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Scenes in Kansas City unfolded like those in other cities across the country: With police firing multiple rounds of tear gas and pepper spray at demonstrators protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black men and women who have been killed by police.
It was just one of the many instances of police violence against protesters that took place nationwide: In New York City, police officers in a squad car rammed into a crowd of protesters. In Minneapolis, officers fired tear gas at journalists. In Washington, D.C., police fired tear gas into a crowd that included U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty.
With estimates of several thousands of protesters over the weekend, crowds lined the sidewalks along J.C. Nichols Parkway and Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd., holding signs with messages reading, “Silence is violence” and “No justice, no peace.” Organizers led the crowd in marches through nearby neighborhoods, leading chants of “Say her name,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black lives matter.”
Protests were centralized at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in Mill Creek Park, next to the Country Club Plaza. The fountain has been a longstanding protest spot. Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols, who developed the Plaza, left his mark on Kansas City by implementing racially restrictive covenants across the neighborhoods he developed, which explicitly barred black people from living in those homes. According to the book “Race, Real Estate and Uneven Development,” Nichols implemented more than 300 racially restrictive covenants across Kansas City through the 1950s.
Standing in front of the crowd, in a line of their own, members of the Kansas City Police Department were outfitted with riot gear, as well as tear gas, pepper spray, white zip ties, batons and guns.
Police first doused protesters with pepper spray in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday.
Then police fired tear gas on protesters at the front of the crowd lining 47th Street, causing people to run into Mill Creek Park. Those hit with tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, but legally available to local law enforcement — were at first stunned, hands clamped over their eyes from the sting of the gas, before being guided to safety and receiving aid from others. They poured milk and water on their faces.
The Kansas City Police would continue to wield tear gas, pepper spray and sound bombs against the crowd as night fell. According to KCPD, officers arrested 83 people on Saturday, for a total of 151 total arrests from Friday to Sunday.
On Saturday night a police car was damaged and on fire. Several businesses on the Plaza sustained damage in the form of spray paint and broken windows.
Before 10 p.m., Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared a State of Emergency and authorized the mobilization of the Missouri Highway Patrol and the National Guard.
Around noon on Sunday, before another protest was set to begin at Mill Creek Park, Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas announced a curfew from 8 p.m. that night to 6 a.m. the next morning. Affected areas included the Country Club Plaza, Westport, downtown and all city parks.
The Sunday curfew did not keep a crowd from gathering at Mill Creek Park to hear speakers discuss police violence, justice and accountability — drawing an even larger crowd than Saturday. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II (D), who has represented the district that includes Kansas City, Mo., since 2005, told the crowd “Protest is good and healthy.”
But the protest didn’t end once local elected officials left. With the National Guard now joining the Kansas City Police Department, demonstrators once again lined the sidewalks and the streets.
For Keji Akinmoladun, organizing a protest against police violence in Kansas City wasn’t solely to demand justice for Floyd, but to bring attention to the black folks who have died at the hands of Kansas City’s police officers. Because while the deaths of Floyd and Taylor fueled the protests in Kansas City and across the country, the Kansas City Police Department is not without its own history of brutality against civilians.
According to a national database by The Washington Post, the Kansas City Police Department has killed 13 black men since 2015: Donnie Sanders, an unarmed 47-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in March. Cameron Lamb, a 26-year-old black man, was shot and killed in his backyard by the KCPD last December. Ryan Stokes was 24 years old when KCPD officers shot and killed him in a parking lot in the Power & Light District. He was falsely accused of stealing an iPhone. The KCPD said he was armed with a weapon and had engaged in a standoff against police. But one officer, Daniel Straub, later testified against that narrative in 2017. Straub says he was “pushed out” from the KCPD in 2019. But William Thompson — the officer who fatally shot Stokes from behind — is still employed.
WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
In some other cities, protests played out differently: In Flint, Mich., the Genesee County Sheriff engaged with protesters and marched with them in a peaceful demonstration. In Houston, George Floyd’s childhood city, the police chief also marched with demonstrators and said the four officers involved in Floyd’s death should be charged (all four have now been charged). In Louisville, after police officers shot and killed black business owner David McAtee — and did not turn on their body cameras — Mayor Greg Fischer fired the Louisville police chief.
Mass demonstrations in Kansas City and other major cities have brought public attention not just to police violence, but to the systems and policies that make accountability and justice hard to achieve.
What sets the KCPD apart from other major police departments is the lack of local control over the police. In 1939, at the height of the Tom Pendergast era, the power to appoint members of the Kansas City Board of Police was transferred to the governor in an effort to stymie local mobs.
After St. Louis regained local control in 2013, Kansas City became the only major city in the U.S. where local elected officials do not have control over the police department. The governor appoints members of the Board of Police Commissioners.
In the immediate aftermath of this weekend’s protests, Akinmoladun said she hopes the officers who attacked protesters are fired for their actions. Police say concerns are being investigated internally and by the Jackson County prosecutor, the Department of Justice and the FBI.
“If they’re not, then it’s going to tell the other officers that are coming in, the new ones, any other ones that have been there for a long time, that there’s not going to be any repercussions for their actions,” she said.
In the long-term, Akinmoladun emphasized the importance of adopting body cameras as a potential check on police misconduct. As more cities and police departments have equipped officers with body cameras, Kansas City fell behind. The KCPD has not yet adopted body cameras for its officers, although Mayor Lucas said Wednesday funding for them had been secured.
With the 8 p.m. curfew approaching Sunday night, some people began to leave Mill Creek Park. Those who stayed were met with more tear gas and pepper spray.
“We can’t trust the people that are supposed to protect us,” Akinmoladun said.
Editor’s note: Assistant Editor Celisa Calacal and photographers reported from Mill Creek Park on Saturday and Sunday. We received information from the Kansas City Police Department on arrest numbers and property damage that occurred over the weekend. Police say “minimal deployments” of pepper spray and no tear gas were used during protests Tuesday night.
DO THE WORK: A SELECTED ANTI-RACIST BIBLIOGRAPHY
The Beacon’s staff curated this list of content we’ve found helpful in our journeys toward more anti-racist perspectives.
- “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins
- “Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon
- “How To Be An Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
- “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
- “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
- “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad
- “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
- “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin
- “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
- “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo, PhD
- “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
- “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones
- 1619 Podcast, The New York Times
- Code Switch, NPR
- The Problem We All Live With – This American Life
- Yo, Is This Racist?
- Seeing White
- The Case for Reparations — Ta-Nahesi Coates
- Fatal Force — The Washington Post
- The 1619 Project — The New York Times
- “We Need To Talk About An Injustice,” TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson
- 26 Mini-Films for Exploring Race, Bias and Identity With Students by the New York Times
- I Am Not Your Negro, documentary film
- 13th, documentary film
- “The urgency of intersectionality,” TED Talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw
- Whose Streets?, documentary film
- Letter From a Birmingham Jail — Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Project Implicit, an online test on beliefs and attitudes
Black Lives Matter: City Hall Protest, 11 a.m. on Friday, June 5
Latino Rally, 9:30 a.m. on Friday, June 5