I am quite surprised how quickly word spread. So, I am writing this to ease concerns and to let you know that I am safe and OK.
Late Sunday afternoon I received an email from a colleague that Lancaster City had requested support from the NAACP and clergy to de-escalate the violence in Lancaster City after a few days of protests and violence. They asked for help to "bring center to the protests."
So, I quickly adjusted my plans with the youth group and family and donned my clergy collar, a hospital badge identifying me as clergy, and a stole (even though technically as a licensed pastor with an MDiv I am not yet allowed to wear a stole) as a clear external sign of my office serving the church and community as a pastor.
Most of the protesters were peaceful--outraged at the injustices of the murder of women and men of color, but peaceful. They made deliberate calls for solidarity and calm action in the city. They specifically called out people in the crowd to not throw bricks, to not do any property damage, and to not be involved in any acts of violence. I was extremely impressed by the citizens leading the march.
The Mayor, Danene Sorace, was there engaging with the citizens, listening to their concerns, and voicing her own frustrations at the injustices that still need to be rectified. She was doing her best to deploy police where needed and to keep them accountable for doing the right thing.
The State Police came in force to support the work of the Lancaster Police to protect the citizens in case the peaceful protest turned into a riot as it has done in so many places across America. Of course, we need to keep in mind that much of the rioting, property damage, looting and violence seems to be done by anarchists and bored angry white people coming into the urban centers from the outside for "protest tourism," petty theft, and/or political reasons of their own. Please do not conflate the behavior of those individuals with those of the masses who are calling for righteous justice.
The Heritage Affairs Commander of the PA State Police, William Stanton, came in to Lancaster to assess the situation. Part of his job is to stop hate crimes and to promote positive racial and cultural interactions between police officers and the citizens. His office was there after the shootings at the Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation to address the anti-semitic racism. His office works to address police violence, equity and inclusivity within the ranks of the officers, and to do the work of establishing positive community relationships between the police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. When he arrived and saw that the protests were peaceful he ordered the state police to leave the scene so as not to escalate tensions by the image of an overwhelmingly heavily armed police presence. Then he himself exited for the same reasons--to make space for local leadership. I was impressed by him in my brief interaction with him. And I was glad that he made the call to de-escalate the police presence.
There were a few people in the crowd who were done with peaceful protests and wanted to see more action to force the government and the police and change their racist and violent behaviors. However, they were a very small contingent--and their actions were generally held in check by the rest of the protesters and leaders who were there. As I spoke with some of them it is clear that they were largely carrying a righteous anger expressing itself in perhaps unrighteous but understandable ways against systemic and perpetual racism and injustice. They are simply at the end of their rope and don't know what else to do to change a society that has tried to ignore them at the ballot box, told them peaceful protests are not acceptable (like all those who condemned Colin Kaepernick for peacefully taking a knee to highlight racist violence) and that violent protests are not acceptable (elected leaders calling those individuals Thugs and animals), and has perpetually ignored their calls for justice and mercy. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
While I continue to call for peace and non-violence I think we need to admit that the cries for violence are understandable and will increase the longer the injustices continue without those in positions of power and privilege very quickly making the systemic changes that are being demanded. Remember, there are people of color being murdered by police officers in broad daylight, while other officers watch silently. And there are political leaders, other officials, and juries who refuse to bring swift justice--or in many cases any justice at all. If we want to end the protests we need to make swift changes to the racist elements of our society and our own minds and behaviors.
Most of the police officers were doing the right thing--at least in the afternoon into the evening. They stood back and let the civilian leaders and clergy guide the crowd. When angry individuals shouted insults at them, they kept still and silent. When they saw the crowd was maintaining peace they largely left the scene.
So, while the peaceful protest continued and speeches were being made by citizen leaders and the mayor, I noticed that a few angry young men had moved away from the group and begun taunting the remaining two police officers who were at the corner of Prince and Lemon blocking traffic for the protest and observing the crowd from horseback. I placed myself between the men and the officers. I tried to listen and to speak with the men to keep things calm. The officers stayed silent--which is protocol and probably right in the situation. Eventually more people broke off and came to taunt the officers. As I stood there the police began to arrive in mass to respond to the increase in people standing face-to-face with the mounted police. As police numbers increased so did the number of people coming to stand there. Others came alongside me and were trying de-escalate and keep physical space between citizens and police.
