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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: It was far from certain, but Spokane showed up in a big, peaceful way

Crowds of protesters walk across the Monroe Street Bridge and up the hill to the Spokane County Courthouse, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Spokane, Wash. during a protest to express anger over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis recently. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The line that is cracking the foundation of the country ran through a parking lot in downtown Spokane on Sunday.

Protesters and cops, face to face along a line of scrimmage.

People with masks and signs and righteous outrage, shouting into the stony, unresponsive visages of seemingly every cop in town.

Given what we’ve seen across the nation, the moment was pregnant with the worst possibilities. What happened instead – in that parking lot and almost everywhere I could see during the remarkable protests that swept this city yesterday afternoon, right up to the lousy criminal outburst at the end – was made of the best.

Tons of people showed up – thousands. People raised their voices loudly and peacefully all day long protesting the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop and three of his accomplices – as well as the history of racism and police violence it has brought to light yet again.

They did this in Riverfront Park, and they did it face to face with police, and they did it en masse at the courthouse, calling for justice in the place where justice is meant to be done.

It was far too much togetherness for a pandemic, for sure. But almost everyone there was masked, amazingly enough. And right up until the disheartening coda downtown – when a bunch of miscreants, acting drastically out of concert with the spirit of the day, broke into the Nike store and police got out the tear gas – Spokane did itself proud.

A massive, righteous, peaceful protest that sprawled all over the city.

Hours into it, police officers knelt with the protesters.

This outcome was far from a certainty. So many in this city and region live at a remove from any concrete, daily understanding of race and racism. We sometimes overstate the degree of whiteness in the city – erasing people of color as we do – and yet we are more racially homogenous than most cities, and that blinds us.

It was by no means certain that many Spokanites would turn out; after all, even as many smaller cities were holding protests Saturday night, ours remained quiet, focused as much on the possibility of a big thunderstorm as of civil unrest.

Police officials expressed concern about outsiders fomenting violence. On the other hand, several supporters of Black Lives Matter on Facebook wrote that they were worried, understandably, about attending a large gathering during the coronavirus pandemic. The possibility of a fizzle loomed.

Instead, we saw the biggest single outpouring of public passion that I can recall in the city. The looting at the Nike store was an ugly finale, but the guys who did that were not representative of the day: enormous crowds, incredible diversity, and a peaceful expression of righteous outrage.

When the protesters and police faced off in the parking lot downtown, it was early on.

The tenor of the day had not been established. The police, though quiet and unresponsive, were making a show of force, setting a line in the middle of an asphalt lot that protesters could not cross.

How police would respond to provocation was a significant question, a day after cops all over the nation dishonored their badges again and again by bullying protesters, firing tear gas at journalists, shooting nonlethal bullets at people on their porches, shoving protesters with riot shields, and generally acting like an occupying army.

But what happened here in the parking lot was … nothing. The protesters protested, in some cases with great vigor and vulgarity. After a few minutes, one raised his voice: “We’re moving! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Crowds flowed west down Spokane Falls Boulevard. Car after car honked in support or waved signs out windows. Protesters marched past City Hall and onto the Monroe Street Bridge, chanting.

“Black Lives Matter! No Justice, No Peace! White Silence is White Violence!”

“I Can’t Breathe!”

At the courthouse, the scene was incredible. People filled the lawn and the plaza area between the courthouse and the Public Works Building, pushing back in tight crowds toward the Public Safety Building, where police had set another line.

Some led chants from the courthouse steps. Another large group was gathered around the line police set in front. Protesters were everywhere – on the street, on the lawns, in window wells, on ramps and handrails, in the flower beds, surrounding the flags on raised platforms. Many of those directly in front of the police line were kneeling, even as the crowds carried on deafening chants and drummed on their signs.

This is where officers took a knee with the protesters.

It was just a gesture, you might say. But what an important one.

This is not an attempt to stamp a Pollyanna ending on this. There were surely parts of the protest – which were so large and spread out – that were less salutary than others. I saw tense exchanges, smelled the spray paint from a freshly vandalized police booth, saw the signs: “F—- the police.” And the Nike store vandalism, which came after most people had gone home, undermined the message of the day.

Beyond all that, the moment that brought us here was so awful, and it grew so directly from our national sickness. We are nowhere close to well. Justifiable rage burns still. Some are trying to exploit that rage. Our leaders are failing to unite the country while celebrating violence toward citizens. Half the political dialogue is driven by people who are kinda-sorta bothered by Floyd’s killing, but positively incensed by property damage.

We are nowhere close to well. And yet, during Sunday’s protest, there were little rays of light. The police kneeling with the protesters. The way the crowd shut down a man who threw something at the cops. A tall man with a booming voice, clearing a large circle in the crowd to pray at the top of his lungs: “Father, we need you! We are crying out to you! … May you put an end to this violence! May you put an end to the divisiveness and anger!”

And the sweet, strange moment on that tense line at the courthouse, when a young man, Dashea McDowell, walked from one officer to the next, embracing each one.

“Thank you for your service,” he said. “I love you, and I know it’s not your fault.”