Demonstrators faced off on Court St. uptown Athens. [Claudia Cisneros]

Clashes Between “Defend The Police” And “Defend Our Community” End Peacefully

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — On a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon uptown Athens hosted two protests that, despite its tense moments ended with a symbolic gesture of peace.

According to a Facebook event page, the “Defend the Police” (DTP) event asked people to gather at the Athens County Courthouse on July 5 to “show support for our local law enforcement and all law enforcement officers across this great nation.”

Taking that call to action as code for blanket support of law enforcement, in the wake of demands across the county to reform police departments, Stand Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) created an event as well. The “Defend Our Community – Athens in Solidarity with Black Lives” (DOC) asked supporters to meet at the same time, one block away.

Defend The Police 

Three out of the nearly 100 attendees of the DTP rally brought firearms to the rally within the state’s open-carry guidelines.

When asked about why he brought the weapons to the rally, one man with an assault rifle and another holstered gun who chose not to identify himself, said “because I can and because it is my Second Amendment Right.” When asked if he was planning to use the weapons he answered, “I hope not,” adding that he is a family man.

Defend The Police demonstrator stands watch with firearms displayed. [Claudia Cisneros | WOUB]
John Haney organized the demonstration for his fellow first responders. Haney, an emergency medical technician in Athens County (who was also open-carrying) said it was to be a peaceful rally to show support for the local law enforcement.

“I’m defending the good police. We understand there is bad police officers out there that do bad things and they do need to be found out and they do need to be taken care of. But these good police officers out here, they need somebody to back them.”

He also said he did not think Black people were treated any differently in this area and that racism wasn’t a big problem.

Defend Our Community

At Ohio University’s College Green, the Defend Our Community participants took turns sharing their concerns about race relations and police brutality.

Activist delfin bautista told the crowd it would be wrong to condemn all officers but said many of the arguments defending good police officers don’t go far enough.

“Our question is, well, how are those good cops calling out the bad cops. What are they doing to ensure diversity training; what are they doing to ensured that what has happened – and continues to happen in terms of Black people, Brown people, other minority folks being killed by the police – doesn’t happen any more.”

People sitting outside listening to one person speak
Defend Our Community participants at Ohio University’s College Green. Sunday, July 5, 2020 [Claudia Cisneros]
bautista added that their peaceful rally was organized in hopes that “it can inspire some dialogue amongst the group as well as amongst ourselves.”

Tensions Escalate

While each group expressed desires for a peaceful day, tensions escalated when demonstrators began to antagonize one another near the courthouse.

At one point, a car that parked in the alley next to the courthouse blaring anti-Trump music was surrounded by DTP protesters. A scuffle broke out as they started banging the car.

According to the driver, who had not attended the DOC event, the Athens police officers allowed the DTP protesters to go on the attack,  “They only took us. The one that started all of this grabbing a girl by her neck is walking out there perfectly fine and we all got detained.”

Officers let the driver go with a warning for disorderly conduct. He and his friends were also prohibited from returning to the rally.

The Storm Before the Calm

Nearly 300 Defend Our Community demonstrators chanted as they marched the block from College Green to stand on the opposite side of Court Street to face the Defend The Police crowd.

The shouting went back and forth between the two groups until a small group of bikers circled the block a number of times in what appeared to be an effort to drown out the Defend Our Community crowd.

The People, Police, and a Politician

The Athens Police mostly kept their distance. Four officers in uniform stood at the north end of the street rallies. When asked why weren’t there more cops, a uniformed police officer said they did not have the manpower. “It’s not on our budget and they even want to cut it,” he added.

But according to a DTP rally attendee there were plain clothes officers among the protesters.

Athens police officers posted at the corner of Court and Washington Streets during the Defend The Police and Defend Our Community events. Sunday, July 5, 2020 Athens (Claudia Cisneros)

State Representative Jay Edwards, (R – Nelsonville), who was also at the DTP rally, became the focus of some voters as he walked to his car. DOC protesters confronted him for not wearing a mask, asked what was he doing to fight racism, then chanted “Fuck Jay Edwards!” The video of their interaction contains the harsh language previously described.

Face to Face

The afternoon of separate protests pressed into another gear when the Defend Our Community participants crossed Court Street to engage with the Defend The Police demonstrators.

The shouting matches gave way to loud exchanges that led to heated discussions which eventually simmered to a display of faith and trust to continue the conversations with mutual respect.

Jeff West was at work when he first heard the protesters. He stayed and got involved in hopes of making a difference,  “I just see a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of unwillingness to try to understand what’s going on,” he said. West, the owner of The Court Barbershop, shared his challenges dealing with officers in both his hometown of Akron and his adopted hometown of Athens.

A Display of Progress, Trust and Possibility

The same man who chose to carry his assault rifle and hand gun to a peaceful protest spent close to an hour defending his decision to the smaller group of about 30 people that remained and who saw the weapons as a disrespectful threat.

The gun owner, while maintaining his decision to open-carry and support of law enforcement, denied that he was motivated by racism and granted Jeff West’s request to down his weapons.

Video: Sam

Most of the Defend The Police and Defend Our Community participants had left the area before witnessing the quiet exchange. But the moment was not lost on John Haney, organizer of the DTP rally, “It’s my understanding that a few people on the ‘Defend Our Community’ rally side did stay and talked with a few from the protesters on the ‘Defend The Community’ side. I believe engaging in dialogue with a few of the protesters is possible.”