As we walked into Manchester’s Veterans Park, where yesterday’s Black Lives Matter march would begin, the first person we saw up close was a white man carrying a large rifle. He was approached right away by Matt Lawrence, one of the activists who had volunteered to be peacekeepers (or “ushers”) for the march.
Organizers of the march had asked people not to bring weapons, Matt calmly explained. The rifle-bearing man said he was there to help the police with security. He would be joined by others openly carrying weapons throughout the next two hours.
As the Back Lives Matter crowd swelled to more than 200, the number of counter-demonstrators grew as well. By the end, a group of men who were apparently members of a motorcycle club were attempting to goad activists into heated arguments about whether or not “all lives matter.”
Several members of Manchester’s police department stood by, generally on the edges of the crowd.
For the duration, a small group of peacekeepers, identified by their white arm-bands, kept an eye on the counter-demonstrators, often walking and chatting with them. At other times they placed themselves between the two groups as way to provide a buffer, diffuse tensions, and discourage the anti-racism activists from engaging in the types of heated arguments that could have easily escalated into violent conflict that would put lives at risk and interfere with the march’s purpose.
Given the recent events in Dallas and provocative statements from the city’s police chief, this was not an idle concern.
By the time we left at about 9 pm, most of the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators had already departed. Two activists were still arguing in a generally calm manner with a young woman carrying a large rifle. But by then it was clear that the march had successfully created an opportunity for people to express outrage against the pattern of police killings of Black people. Participants, many of them young, felt the strength of people coming together in a call for change. It was loud, spirited, and peaceful, which had been the organizers’ intent.
A few observations:
First, it was constructive for the organizers to be clear that the march was intended to be peaceful and to post guidelines on Facebook:
-if confronted by a counter protestor or violent person, remain calm and peaceful and try to keep moving
-if someone comes at you with their fists, weapon, etc, step back and call for one of the ushers to take control of the situation until law enforcement arrives
The explicit guidelines made it easier for peacekeepers to do their jobs.
Second, peacekeepers demonstrated several techniques that proved to be effective.
– Talk one-on-one with people who appear hostile. Introduce yourself. Try to make a human connection. Keep them busy talking to you.
– Remind activists that the purpose of the action is best served by refusing to take the bait from hostile counter-demonstrators looking for a fight.
– Stay calm and help others do the same.
In a Facebook post after the march, Alex Fried reflected on peacekeeper training he had received several years ago. “I’ve never had to use the skills I gained in that training until tonight,” he wrote. “I went up to one of them and introduced myself. I kept my hands open and in front of me at all times. We shook hands and spent the march together. I talked with him about his life, his political opinions, his childhood growing up in NH, and his job working for a weapons manufacturer. As much as possible we kept the armed protesters separate from the march.”
I’ve seen plenty of counter-demonstrators over the years, but last night is the first time I’ve seen them show up with weapons. If that’s a sign of things to come, let’s get more peacekeepers trained.