The moment came on the second consecutive day of protests in Eureka, as hundreds marched through the streets amid escalating national tensions in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
A group of more than 100 people, many clutching signs scrawled with messages like "I Can't Breathe" and "Black Lives Matter" gathered in front of the Eureka Police Department Headquarters, where Chief Steve Watson and Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal were trying to talk them down.
"No justice, no peace," the protesters shouted as Honsal tried in vain to speak over them through a megaphone. Then he quickly pivoted, joining the chant with the megaphone: "No justice, no peace. No racist police," as Watson stood by with a protest sign. The moment stood in stark contrast to footage from elsewhere in the country of peaceful protestors being arrested for simply speaking or dispersed with tear gas shot from a distance by riot police. But it was also not a moment without controversy, as a Facebook post from Humboldt Grassroots, a self-described anarchist group that organized Saturday's protests before seeing a group of local people of color step to the forefront of Sunday's protest.
"Sorry to everyone who was led into a trauma-inducing, humiliating situation with the cops," the Facebook post states. "Sorry to those of you who went away feeling sick. Sorry to those of you who felt shamed."
The moment and ensuing backlash exemplified the tensions on display throughout the weekend's protests to demand justice for Floyd, a black man who died of asphyxiation May 25 after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes while he lay prone and handcuffed, saying he couldn't breathe during an arrest on allegations he attempted to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. The last minutes of Floyd's life were captured in a video taken on a bystander's cell phone and have since enraged the nation.
Saturday's protests drew hundreds of people to the Humboldt County Courthouse. From there, they marched through the streets, in some cases blocking traffic and leading to several tense exchanges with passing motorists and police, with protesters saying they felt motorists disregarded their safety — or in at least one case intentionally tried to hit them — and Watson saying the motorists had feared for their safety as people surrounded and hit their cars while shouting. Watson also reported that police cars were vandalized, including two with windows broken, and that several officers had been assaulted and suffered minor injuries.
At the conclusion of Sunday's rally and march, a group of about 60 people continued on. After 10 p.m., Watson said officers witnessed several acts of vandalism — including at Target and Sizzler — and identified a suspect in the crowd. When they moved into arrest him, though, protesters allegedly attempted to pull the man from their custody, which Watson said prompted several officers to fire pepperballs — essentially paint balls filled with a powder that has the effect of pepper spray — into the crowd to disperse them. The incident led to two arrests and allegations that the police overreacted, endangering protesters.
Then came Monday, when Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn and Watson planned to make a joint statement in front of the Eureka police station. What transpired was something else entirely. Chiefs of multiple law enforcement agencies addressed a small crowd there, with most decrying Floyd's death and racism in policing nationally.
"Today was designed for all of us to come together to make a statement about the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police department in Minnesota," Ahearn told the crowd. "This cannot happen in the United States of America. But it continues to happen. People of color continue to be discriminated against, brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement in this country. It's got to stop and Humboldt County is making a statement today. We do not accept what is happening in other parts of the country. We acknowledge it is a stain on law enforcement throughout the world. We take ownership of that. We carry George Floyd on our shoulders. As law enforcement officers, we are his pallbearers today."
After a handful of local police chiefs and the sheriff shared some words, they turned the microphone over to the crowd and people took turns sharing their stories, anger and frustration.
"We ain't out here for shits and giggles in the middle of a pandemic," said Devon Fowler, who said he's originally from Brooklyn, New York, where he suffered abuse and mistreatment by the police, describing it as the stuff of nightmares. "People fear y'all. I'm from the place where fear turns into anger, anger turns into rage."
Fowler said he believes police in Arcata and Eureka are largely doing the right things — likening them to "shining lights" and like a "unicorn running into a narwhal" — but questioning them on their willingness to take a stand, cross the blue line and hold other officers and other departments accountable.
"I care about y'all," Fowler said, gesturing to the officers. "It's not fuck the police. It's fuck some of the police's tactics. That's real, man, and we're just frustrated."
A young woman who didn't give her name addressed the crowd and stressed that this "can't just be a moment in time," but a catalyst for lasting change. She urged people to have difficult conversations with those in their inner circles, especially the white people in attendance.
"We haven't had a choice," she said. "You've had a choice to look away from it but I'm begging you, please do not look away. When your co-worker is talking mess, I need you to chime in."
She urged people not to be confrontational, just to speak up, ask questions, challenge assumptions and have honest conversations, starting with their children.
One man, who addressed the crowd twice with his children, began by saying he was emotional at this moment seeing what was transpiring across the country.
"Just to break it down for everybody real quick the reason people riot," he said, "like the Boston Tea Party, that's how they showed the power that they had. That was an institution they attacked — not the people, not the boaters, but the institution that was represented, the institution that represented oppression."
He then thanked the police for hosting the open-mic forum, noting they "didn't have to do this."
"I mean that — I thank you," he said. "But now, let's check this out. This is going to end. What are we going to do after what's said and done? ... What I would like to see is a relationship built between the community [and the police] through a citizens' review board. That's what I would like to talk about after all this."
When Mykia Washington picked up the megaphone, she explained that "pro black is not anti white" and why the "all lives matter" counter slogan has nothing to do with the movement of this moment. She asked those in attendance to imagine their homes were burning down with their children inside and that they called the fire department. But instead of coming directly to their home, the fire department drove the neighborhood, spraying water on all its homes until finally arriving too late at the one on fire.
"The neighborhood is safe but my house is on fire right now," she said.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.