Column: My experience at the Spokane Black Lives Matter protest

By Ben Blakney, Reporter

Ben Blakney, author of this article, is a reporter for The Easterner. His opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Easterner, its staff or Eastern Washington University.

 

Black Lives Matter.

Who knew such a simple statement would be outfitting police in riot gear against Americans exercising their right to peacefully protest?

I attended the Spokane Black Lives Matter March on May 31. This event was spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. I did not attend as a journalist. I attended as a protestor.

Before I really dive into my first protesting experience, let’s get one thing straight: There is a key difference between protestors and rioters. 

Protestors are present at these events peacefully, conscientious of the message they are trying to spread. They are patient and compassionate people who are using their voices (and only their voices) as their weapons. Protestors are within their peaceful and non-violent rights as American citizens. 

Rioters usually appear at protests solely to incite chaos. These are the people you see on TV burning down Targets and vandalizing local businesses. They typically take advantage of the cover of a large group to get off on some riot fantasy, attacking the police from within the crowd of protestors. These sorts of demonstrators are what incite tear gas and excessive force.

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

I understand that riots are the language of the unheard, to quote the currently over-quoted Martin Luther King Jr; but that is not what I was present for.

One last disclaimer: I am a white American citizen. I come from a good upbringing and am aware of my privilege. Transparency is extremely important to me, and I want to present all of my context to you before you decide to listen to me.

In lieu of the 9 minute video of the horrific public lynching of George Floyd by officer Derick Chauvin, my social medias have been turned on their heads. I saw people expressing their sorrow and their grief at these injustices. I saw people creating and sharing petition after petition after petition. My Twitter timeline and TikTok #foryou page was filled with activism. Creators of all communities banded together to provide knowledge and resources in the midst of one of the greatest public reactions of the Information Age. All 50 states have participated in #justiceforGeorgeFloyd protests, as well as 13 other countries. 

With my Facebook feed suddenly filling with protests, gatherings and events of all kinds regarding Black Lives Matter (BLM), I sat in my whiteness and took a second to reflect on the position I was in: Should I attend one of these protests? I’d been invited to multiple by both people I was close to and people I hadn’t spoken to since high school.

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

It didn’t take me long to reach an astounding yes.

I was only 14 when unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darrell Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. I knew what had happened, but it didn’t really click in my young brain. In those six years, I’ve made an effort to understand my own privileges and biases for the better.

Those six years led to my participation on May 31.

The day started by picking up my friend and protesting buddy, let’s call him Levi. I drive to Levi’s house, my head spinning with my rights as (again) a peaceful protestor. I knew, even as a tall and fairly sizable guy, that things could go south pretty fast if a riot broke out, and we could be in danger. I remembered my lifeguard CPR training and recalled effective ways to get tear gas out of eyes and off of skin. I wasn’t worried per se, but I was very apprehensive. I was preparing for the worst.

Once I’d picked up Levi, we sat outside his house and wrote down the names and numbers of our emergency contacts in permanent markers on our arms, and we shared our phone locations with the same emergency contacts.

This was when it really hit me. It was really happening. 

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

Levi and I sat in silence for a second, really ruminating in what we were about to do. The hot Sunday sun was beating down onto our loose-fitting protesting outfits.

“You ready?” I turned and asked Levi.

“Absolutely,” he said.

And we were off. 

We drove into Spokane. We rode mostly in silence, talking only about the protest we were about to attend. Levi had been to rallies and protests before, but we’re both still learning how to be effective protestors. This was my first rodeo.

As we pulled into downtown Spokane, we began to see more and more signs, carried by masked demonstrators. There were simple ones: “Black Lives Matter” in bold, white paint on black backgrounds. There were more complicated ones: Massive two-handed sheets listing all of George Floyd’s last words. 

It was harrowing to approach this scene.

Levi and I parked the car in a public spot right outside Fast Eddie’s. We put on our masks for coronavirus, but also to hide our identities. Levi and I both donned sunglasses, both for form and function. I put on my baseball cap. We were both ready to protest the racial injustices of the American police as an institution.

As we walked towards the Red Wagon, the march’s starting point, we were joined on our wings by other protestors in similar garb. We all had disguises on, just to be safe.

George Floyd had been murdered on May 25, 2020: Six days prior. To say the Riverfront Park energy was nuclear would be an understatement.

Levi and I entered the huge group already getting fired up, but we entered from the back to get a read on the crowd, looking out for potential dissenters or counter protestors, or even undercover cops. Our read returned that this crowd was safe. We were all on (at least close enough to) the same page.

As Levi and I continued to watch (before we started chanting with the leading protestors), we slowly snaked our way more central. There were demonstrators passionately voicing speeches in the center of the park. Motorcycles loudly revved past our demonstrations in support, and what I lovingly call “Weedwhacker Cars” expressed throaty machine solidarity as they cruised alongside our marching path.

