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Unrest in Indianapolis: What sparked it and what change is needed?

Two experts offer observations and solutions
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Posted at 11:30 PM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-12 00:02:54-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis residents woke up on May 30 to a downtown they had never seen before.

A day of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis had turned violent during the night, leaving scores of businesses damaged by looters. And there was more to come Saturday night, including two murders downtown. Protests became a daily occurrence.

Why did a city that has seen its share of usually peaceful protests and marches over the years turn so violent?

For some answers, WRTV turned to University of Indianapolis Professor Terrence Harewood and Dr. Clyde Posley, Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church.

Professor Harewood is an associate professor in the School of Education with expertise in multicultural education. Dr. Posley is Racial and Social Justice Coordinator, Union District Association and he's associated with the organization, Faith in Indiana.

Indianapolis is no stranger to protests over police-related killings of black people, including a recent incident on the northwest side. But what we have not seen in this city is widespread downtown looting. What are your thoughts on why this happened here and across the USA? Did the country reach a tipping point?

Dr. Clyde Posley
Indeed, the city and the country has reached a tipping point precipitated by a sweltering pot of racial injustice, the fires of which have been steadily raising and are being constantly stoked by racial rhetoric from the White House and several incidences where accountability for injustices and crimes against people of color have continued to mount and more often than not, with very little accountability for the purveyors of the injustice.

Any circumstance where cries for oppression and relief from historical pain go unheard of themselves produce a louder more colorful and even if unfair, more innovative way to be heard. I am in no way a proponent of looting or rioting. Faith in Indy has publicly declared this on multiple occasion. But that said, there are efforts of solidarity designed to alleviate the city and country from the clear racial injustices which have occurred over centuries which I believe would not be moving so swiftly were it not for the manner as well as the motive of protest currently underway.

Professor Terrence Harewood
A variety of factors contribute to the difference in response here. These factors have compounded over time and so what has been occurring is a result of the universal law of compound effect. One crucial factor is the historical moment in which these events are taking place, particularly the impact of the current pandemic.

Recent media have exposed the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on the African American and other communities of color. The overwhelming evidence illuminating the alarming rate of COVID-19 deaths of African Americans has had a chilling effect on the black community. Adding to that is historically high rates on unemployment with estimates as high as 25% unemployment rate for black workers.

The health insecurity and economic insecurity caused by COVID-19, have undoubtedly contributed to rampant feelings of uncertainty. To now lay another senseless killing of an unarmed black man on top of the already boiling economic and health realities, was sufficient to ignite anger and frustration. Many fellow African Americans, with whom I have spoken, raised the question, "when can we catch a break?"

Another contributing factor is what is being experienced as an amplification or multiplication of the number of vicious killings of unarmed blacks in recent weeks, and the blatantly inadequate responses by law enforcement. With at least three highly visible incidents occurring recently, for many, it feels like these killings are happening everyday.

The stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders from as a result of the pandemic have also provided some fuel to fire. More and more people are at home due to COVID-19. The usual things that compete for their attention like work are no longer mitigating factors. People now have more opportunities to pay attention to what is occurring in the media. To witness the video of this senseless killing disgusted people from all shades and walks of life, many of whom might not have ordinarily paid attention.

The ubiquitous violence against unarmed black men have also simultaneously contributed to raising the consciousness for many white people who or at the very least are now more comfortable in acknowledging the realities of white privilege. From a racial identity development standpoint, many of them are beginning to see the overwhelming evidence that contradicts the dominant myths of meritocracy and equal justice for all that have longed been perpetuated in the United States. The courageous acts they witness by other whites around the country have emboldened them to act in unprecedented ways.

Young people who have been socialized to speak up against social injustices are also rising up to resist this persistent thread to out democracy. Not to mention, other radical far-right groups have co-opted the movement and used this to express their rage by engaging in many of these violent acts.

These raw emotions have been brewing for a while now and to say that America has reached a tipping point, might be an understatement. For many in the black community, it’s like a slow and agonizing taunting genocide. You don’t know when you’re safe or how to make yourself or your loved ones feel safe. There’s widespread fear about the possible violence that could be done to you or your loved ones, and there seems no right way to respond. It feels like there’s no way to assure your safety. Even if a police officer does hurt a member of your community or family, or yourself for that matter, there’s no way to ensure that there will be any accountability for that death.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 did not spark widespread looting in Indianapolis, while elsewhere, it did. What was the difference here this time?

