by DARIEN LAMEN
(ROCHESTER NY--) Dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested early Thursday while engaging in civil disobedience against a ban on overnight gatherings. I was there in an official capacity to cover the protest. And I was arrested too, press badge and all.
About a hundred people convened in downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Park Wednesday night in open defiance of Mayor Lovely Warren's newly-updated emergency health order, which now prohibits outdoor gatherings of 5 or more people and indoor gatherings of 10 or more people between 11 pm and 5 am.
Protesters left MLK park just before midnight and proceeded to march around downtown and the East End for about an hour. Protest organizers led the group past several bars on East Ave that were busy with unmasked patrons, highlighting what they say is the hypocrisy of the mayor's emergency order.
"There's definitely more than 10 motherf*ckers in this motherf*cker," one protest organizer said as the march paused in front of Brass and Murphy's Law. "But we are not allowed to. Black and Brown people and our people are not allowed to congregate together."
Bars and clubs are exempt from the mayor's ban.
The feel of Wednesday night's protest was different from that of many of the weekly Saturday afternoon rallies that have been organized by Free the People Roc. Prior to the march Wednesday, the mood was solemn and subdued; several people walked through the crowd burning sage as others listened to music. But at various moments throughout the night, the mood became jubilant, with protesters turning several intersections into open-air dance parties. When the protest later returned to Martin Luther King Jr. Park, protesters played double-dutch, twerked, lounged in the grass.
At 1:30am, some 50 RPD officers carrying batons and pepper bullet guns arrived and ordered the group to disperse. RPD repeated the order to disperse for about an hour, citing the mayor's ban on overnight gatherings in public places, as officers and protesters squared off on opposite sides of the city-sponsored Black Lives Matter street mural along Court Street.
One protest leader asked officers how close together people had to be to constitute "a group" in the terms laid out in the emergency order. "How many feet apart?" the protester said, while walking away from a line of protesters on the sidewalk. "Am I a group of one now?" he said. He then walked toward me as I recorded. "Are we a group of two?"
The mayor's updated emergency order does not specify how to identify a group, only what constitutes a "public place."
During a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Warren said she had added the ban on overnight gatherings to the standing COVID-19 emergency order to quell recent gun violence, some of which has taken place outside "large parties," police say.
But whatever the rationale for the targeted curfew, activists at Wednesday night's protest said the result would be to ensure further criminalization of already overpoliced communities of color.
When Rochester police officers moved to make arrests at around 2:30am Thursday morning, I was swept up in the police "kettle" along with 4 legal observers wearing bright green National Lawyers Guild hats.
A line of officers pushed into me and told me to "move back." With my press badge clearly visible, I identified myself as media and was told "Yep. We see you." But I was not permitted to leave the encircled area.
Protesters objected when officers came to arrest the first of the legal observers inside the kettle, to which the police sergeant overseeing the arrests responded, "They're inside the circle, they're not observers," and "Not binding."
Over the course of an hour, 30 people were handcuffed and taken to the RPD Station on N Clinton Ave, where they were charged with violating the newly-imposed emergency order, a class B misdemeanor, before being given appearance tickets and released.
I was the last person to be arrested that night.
During the course of the arrests, RPD officers did not use masks or visors while handling those in custody. This despite the fact that the arrests were being made under the auspices of a public health emergency order.
Officers removed the masks of handcuffed arrestees to take our pictures on site before loading us into vehicles. I was loaded into a poorly-ventilated van with 2 unmasked police officers and 5 other arrestees, one of whom struggled to move her mask back into place while handcuffed with her hands behind her back.
The RPD says all 30 people arrested Thursday were charged with violating the emergency order, and that no additional charges had been brought.
That's my belated report on this week's protest, and that was my view from inside the kettle.
Darien Lamen is news producer for WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.