The student-driven push inspiredthis essay from Hanif Abdurraqib, in which he writes, “Liberation begins with a series of small withdrawals, and then blooms wide.”

Conversations even took place within the system against which the protests levied criticism. Probation officer Micah Mitchell, who worked for the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas for nearly two years,tendered his resignation following a period of deep self-reflection driven by the protest movement.

“I cannot in good conscience continue to work for a system that oppresses people and refuses to admit or acknowledge that it oppresses people,” Mitchell said. “This is the least that I could do for our Black community, to step back from this and realize, ‘Wow, I’m guilty. My hands are dirty because I participated in this for the last two years.’ ... Up until now, I don’t think I fully realized that you can’t change the system from the inside, because, at the end of the day, you’re still complicit with laws that inherently discriminate. ... All I can do now is step away from this job and try to make it right.”

Many of the conversations that circled in the spring and early summer have returned in depressingly familiar form in more recent weeks following the deaths ofCasey Goodson, who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy on Dec. 4, andAndre Hill, who was shot and killed by Columbus police officer Adam Coy following a non-emergency call on Dec. 22.

“I can’t write about the things that are not senselessly murdered Black people today,”Scott Woods wrote in his The Other Columbus column on Dec. 9, days after the Goodson shooting. “Half of my city is haunted by this killing. The list of Things Black People Can’t Do And Not Be Shot By The Police remains an ever-unfurling scroll of mundanities. Just when we think we have all of the angles covered, a new entry comes out of left field, more ludicrous in its tedium than the last. Each entry brings with it old rage and even older fear.”