Dr. Clyde Posley
I believe that there are several reasons why the Indianapolis protests took on a different posture in this season versus in 1968. In 1968, there was an immediate political voice which completely expressed a powerful empathy related to the feelings of pain and despair surrounding racial injustice and the death of Black America’s voice at that time. This immediate voice in the person of Robert Kennedy captured the attention of a people who were looking to riot but more so were looking for comfort in Indianapolis.

In this season, in contrast, the coronavirus quarantine and subsequent economic pressures, the deaths of Aaron Bailey, Ahmaud Arebery, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon Reed and of course George Floyd, created a spark for internalized pain and pressure which was fanned by the stress of a physiological pandemic, a sociological pandemic which produced in many a psychological pandemic, leading to an outward expression which was virtually inevitable.

Simply put, King articulated to a culture its condition and position in Black America and what steps needed to be taken to turn the tide of racism specifically.

In my view, these protests, spoke of frustrations ranging from Donald Trump’s response or lack thereof to the cries of black people, relative to racial injustice. To the stress of being under insured and dying of COVID at a disproportionate rate to their white counterparts, to being over-policed and for many, that was too much to bear without public voice.

Professor Terrence Harewood
Indianapolis is often historically described as the city of polite protest. Many people attribute the peaceful protest after the death of MLK to the chilling confession and calming words expressed by Robert F. Kennedy.

The reality is that the practice of non-violence protest was still an integral strategy in the struggle for equality back in 1968. Many leaders here were also versed in that non-violent tradition and were able to influence angry demonstrators into honoring Dr. King's memory by responding in a non-violent manner.

Unlike back then, the practice of non-violent protest is not intentionally taught, neither is honoring Dr. King's memory as fresh in the minds of the protesters today as was the case in the aftermath of his death in 1968.

Moreover, unlike back then, there’s no central figure that we look to whose philosophy is non-violent. Consequently, because we have so many disparate voices that are contributing to the resistance, coordination has been a challenge. What we are witnessing here is that people have different kinds of responses, the majority of which are non-violent and peaceful

Were you surprised that looting in downtown Indianapolis took place?

Dr. Clyde Posley
I was not surprised at the downtown looting for two reasons. One, I had become keenly aware that there were outside agitators intending to do such things from white supremacist groups for the purpose of having it blamed on black protesters and Black Lives Matter leaders. A second reason is because I have come to understand it was the intention for protest leaders to connect with protests around the country and around the world, many of which have become violent.

Professor Terrence Harewood
In some ways, I was surprised, given the historical approaches here in Indianapolis. But given the level of anger that I hear expressed by many, I am not surprised. People are angry. Anger is a legitimate response to injustice. People are expressing that anger and following strategies they see playing out nationwide. People are demanding change and justice for the victims.

The death of George Floyd, at the hands of police, unlike any event in recent memory, has really gotten the country’s attention, and very quickly. Can you explain the reasons for this?

Dr. Clyde Posley
The public death of George Floyd has been so impactful on the country in my view because in the minds of many, if not most African Americans and those conscious to racism, it is emblematic and now symbolic of what has been happening to African Americans since 1619.

It should not be lost that the posture of the accused lead officer, Derrick Chauvin, is that of a hunter kneeling on the neck of his prey, for example, a deer, with the intention after having already shot the deer, to press the rest of the life out of the deer. The ease and comfort displayed by this officer with his hands in his pocket and his refusal to take his knee off George Floyd’s neck even when a fellow officer requested him to do so shows the brutal and intentional treatment of this officer toward this black man that a news report now confirms that he knew, having worked with him as a nightclub security. All of these are but a few of what gives such power to the George Floyd video.

Professor Terrence Harewood
I am brought to tears just by thinking about what I saw in that video a man with his knee on the neck of another human, while another man with his hands in his pockets cautioned him that what he was doing could and would end the life of another person. Despite the warning, to watch this officer so calmly maintain his stranglehold while ignoring the pleas for life disturbed viewers from far and wide. While other recent police killings have caught the attention of our country, people are likely even more outraged by such a vile and blatantly grotesque abuse of power.

The advances in technology have undoubtedly made documenting and disseminating police brutality more widespread. The unambiguous and chilling images from this video show an unarmed black man being strangled to death as he pleads with police officers and cries for his "mama."

Witnessing these incidents replay on television and social media plucked at the heartstrings of many people. These images infuriated many people. In many regards, the video from this event was like the Bloody Sunday of Selma, Alabama, 1965. On that historic March day, many Americans were glued to their television sets watching the Nuremburg Trials.

When NBC interrupted with live footage of police trampling and beating peaceful protesters as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, many viewers could not believe such horrific treatment by police was happening on U.S. soil. The dramatic images ignited a passion among ordinary Americans, and within days, scores of people assembled in Selma to participate in the protests.

