This past weekend, hundreds of activists seeking justice for George Floyd — including many from Turlock — took to the streets of Modesto to protest police brutality as part of a peaceful march. For hours, the group’s steadfast path down McHenry Avenue served as an example for other cities on how to demand change without inciting violence.
By the end of the day, it became clear how quickly a peaceful protest can turn dangerous thanks to the actions of a few.
As I walked alongside Sunday’s march as a journalist, I was proud of the Central Valley for demonstrating in a safe, respectable manner. Although tensions caused by riots and looting throughout the country soared this week, our little bubble showed what can be achieved at a protest when everyone works together to shut down negativity and focus on the issues at hand.
Community members of all backgrounds came together to help one another during the march that lasted three hours and traveled over seven miles, passing out water, snacks and even providing first aid for blisters. The Modesto Police Department made sure traffic was blocked for the duration of the march so that protesters could demonstrate safely. There were a couple of tense moments that saw objects thrown at officers, but march organizers put a stop to any violence immediately the few times it occurred. A few bad apples were overpowered by the voices of many, who chanted “Keep the peace!”
I witnessed conversations between protesters and cops, watched those marching make new friends and even joined those who paused from their meal at a restaurant, stopped pumping gas or stepped out from their weekly shopping trip to marvel at the pure size and volume of the crowd as it passed.
There was no animosity, no fighting. There were only calls to achieve justice for George Floyd and other black lives lost to police violence: a message that much of the country has rallied behind. However, rioters and looters taking advantage of mass gatherings of protest have tarnished that unity, and the reason for the protests has become seemingly lost in recent days.
Even though Sunday’s march turned into a clash with police upon returning to downtown Modesto, the message and success of the hours before can’t be forgotten all because of a few moments of conflict. Seeing the march organizers’ efforts to demonstrate peacefully unravel in a matter of minutes was devastating to watch.
The march returned to the Tenth Street Plaza in high spirits, with local civil rights leaders providing words of encouragement over the microphone. The focus of the conversation then turned violent when an unidentified man got on the mic to encourage breaking the “ligaments” of police officers, among other threatening messages that stirred a portion of the crowd. Warily, the organizer of the march then thanked everyone for coming to the peaceful protest and told them to get home safely.
Many left, they had achieved their goal of making their cause known to the Central Valley. But those who remained had a different goal in mind. Somehow, the man who was promoting messages of violence before suddenly had the microphone in his hands again. The crowd was moving from the plaza and toward the bicycle law enforcement officers stationed at the nearby intersection at 10th and J streets, led by his voice.
From across the street, I knew it wouldn’t end well.
First, the now-smaller crowd approached the officers on bicycles. A cup was tossed. The officers retreated down J Street back to where the other officers and their vehicles were blocking traffic. From there, the crowd backed the officers and their cars into the stopped traffic, and civilian cars on the street retreated.
It was loud, and things escalated quickly. Agitators were in the faces of cops, taunting and jeering, as peaceful protesters tried to intervene and stop the confrontation. One organizer of the march faced off with a young white man who was antagonizing an officer. She told him she and other black protesters would suffer because of his actions. He didn’t care.
I watched as officers and agitators exchanged words. Peaceful protesters fought verbally with the angry ones. Then, an officer was hit with a water bottle. More things were thrown. Chaos.
After watching how protests have escalated quickly around the country, I knew what the response to bottles and rocks being thrown would be. Sure enough, in charged police in riot gear, armed with flash bangs, pepper bullets and batons. I was shoved out of the way as they made their way into the mob, eager to control the violence with more violence.
Arrests were made. People were hurt. Downtown Modesto had turned into a warzone like the other cities we’ve all watched on TV. I watched as organizers and other peaceful protesters continued to try and keep the peace, but it was lost.
The non-peaceful protesters eventually made their way out of the streets. A couple of windows were broken during the conflict and some graffiti was sprayed, but Modesto was unscathed compared to other communities. When I interviewed the event’s organizers afterward, they were devastated. They didn’t intend for things to go the way they did and tried to stop it. Those who ruined it, one organizer said, showed that the three hours of marching beforehand meant nothing to them.
We need to remember that despite the actions of a few, the message of the march remains in the Central Valley and nationwide. Peaceful protesters achieved their mission of spreading a positive message on Sunday and tried their best to honor George Floyd’s memory. The chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Justice for George” will echo far longer than the flash bang smoke remains in the air.
I’ll remember the moments of the march instead of the terror of the conflict. I’ll tell people about protesters handing police officers water and the line of marchers who stood arm-in-arm to protect cops on horseback from violence. I’ll share how community members stopped what they were doing to join in as the march made its way across town. I’ll remember the unified message shared by one of the largest crowds to ever march in the Valley. I’ll remember the peace.