One year ago, in the week after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, an uprising ripped across the country at a dizzying pace. As millions flooded the streets police used teargas against demonstrators in more than 100 cities, producing a sense that the nation teetered on the edge of chaos and revolution.
Some of the cities were not large metropolitan areas, but medium-sized towns that exemplified political and social forces that have repressed Black communities for nearly 100 years. The Guardian examined three cities – Asheville, North Carolina; Wichita, Kansas; and Spokane, Washington – and found similar trends were at play.
This uniquely American situation, combined with the economic dislocations of the pandemic, contributed to a powder keg environment. In order to tell this story, the Guardian obtained internal assessments by police after protests in their cities, and spoke to demonstrators in each city. But the story is larger than just one year.
For generations, all three cities divested from Black communities, concentrating them in areas that experience higher levels of crime, police violence and harassment. Police have evaded calls for accountability for decades, residents say, while reforms and oversight have amounted to tinkering at the margins.
When the protests came, their scale in each city was unprecedented, and police were stunned at protesters’ nimbleness and willingness for confrontation. They deployed voluminous amounts of chemical munitions and other riot control weapons against protesters, who maintain that police escalated tensions.
The Guardian contacted each police department for comment. Asheville police defended its record by citing its data-driven approach, which stands out among US police. Wichita police emphasized a change in its leadership since 2016, and highlighted a number of community initiatives meant to reduce Black residents’ negative contact with the criminal legal system. Spokane police did not respond to inquiries.
A year later, some who advocated for police reform or abolition worry that a familiar pattern of stagnation is repeating. Far from jeopardizing funding, police budgets in these three cities have either increased or not meaningfully changed, and none of the broader issues of equity in Black communities have changed in substantial ways.
Before the protests
When Rob Thomas’s car tire went flat about a decade ago he was heartened that an Asheville police officer stopped to help. But then the officer insisted on searching his car, and claimed to find small bits of marijuana. He acted as if he was doing Thomas a favor by letting him go.
“This is just one of the experiences that I personally have faced,” Thomas, 34, says. “It’s like they can literally bend the law to their will to harass you and do it justifiably.”
Thomas now works as a community liaison with the Racial Justice Coalition, a local nonprofit, and understands the systemic impacts of racism on his life. But as an intelligent kid in a “drug-infested environment”, he felt alienated and lost, and he went to prison twice before he was 30. Growing up Black in Asheville, a city in mountainous western North Carolina, there were unspoken rules, like never run from a police officer.
“It was well known throughout my community that if you ran from the police, they were going to use force on you whether you gave up or not, for the simple fact that you have already resisted arrest.”
A data portal launched by the city in December shows that Black residents were the targets of a third of all force by Asheville police from last November through March, though they make up about 11% of Asheville’s total population. A spokesperson said the department “has invested a considerable amount of education and training to make sure all of our officers protect the public without any kind of bias toward anyone.”
Asked for comment, Asheville police said Williams was armed.
In response to questions from the Guardian, the Asheville police spokesperson said patrols were not concentrated in public housing developments, citing the department’s own small sampling of GPS data. The department has had a unit of officers dedicated to public housing developments since 2012.
In Wichita, Kansas, Black people also experience more negative interactions with police compared with other racial groups. After Black residents living in the city’s Central Northeast complained of frequent police vehicle stops for improper turns, a local newspaper in 2006 confirmed that police were targeting the region for pretextual traffic stops. Recent reports indicate a pattern of police more frequently stopping Black residents compared with white is still occurring, though the department disputes racial profiling.
“They were mostly stopping young men, but I was an old Black woman and I got stopped twice,” recalls Elaine Guillory, distribution manager at the Community Voice, a local newspaper for Wichita’s African-American community. “Both times I got stopped late at night. It was oppressive. It was very oppressive.”
In an analysis of public data by the Wichita Eagle from 2018, 43% of lethal force cases dating to 2009 involved Black residents. Although WPD’s rate of killings are in the middle of the 100 largest US cities, when police do use excessive force, there is a critical lack of public accountability that follows, according to James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer who reviewed about 25 instances of Wichita police brutality from 2011 to 2015.
“You can’t even find out the names of officers that have been involved in a shooting,” Thompson said. “I started seeing patterns in the police reports, like they’d say someone made furtive movement towards the waistband … it’s the same language over and over, like they’re trained to say these things.”