Having viewed these images back then, Americans could not longer turn a blind eye to the disgraceful acts of racism occurring on our soil. This video might have had a similar impact on the consciousness of morally-minded Americans.

The protests we have seen here and elsewhere generally involve a cross-section of the population, both black and white. What does this tell us about the public’s desire for change?

Dr. Clyde Posley
Among the many reasons to be encouraged about the ongoing protest is the kaleidoscopic complexion of the protesters. Black America cannot change America by itself. The policies and legislation necessary to bring about sustainable change require an inclusive understanding of the pain of racism an inclusive participation in the protest against racism, and an inclusive and persistent push to change the policies, legislation, and psychological approach and practice of democracy and patriotism in the U.S. When we accomplish that, that will be our finest hour.

Professor Terrence Harewood
People of all walks are life are responding on humanitarian grounds. They are angry and expressing their ally-ship because they genuinely do not believe these things should be happening in our country. To borrow from Fanny Lou Hamer, "people are sick and tired of being sick and tired." They are frustrated by the lack of leadership and inflammatory rhetoric from the president, and they are joining in solidarity with the protesters to ignite social change and bring an end to these senseless killings.

There is a general distrust of police within the African American community. Can you explain, from both a historical and current perspective, why this appears to be true?

Dr. Clyde Posley
Indeed, there is a general distrust of police in the African American community. It is born from the historical over-policing within the black community. Historically, in the deep south and in many places across the country, interactions with police relative to their treatment of African Americans, was an exercise in what amount of force would be used in this interaction, including death as a perennial option within these interactions

The African American culture, in the same way that parents explain the birds and the bees to their children at puberty, there is also the “talk” about how to behave in order survive a police interaction.
For an African American young person, often the talk about how to survive an interaction that happens at puberty is forever connected with being an adult in black skin.

Connecting fear as black person with adult life. Today, as an adult accomplished PhD, I find myself still driving by a police officer looking in my rear view mirror. I find myself if stopped by a police officer expecting the interaction not to go well and praying that I make it home to my wife, simply because I was stopped. This mindset has become a mainstay in Black America for far too long.

Professor Terrence Harewood
There's a common adage that the color of justice is not black or white, it is green. In part, because of the disparate distribution of income and wealth in this country.

Blacks have had limited access to justice. It is important to think about the experiences blacks have had with the legal system for centuries. Consider how many states, including Indiana, have had laws that prevented blacks from even testifying in law courts against whites.

The fact that the lives of blacks could be stripped away, lynched, discarded with no legal recourse. The prevalence of racial profiling, and the countless number of blacks who were unjustifiably killed or brutalized by police officers, are among the things that have caused blacks to sincerely question this idea of equal justice for all.

As an African American male, can you describe any personal experiences you have had with police that you believe would not have happened to a white person?

Dr. Clyde Posley
I can. I’ve been stopped on more than one occasion without being ticketed and asked where I was going, who was I going to see, or asked what are you doing out so late, or if this is my car?

Other instances include once I was searching for the county building when I lived in McCordsville. I walked up to an officer outside with my wife and kids in the car. Before the officer told be where the building was for which I searched he spit out his tobacco and asked me “do you live in our county?”

Also, my son tripped an alarm coming in the house at approximately 11 p.m. one night. He did not know the new alarm code because he was away at college when I changed it. Having set off the alarm I immediately came downstairs and cut the alarm off with the code.

The alarm company dispatched the police department. Me, my son, and wife were standing outside when they got there with the garage door open. And the first thing the officer asked me was do we have any weapons and if so, do we have gun permits as he came to answer my burglar alarm.

Professor Terrence Harewood
There are a few instances that come to mind for me. One that immediately comes to mind is my experience being pulled over for what was clearly DWB (Driving While Black). I was driving home on the south side one night after a long day grading in my office. I was clearly driving within the speed limit listening to the radio when a police squad car drove up beside me and then drove slightly ahead of me.

I looked over and noticed it was a police vehicle and noticed his head turned toward me. I rechecked my speed limit as he continued to drive ahead of me. Within seconds, he turned on his emergency lights, pulled in behind me and proceeded to pull me over. He went through his formalities, asked me if I was drinking, if I had drugs or weapons in the car, etc. When I queried as to why I was being pulled over, he claimed that I was swerving. I found it remarkable that he could see me swerving even though he was driving ahead of me.

That police departments and police officers here and across the country have decried what Minneapolis police did with George Floyd, what does this tell us?

