Police stand in a line as a crowd blocks the intersection of NW 23 and Classen in a protest against police brutality and racism. NATHAN POPPE/The Curbside Chronicle
Oklahoma City Councilwoman Nikki Nice woke up Sunday feeling numb with the images of the night before playing over in her head.
What had started as a peaceful protest at a busy intersection in northwest Oklahoma City ended in downtown with tear gas being fired into crowds as police officers formed a perimeter around their headquarters to block off thousands who were protesting police brutality and racism.
“I don’t know how to describe what I saw last night,” said Nice, the councilwoman for northeast Oklahoma City. “What we saw last night was a lot of emotions that folks are trying to channel because they are so frustrated and have been for so long.”
A white Minneapolis police officer was charged this week with the murder of George Floyd, an incident that was captured on video and sparked protests across the nation in recent days.
That wave of unrest reached Oklahoma City Saturday evening, beginning with protestors blocking a busy intersection and then marching to police headquarters.
Floyd’s name was shouted by protestors but there were also accusations of misconduct by local police and systemic racism across the state.
Oklahoma City leads the nation in the rate of people killed by police, according to data analyzed by MappingPoliceViolence.org.
Oklahoma has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, with the rate five times higher for black Oklahomans than white.
“It’s more than just George. It’s more than just the cops,” said Sierra Nelson, an Oklahoma City resident who joined the protest.
Kedra Brown said she joined Saturday’s protest because of her one-year-old son.
“I’m terrified for him, absolutely terrified about him growing up as a black man in this world,” Brown said, standing in the middle of NW 23 and Classen, where the protest began.
Police using force to clear the intersection pic.twitter.com/FGhjKuMN1q
— Ben Felder (@benfelder_okc) May 31, 2020
At around 7 p.m. a crowd of a few hundred began to fill the intersection, including a group with a large banner that had the names of black people killed by police.
Thirty minutes later dozens of police cars swarmed the intersection and began pulling at banners and arresting those who refused to move to the sidewalk.
Twenty-seven people were arrested during the night, according to police.
At one point police were arresting a man when a crowd gathered around, shouting and throwing objects. Police used a spray and one officer pointed a taser gun in an attempt to push the crowd back.
When the crowd began to march through nearby streets and through the Plaza District, police kept a distance. When the crowd blocked another intersection, police cars arrived but quickly left as protestors surrounded the vehicles.
By 11 p.m. hundreds began to march towards downtown where officers had surrounded the police headquarters. The windows of some businesses along the way were broken but most members of the crowd discouraged vandalism.
In a post on Facebook, Mayor David Holt said he was disheartened by reports of property damage, especially at many small businesses that had already been struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve heard many anecdotes tonight about people who spoke out against vandalism and violence,” Holt wrote. “Those anecdotes hearten me, but don’t surprise me. The vast majority of people in this city, even those who are angry right now, do not want to harm our people.”
The crowd chanted “black lives matter” as they arrived at the police station and many stepped up to the line of officers and shouted. About 30 minutes into the demonstration someone threw a rock at a police car and a bottle towards the officers. Police responded by firing gas containers that bounced across the ground and exploded with a substance that burned eyes and made it difficult to breathe.
The crowd dispersed but quickly returned. Police again fired gas into the crowd, repeating the pattern for nearly two hours.
Police fire the largest amount of tear gas yet. I got to go guys. Phone is dying and it's getting tougher to deal with this gas. I'll have stories in the morning about this rally and related policy issues. pic.twitter.com/f044DTfO1N
— Ben Felder (@benfelder_okc) May 31, 2020
“You say you want peace but you have shown that you do not want peace,” one officer said over a loudspeaker. “This is an unlawful assembly.”
Councilwoman Nice said she had concerns with the way police responded and feared it fed the narrative in her community that police are not on the side of black residents.
“We understand the frustration of what happened in Minneapolis, we understand the frustration of what happened in Louisville and we understand the frustration of Ferguson because it has happened here,” Nice said.
Nice said she wants to the police department to be more proactive in recruiting non-white officers and she also wants the department’s citizen oversight committee to be strengthened.
Councilwoman JoBeth Hammon, who represents the ward where Saturday’s demonstrations took place, said she hopes the protests lead to more conversations about the role of police and the financial investments the city makes in the police department over other departments.
“We are talking about possibly closing a recreation center because of budget cuts and every sociologist will tell you that when people don’t have access to food, access to jobs or access to education it results in the type of problems we see with poverty and crime,” Hamon said.
“In some communities the presence of police does not make citizens feel safe, so I would like to talk about spending some of that money on social services.”
Saturday’s demonstration was just one of hundreds of protests across the country, including in Tulsa where a crowd blocked an intersection in the city’s Brookside neighborhood.
Another demonstration is scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City’s northeast neighborhood.
Nice said she was hopeful Sunday’s protest would remain peaceful and believed it might be a more organized event.
“I will be there today and based on what happened yesterday everyone is concerned,” Nice said. “In my community of northeast Oklahoma City people are hurting.”