In the last five years, Wichita police, under a new chief, have put together several initiatives for developing community relationships to defusetensions in response to police violence. A spokesperson for the department also highlighted the department’s addition of social workers to its patrols for mental health outreach, housing stabilization and violence interrupters as the rate of killings in the city has increased.
The concentration of homicides in Black neighborhoods, like policing in general, corresponds with racist housing patterns and state-backed displacement of Black people. Wichita’s Central Northeast neighborhood tracks with a map of redlining from the 1940s and has remained neglected for decades. Asheville was also redlined, and later waves of urban renewal broke apart Black communities and cut their population in the city by nearly half from 1950 to 2010.
Though Spokane, a city in Washington near the Idaho border, has a smaller Black population than either Wichita or Asheville, Black people as well as Native Americans are more likely to be suspected of crimes, stopped, arrested, searched and have force used against them.
Spokane police officers’ killings of residents ranks as the third highest among the top 100 largest cities in the country, according to Mapping Police Violence. Activist researchers found Black people were killed by police at 3.3 times the rate of white residents.
“The disparate treatment is especially stark here, where the Black community is 2 to 3% of the population but at least 15 or sometimes 18% of the local jail population,” said Kurtis Robinson, the vice-president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter.
During the protests
In all three cities the Guardian analyzed, the protests immediately following Floyd’s death did not start in neighborhoods with significant Black populations, but instead in cities’ downtown regions and other central areas – mirroring a nationwide trend. At some point, people looted stores and defaced property while police made arrests and fired crowd control rounds and teargas.
Spokane police described 31 May as “nine hours of battle” in which there were 300-strong “riots” downtown at one point. People threw rocks and bricks at riot officers, said police, who used pepper spray, teargas and other chemical munitions.
But some who were there disagreed with Spokane police’s battlefield description, including Emily Peters, a makeup artist and local activist. Video from the day also shows officers rushing and firing at small groups of protesters.
“In my personal experience and videos I’ve watched, there’s nothing, there’s no explanation for their use of teargas and use of force on that day, it just came out of the blue,” Peters said.
“They showed up in an escalated position with full armor, snipers on the roof,” added Alexis Gallaway-Tonasket, another local activist present at other demonstrations in Spokane.
More than 2,000 miles away, in Asheville, police reported a shift in the crowd of protesters that night, whose “signs and chants calling for social justice and a stop to police brutality were replaced by vulgarity and direct threats to APD officers”, according to police. About 300 protesters took over highway I-240E and walked against traffic. At least two businesses downtown were defaced, as was a Confederate monument.
With reinforcements from neighboring counties and cities, Asheville police used teargas and pepper balls with irritating chemicals.
“The APD has never encountered a protest where emotions were so high and the anger towards police was so fervent,” Asheville police later said.
Days later, a video clip of Asheville police in riot gear destroying $2,156.88 worth of protesters’ medical supplies and water went viral. The department later said this was a mistake, but assessed its officers’ overall response to protests favorably. It noted the department only received one complaint about an injury caused by police.
But Mary Williams, a nursing school student at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College who attended the protests to provide medical support, said she treated “at least 100 people” for injuries, including teargas irritation, blunt force trauma, and lesions from fired rounds.
Thomas, the Asheville native, said he and two others hosted a meeting with about 80 Black residents to decide whether to join protests. They eventually organized an event on 6 June, as a strategy for pushing several demands, including a local reparations initiative. By then, according to police, the protests had become less confrontational.
“Some of the original protest participants wanted it to be more anarchist and, you know, and I respect all protesters and every method of protest, but I specifically engaged in peaceful protests that did not result in property damage or physical damage to community members,” Thomas recalled.
The tension in tactics among protesters was also visible in Wichita, which had not seen wide-scale rioting in response to police violence since 1980. In an after action report, police said they had gained intelligence through social media and crowd infiltration, but weren’t trained to handle the unrest and had “equipment issues”.
After several nights of protests where no property damage occurred, one street corner a few miles north of downtown became a gathering spot for youth to protest and create a block party atmosphere. People eventually looted a store and threw things at police, and one person was arrested for gunfire. Wichita police used foam bullets, teargas, bean bags and other rounds.
