The Journal Gazette
Saturday, May 30, 2020 1:00 am

Police deploy tear gas on downtown protest

Angry attendees argue with officers


A Friday evening demonstration near the Allen County Courthouse began peacefully but turned potentially unsafe after Fort Wayne police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The demonstration started at 5 p.m. and was initially scheduled to go until 8 p.m. But crowds were still gathered after 9:30 p.m., with some pledging to remain through the night if necessary to express their concerns about Monday's death of a black man Minneapolis police were restraining.

Released video showed 46-year-old George Floyd on the ground with a police officer using his knee to apply pressure to his neck; Floyd was heard saying “I can't breathe.” His death and the video sparked outrage in communities beyond Minneapolis with appeals spreading through social media for people to demand justice in the case.

Locally, between 7 and 8 p.m. crowds started to block Clinton Street walking north toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge. That's when Fort Wayne police arrived on the scene and used tear gas on the crowd.

A demonstration was scheduled for 2 p.m. today outside the courthouse. But an organizer of that, Jenica Collins, said late Friday that she had been asked about canceling it.

Caleb Thomas, 25, of Fort Wayne attended Friday's demonstration. He said police seemed to feel the crowd was disobeying orders to stay on the sidewalk and get out of traffic.

When protesters began to walk back to the courthouse, he said police then formed a line to block them from Clinton Street at Berry Street. Protesters, enraged because of the tear gas, got into verbal arguments with the police in riot gear.

Some who gathered for the demonstration were pouring milk over each other's faces to stop the stinging, burning sensation from the tear gas as others shouted at police.

The crowd continued to swell in front of the police, and about 9 p.m. an officer in the armored vehicle parked in the middle of Clinton between Main Street and Berry got on a loudspeaker and told people that it was no longer a lawful assembly and they needed to disperse and would be arrested for criminal behavior.

By 9:30 p.m. some protesters were also throwing water bottles at police, who deployed more tear gas and the crowd began to disperse.

Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry issued a statement late Friday acknowledging the country and community were hurting as a result of Floyd's death, which some leaders and activists across the country have called murder.

“Mr. Floyd's death did not need to happen, and we pray tonight for his family and the many others who've faced injustices,” Henry's statement said.

“The city of Fort Wayne respects the rights of individuals to participate in peaceful demonstrations. Tonight's demonstration in downtown Fort Wayne began peacefully. As the demonstration moved along, it began to get more aggressive and the safety of the public was being put at risk,” the mayor said. “The Fort Wayne Police Department ultimately had to respond in a manner to protect the public's safety.”

At one point, one protester could be heard pleading with a WPTA-TV ABC 21 reporter who was part of a live broadcast to remain at the scene through the night. The protester said he feared police would get more aggressive if the media was not there to document it.

But the demonstration clearly got out of hand. Streets where crowds gathered were littered with broken glass, and windows of a few businesses including Jimmy Johns were broken.

Tyler Weber sat feet from Fort Wayne police officers who had just fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters at Berry and Clinton streets. Someone was pouring water into his reddened eyes to soothe them.

“Oh my god,” Weber, 23, told a reporter before another canister was fired nearby.

Weber said he'd come from Wabash in solidarity with people of color.

“People of color are disproportionally targeted (by police),” he said.

Loud bangs could be heard before wafts of white smoke – the gas – dispersed protesters from the scene, and many scattered to nearby streets.

At those other areas, protesters screamed at police as officers – some wearing gas masks – stood with their arms crossed.

Sonny Murray, 31, was angry about the deaths of black men including George Floyd.

“I'm willing to die here tonight,” he said. “I'm gonna do whatever I can to help.”

Taylor Frey arrived at the courthouse Friday evening and immediately encountered tear gas at the Allen County Courthouse.

“I've been a part of a couple (protests), but nothing like this,” he said, carrying a half gallon of milk he was using to quell the sting of the gas.

During a Friday afternoon news briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Eric Holcomb was asked whether there were any concerns that demonstrations and protests in Indiana could get out of hand.

“Injuring the innocent in a response to an injustice is counterproductive. And I'm looking and appealing to people to find it in the goodness of their heart to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” the governor said. “And it can be tough when you see injustice around you; I get it, and you can be very reflexive and very reactionary. But I would just ask folks to take a breath, and to be part of the solution.”

Holcomb also said these are unprecedented times, but there have been “beautiful acts of kindness coming out of it.

But, he added, on the fringes “there will be some bad actors, and there will be some professional protesters.”

Holcomb said he “very much” respects the First Amendment and right to “assemble and to speak, and to be heard, and to voice your opinion, and we'll continue to be respectful on that front. But I ask you to do it peacefully, it will be heard. Simply increasing your volume does not increase the validity of your argument.”

Niki Kelly and Dave Gong contributed to this report.

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