Dr. Clyde Posley
Well, there are any number of things this could tell us. Ranging from the fact that there are good and wholesome police officers who do not intend to be grouped in with officers such as those in Minneapolis.
I also believe it tells us that there is quite a bit of silence underway in departments about such behaviors because what we witnessed in the life of George Floyd is not new and we’ve not heard these decries at this level before now.

Professor Terrence Harewood
This is a good start. The question remains, how does this translate to systemic change? How will this translate into new policies, practices, procedures that will bring an end to these unlawful practices?

Images from marches in Indianapolis and elsewhere showing police in solidarity with the marchers. What impact can this have?

Dr. Clyde Posley
These types of interactions are vital, particularly if they lead to in kind and further expressions of how African Americans are policed. The hope of something better between community and police is a possibility. Pictures of this across the country prove this to be the case.

Professor Terrence Harewood
While it is admirable that police are standing in solidarity with the protesters, I think the public will be served even more when this social unrest translates to these officers becoming internal advocates and fight for systemic change when the cameras are tuned off and the fires are put out.

What will it take for there truly to be long-term change in police/African American relations.

Dr. Clyde Posley
When policies not dictated by Fraternal Order of Police unions all around the country, but instead policies of a bipartisan nature, and by bipartisan community, FOP's and local politicians.

I also believe there needs to be a more comprehensive and blanketed effort for legislation for police interaction with African Americans and the public at large with an emphasis on de-escalation.

Lastly, I believe that the complete liability of bad officer conduct should not only reside at the taxpayer’s feet, but in cases of blatant misconduct, a certain amount of fiduciary responsibility should be attached to the officer who broke policy.

Professor Terrence Harewood
Again, there is an adage, "sometimes people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."The time has come for a more empathetic and caring approach to policing.

Historically, in many institutions across the US and elsewhere, it's the people who have the least amount of power who have had to do the majority, if not all of the adapting. Long-term change in relations and trust begins with a change of mindset, although it can't end there.

Systemic changes in law enforcement and policing will not be changed or sustained unless we see mutually adaptive solutions. For this change to work, the people with the most power, particularly those who have systemically and unjustly abused that power, will have to do the majority of the adaptation. "To whom much is given, much is required."

Do you think there will be change?

Dr. Clyde Posley
Yes, I believe there will be change. There will never be enough change to satisfy all but democracy and national unity are exercises which are fluid and evolutionary. If there is hope and effort, there can be change.

Professor Terrence Harewood
Again, there is an adage, "sometimes people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." The time has come for a more empathetic and caring approach to policing.

Historically, in many institutions across the U.S. and elsewhere, it's the people who have the least amount of power who have had to do the majority, if not all of the adapting. Long term change in relations and trust begins with a change of mindset, although it can't end there.

Systemic changes in law enforcement and policing will not be changed or sustained unless we see mutually adaptive solutions. For this change to work, the people with the most power, particularly those who have systemically and unjustly abused that power, will have to do the majority of the adaptation. "To whom much is given, much is required."

I am hopeful but surely not naïve. I believe our country is ripe for change and that with the support of well-meaning individuals, that change will come. The question is, how will we measure that change.

The current political climate in Washington clearly helps to divide the country. What will it take to change this, and can it change?

Dr. Clyde Posley
It starts with the president. The President of the United States is the most powerful political force in the world.

There are executive orders, which could be written and enacted today which would create sweeping change in the subject matter which we just discussed. Instead what we see is our president “completely takes more accountability for the officers” off the table while in negotiations with congress who had just set forth a new proposal for police reform.

So, changes can happen and must happen. There is a strange phenomenon occurring in America. Crime is down and has been steadily decreasing across the country and yet black men dying at the hands of law enforcement is increasing. The time for change is now. The most potent weapons we have are prayer, the ballot box and social commitment.

Professor Terrence Harewood
Again, I am hopeful. The polarization in Washington, highlighted by the inflammatory rhetoric and poor judgment by the president, is contributing to the amplification of polarized voices across the nation. It is also contributing to a reversion of empathy, where many people are developing more empathy toward their own group and are less likely to see others' perspectives. I think the recent events represent a shift, albeit temporary, where scores of citizens are expressing empathy and disgust over this national crisis.

In your bio, you say you hope your work as a professor can be a "vessel of transformation." Will recent events in the city and country play into this?

Professor Terrence Harewood
I believe I am called to help people make sense of the complexities of cultural differences and change.

The recent events have made becoming a vessel of transformation even more important, and I desire to continue to engage and facilitate dialoges that reveal critical dynamics that support people and institutions in transforming themselves.