Some of the men were shouting about specific racial injustices. Others (mostly white men) were just angry and were bragging about their time in prison between yelling at the officers. The problem is that many people don't bother to distinguish between the various people who gather in situations like this. But we managed to hold a line and maintain safety--which is what the police had asked us to do as clergy. More importantly, we tried to do so while also showing solidarity with those who have been oppressed and assaulted. I continue to pray and discern where to hold the line of pushing for true peace--which is not just the absence of violence or conflict.
Eventually officers in riot gear came out and that is when things began to escalate quickly. As they came down the block a young man on a red motor scooter ended up engaging with some of the officers several feet away. I am not positive what the interaction was, but they began to arrest him. In making an arrest they managed to put him in cuffs, carefully slide him off the back of the scooter while keeping him standing upright, kept his scooter upright, and took him into custody safely. Now, I don't know why they arrested him and whether there was a legal or good reason for that. But I can say that they at least handled the act of the arrest responsibly. I pray that justice is done in his case.
When the officers were arresting the man on the scooter, we civilians moved to make a human chain of linked bodies to hold back the crowd in order to protect the protesters from engaging with the police during the arrest. No good would have come from charging or crowding the police. It could have led to harm for the man they were arresting, the citizens, and/or the officers. So we made space.
After the arrest was made and several officers were escorting him away one officer pulled his pepper spray and started threatening people. That officer did not handle himself appropriately and instead instigated violence and decided to needlessly pepper spray the crowd out of anger, fear, hate, or a lack of training / lack of being able to learn from training.
He had plenty of space and actively approached people while spraying to push them further away. He was threatening a young man on a bicycle. So, I moved to help encourage the bicyclist and the others behind him to move back so that he didn't get sprayed. That is when the officer sprayed toward the young man and then deliberately sprayed me full on directly in the face.
There was no reason for the officer to be using mace in that moment. The situation was being controlled by citizens and the arresting officers were doing their job. This officer was simply out of line and no longer making appropriate decisions. And he left me blinded, shocked and in pain in the middle of Prince Street. Apparently he could care less about my safety or that of anyone else.
And did I mention that I was wearing a clergy collar, ID Badge, and a long white stole with crosses that makes it very evident that I am not a threat. Did I mention that I had been standing between those officers and the angry young men for almost an hour talking to the young men and trying to de-escalate their anger? This officer didn't care about the human beings around him. If he reacts to me in that way, I can only imagine how much violence he has done to others. His behaviors (and those of people like him) are the reason why the young men are angry and his violence destroyed any progress that we may have made in encouraging them to fight for justice using peaceful means.
It is not just the murders of black men and women by police that are causing the outrage. It is the constant violence and disrespect perpetuated by SOME members of the police departments around the nation. It is their violence that makes the job of the other police officers nearly impossible because the citizens can't tell which officers are violent and criminal and which ones are actively serving and protecting. This officer disrespected the uniform and role of every other police officer. This officer puts everyone's lives on the line--blue lives, black lives, and all lives.
One of the things that makes me angry is that by spraying me, he took me off the line so that I could no longer be of any help last night. I was blinded and taken away from the work that we are trying to do together as a community.
Thank God for citizens who were prepared to provide medical care in case things went sideways (and Lord have mercy on us that we have to prepare for such things). I am ever grateful for those folks who gently took me by the arm and guided me to a curb where they could pour milk and water in my eyes to flush out the poison. Thank God for the constant gentle care that they provided to continue to guide me to a safe space where they could continue to flush my eyes and gently wipe away the poison until I could start to see again. Thank you for a fellow pastor and friend Jeff McLain who stayed by my side and guided me back to my car when I could finally start to see again.
I made it home, cleaned myself up (by the way I have never had a more painful shower), tried to let some folks know I was OK, hugged my wife, and put the baby to bed. This morning I am feeling pretty good other than some soreness and irritation in my eyes. The heartbreaking thing is that while I will recover with no real damage, many others who have violent interactions with the police never make it home alive. That is why we are in the streets protesting in the first place.
We remember George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland....and the list goes on. May the Lord have mercy on our souls and may it never happen again.