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

As I have “aged”, (which is what my wizened 20-year-old self naively calls it), I have grown quieter in new situations. Whether it’s meeting new friends or attending new classes, I hold my tongue a little bit more than younger Ben used to.

This theme continued.

I had no idea what I should do. I spent the last six days trying to educate myself. Specifically, I tried to learn how to be an effective white ally, and how to use my privilege to amplify suppressed voices instead of talking over them. In practice, however, I was stumped. There is subtext on what white allies should and should not do at protests such as these, and navigating this subtext proved challenging.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of my actions at this protest, I learned later, were not effective as a white ally. The action in question: I raised my right fist, the symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. I also chose not to lower my fist, and held it up for about 45 minutes before I lowered it.

I rationalized the pain I felt from not putting down my fist was a testament to white privilege; I could choose whether or not I wanted this pain. I could choose whether I was going to experience this pain.

I have been educated to learn that this was not my best course of action. I am learning. This was my first protest. This is not an excuse, this is me being transparent.

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

The pain I was protesting was for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery, for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown and for countless other black citizens murdered at the hands of police brutality. They couldn’t walk away from their pain. They could not choose to not experience their pain the way I could.

The peaceful protestors moved from Riverfront Park to the Spokane County Courthouse. The line of protestors reached from Point A to Point B. Yes, there were that many. 

Protestors marched across the Monroe Bridge, and congregated in front of the courthouse. Here was another reality check: Spokane police and vehicles, both heavily armored, stood in defense. 

The protestors and the policemen reached a “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”-level standoff; both stared each other down, scanning the crowds. 

Levi and I had met up with some of our mutual friends, and the four of us again skated the outskirts of the demonstrators. My voice was hoarse from chanting alongside the other protestors as we walked in solidarity against racial injustice. My ears rang with cries of, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and “No Justice, No Peace!” Now, we all stood facing this human wall.

Things moved peacefully in our group. Many people burnt sage, but many people also burnt nicotine and marijuana, so a dense stew of smells hung in the air. Social distancing was completely ignored, but thankfully I’d estimate around 95% of participants were masked.

In the demonstration that I was a part of, the only “violence” that occurred was one of words. Protestors continued to shout their chants with conviction. No hands were lain on police. No hands were lain on protestors. It was a peaceful and functional process.

Levi, our friends and I spent about three hours standing within our rights, joining chants and actually conversing with the guarding officers. After about the first hour, many people felt they’d said their pieces, and they left. 

I learned very quickly that some people were at the event for the Instagram likes. They showed up, snapped their quick pictures and left, using the protest we so desperately need as an engagement farm. It was heartbreaking to see.

The second hour was mostly uneventful. There was more chanting. Spokane police occasionally knelt in (what seemed to be) solidarity with the protestors. Things remained peaceful, and I cannot stress this enough.

black lives matter protests
Ben Blakney

Another nervous scan of the group during hour two. I noticed there was some graffiti tagging. On some sort of parking attendant booth, spray-painted insignias of “#blm” and “fuckthepolice” and “acab” all dressed the booth and surrounding asphalt. This worried me, as I feared the police would deem our demonstration as violent, and begin acting accordingly. They didn’t.

Come the third hour, about 25-35% of the original protestors remained, including Levi and I. I listened to people conversing with the officers as both parties respectfully engaged one another. Unfortunately, not all conversations were exactly civil. There were two protestors of (assuming) different ideals, arguing aggressively with one other. I turned my attention away from them, knowing if I joined their growing circle of spectators, they’d only feed off the attention.

The entire time I was protesting, I was reminding myself of the reasons I was there. There were some chants that bordered on destroying the peacefulness of the protest, of which I did not participate. Neither did Levi.

We both knew we were here to be allies to the Black Lives Matter movement. We were not there to attack the police, or to riot and cause chaos. We weren’t there for cathartic reasons. We were there in solidarity.

Later, Levi and I learned that another protest group downtown had become a riot, and the Spokane police used tear gas on these rioters. Innocent protestors suffered because rioters decided it was time to act up.

Cresting hour four, we decided it was time to leave. We walked back to the car, soaking in the Spokane River views and solemnly processing what we’d experienced. 

If you haven’t had a chance to make it to a protest, that is okay. There are many ways to use your voice. Donations, petitions, educating and having hard conversations with outdated ideals: All of these things are efforts to the cause. I choose to sign petitions and to be present in solidarity. This is the way I use my voice. If you don’t want to use your voice in the same ways I did (and still do), you do not have to. Any support helps.

Coming from someone who has just begun learning to use his voice, that is the best thing you can do. 

Don’t silence suppressed voices. Amplify them.