It was a change for the department, which once received praise from President Obama after arranging a cookout with the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter in 2016.
After the protests
As time passed, the intense calls for change that rang out in the streets clashed against various realities in the three cities.
In the background, former President Trump’s campaign leveraged hyped-up political attacks by “antifa” through targeted political ads. Threats and violence from militia groups and white supremacists also ticked upwards across the country.
By August, Wichita’s police chief, Gordon Ramsay, was using the city’s brief spell of protests to argue that his agency needed more money, so that officers could receive more training for mental healthcare and engage in “community policing” – a form of patrol in which officers develop goodwill to build intelligence relationships with residents.
The proposal was for $7.3m in new funds. Many at a city council meeting on 11 August argued fiercely against it.
The increase would be “a slap in the face of democracy”, said Lawanda Deshazer, a vice-president of the local NAACP. Deshazer suggested instead that Wichita cut the cost of school resource officers in half and put the money toward anti-poverty measures such as mental health services and homeless relief.
Wichita city council voted 7-0 to increase the police budget, including for hiring more officers. Recently, two protest leaders from last summer who were vocal about defunding Wichita police were convicted of protest-related crimes – spurring allegations of political targeting.
Broader reforms remain elusive, though some changes were made after the uprising, according to Sheila Officer, president of Wichita’s Racial Profiling Citizens Advisory Board. Wichita police started issuing vouchers to some drivers for minor auto repairs instead of writing traffic tickets. A policy mandating officers intervene when a colleague misbehaves was also added, and Officer says she is now advocating to alter the local police union contract.
Among other issues with the contract, Officer said, is that it gives police the upper hand in the investigative process after they kill someone.
“The public and the community that they serve need to have input on what and when the contract will be up for renewal,” Officer said.
In Spokane, the city recently approved its contract with the local police union, which had sought to weaken the authority of the city’s police watchdog office. That proposal failed, but the union was able to boost salaries for officers.
Sixty-one per cent of Spokane’s general fund in its 2021 budget is marked for “public safety and judicial services”, including police. With a relative high rate of homelessness, mental health workers from a non-profit health organization are often deployed to service calls alongside police. Some think this should change.
“We are working on finding ways to transition to a society in which our first responders are appropriately trained for what they’re doing,” said Gallaway-Tonasket, a member of the group Human Rights Activist Coterie of Spokane.
The culture of Spokane police is also a concern. Last October, officers were planning to attend a presentation by David Grossman, the “killologist” military veteran who trains officers how to attack and kill without hesitation. Though Grossman cancelled his appearance, another trainer filled in for him, leading to protests.
Kurtis Robinson, the local NAACP vice-president, is seeking a cultural change within Spokane police, and was recently appointed by Washington’s governor to a state law enforcement training commission. He says some protesters have criticized his willingness to engage in dialogue with police, but believes it’s the right path.
“Hopefully, we see a reduction and diminishing of the fragile pushback [from police] that we sometimes get far too often over here, that blue fragility,” Robinson said.
Yet nearly a year after the reparations resolution was passed, Asheville has made little movement. Other gains have been small and primarily symbolic. Further delay of the reparations initiative could “widen divides in the community and reinforce the existing distrust that the local black community has in the government”, according to a group of Harvard graduate students studying progress in Asheville.
The city didn’t respond to the Guardian’s questions about these characterizations. In May, the city announced a Truth Telling Speaker Series, “the first phase of the city of Asheville’s process to deliver community reparations for Black Asheville”.
For Rob Thomas, who considers himself a “long-term abolitionist”, nothing proposed by the city matches the scale of change he says must happen for Black people to come up from under the weight of state repression.
For him, the solutions to violent policing are linked to improving life for Black people. Investments in communities must be paired with a reimagined conception of “public safety” that doesn’t criminalize based on race or poverty.
“They need to give community control over the reparations commission, and they need to give land and money to the Black community to address the disparities, because there is no other solution out of any of this.”
The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.
China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.
“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.
“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.
“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.
“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.
But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.
“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.
“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.
He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.
“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.
“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.
The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.
“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.
China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.
Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.
“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.
China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.
“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.
“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.
“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.
For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.
The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.
Back to normal
Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.
“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.
“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.
“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.
Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.
But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.
He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.
“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.
The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.
The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?
Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.
John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.