The peaceful protests this week have proved very effective for a popular group in Dover, who’ve been stopping traffic on busy roads, including U.S. RT 13.
Their protests for racial equality has led to Dover Police Department chief Thomas Johnson and the group of marchers to setting up their first formal meeting with law enforcement for June 9.
Protesters will meet with Dover’s new police chief to discuss ways police can better serve the black community, in wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota officers.
Floyd’s death was yet another disturbing example of a black person whose life was claimed by police brutality.
In an effort to help build a stronger relationship between law enforcement and black residents, members of Dover PD, chief Johnson and Delaware Capitol Police chief Michael Hertzfeld marched laps with hundreds of protesters around Legislative Hall and through downtown Dover (including a stop at Dover police station) on June 6.
Protesters were caught off-guard the day before Saturday’s rally when Hertzfeld and Johnson approached a small group of them on The Green, just moments before they’d march in the streets. Both chiefs introduced themselves and said they both supported their peaceful assembly.
“We are with you. We are not against you,” Hertzfeld said. “But we want to ensure that you guys are safe and you get to do what everybody else that you see come here [does on The Green] on a weekly, or on a monthly, and protest.”
‘I am privileged’
Andrew McGowan 27, of Magnolia, said it was important for him to come out to Saturday’s rally, because he wanted to use his white voice to amplify those of his black peers in the LGBTQ community.
“It’s Pride Month. Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, threw the first brick at Stonewall and she was the one that started the queer liberation movement. As a queer person, it’s our duty to help the black community,” McGowan said.
It was after leaving home for college that McGowan said he started to become sensitive to the racial inequalities black people faced. In college he was exposed to more diverse peers who shared a different upbringing than his own.
The 27-year-old said it wasn’t easy unlearning his racist behavior.
Megan Wolf, 22, of Smyrna, said she also struggled with reprogramming her racist thoughts. Yet she said it’s possible and essential for change.
“As white people being out here, it’s sad. And you have to be able to admit when you’re wrong,” Wolf said. “I can sit here and admit that I grew up and was exposed to racism. It’s my job to unlearn racism. I can’t make an excuse for that and say, ‘my parents taught me that black people are not okay, and are gonna harm me.’”
Wolf said white people need to educate themselves, recognize the areas where they need to make adjustments, and move forward so we can be unified as one.
“It’s hard, because some people are very prideful and they don’t want to be able to admit they’re wrong. I think it comes with growth as a person, too,” she added. “It’s hard to say, ‘I was wrong.’ But once you are, you’re really able to transform and grow and see things from a different perspective.”
Cameron Brown, 27, of Smyrna, said it’s heartbreaking that people judge him for having darker skin.
“It’s 2020 and we’re still dealing with this,” Brown said. “It took until now for us to actually be out here, not just in Delaware, but throughout the whole country, to finally put our foot down and make it known that this is a big deal.”
Brown said this country needs to get it together.
“It’s upsetting,” he added. “But as a unit, we must keep fighting and keep getting everyone out here and on the same page so we can finally make that change.”
Julia Tegtmeier, 17, of Dover, is half-white and half-Puerto Rican. The 17-year-old said strangers identify her as a white person, which has earned her some advantages.
“If I were to get pulled over for speeding on the highway, I’m not scared,” she said. “I am privileged, I’m half-white. I do have lighter skin, so I do think it’s really important that we use our voices to support the black community that can’t be heard, and to show there needs to be equality.”
Dover protesters are clever
Leading the demand for equality in Dover has been an impactful group of protesters, who’ve been marching peacefully through the Capital City and disrupting traffic.
On Friday, they switched gears and marched to the Camden Walmart and protested in front of the grocery entrance, chanting “black lives matter” as many customers were forced to walk past them.
They’ve also held up traffic in front of City Hall and on U.S. RT 13, where they kneeled in the middle of the road.
The protesters typically receive a lot of love from civilians, as many are shocked and proud to randomly see them spreading their message of equality. That support from civilians is typically shown with fists being raised in the air, or with car horns blaring.
But not everyone is a fan of the protests. Some chastise marchers for blocking busy streets, instead of using sidewalks. Some people on social media have also encouraged motorists to run them over.
The protesters said their reason for blocking traffic is strategic and necessary because too many white people have been comfortable with systemic racism, which has created 400 years of oppression (or discomfort) for black people in the United States.
Since black people are still getting killed and abused under the mighty hand of systemic racism, members of the group said they’ll continue to shake things up peacefully until a change comes.
Dover police have been backing up protesters. But the group has been making cops earn their pay by keeping them on their toes.
The protesters aren’t telling police where they’re going to assemble in advance. So cops have to play the guessing game and quickly find them, in order to set up blockades with their vehicles and redirect traffic to protect the protesters and motorists.
Chief Johnson of Dover PD said he wants to help the protesters share their message. But their unorthodox ways are putting him in an usual position.
“It’s kind of an odd circumstance to be in, where I’m saying, ‘I want to support all the First Amendment activities,’ but I cant schedule a meeting. Everyday I have to be operational to provide safety and security for First Amendment activities,” Johnson said.
“If everyday you’re gonna march, and I’m cool with that, I have to be operational that day and I have to make sure I’m doing the things I have to do to provide continuity of services,” he explained.
Johnson said he constantly has to make sure he’s in touch with Dover PD, DelDOT, the fire department and paramedics to ensure the protesters can march safely.
As a credit to how much he respects the protesters and how well his team has been committed to protecting them, the new police chief pointed out that no one has been admitted to the hospital this week, nor have they had to board up any windows in fear of someone looting a business.
Protesters slam looting
Johnson acknowledged the looting incident on May 31, which was also the first day the group began protesting.
On that day, the Dover group led a peaceful protest through downtown to Dover Mall, where they wanted to play music and have a party in the mall parking lot, which they received permission from Dover police to do.
Their number of supporters began to balloon throughout the day, especially once they made their way onto U.S. RT 13 where they completely took it over. A wave of motorists and pedestrians began following them to the mall, by car and on foot.
But the party was stopped short about 10 minutes in after Forever 21 was looted at Dover Mall.
That was followed by a nearby Cricket that was hit and a string of other businesses getting vandalized on N. Dupont Highway. After that, there was a nighttime standoff between protesters and police in the middle of the street, across from the Delaware State Police Headquarters.
The looting prompted a new statewide curfew, which is still in effect.
The group of protesters said they didn’t support those who looted, and they’re against it.
Dover police chief Johnson said the actions of those few who looted shouldn’t overshadow the many who were peacefully assembling, just like the actions of a few bad cops shouldn’t reflect poorly on the many good ones.
Black chief is ‘afraid of the police’
Protesters said there’s not enough good cops who are speaking up to condemn the bad cops, so it’s hard for them to know who to trust.
For example, throughout the week protesters have been rallying on the steps of the Kent County Courthouse and many have complained, including white supporters, that police inside of the building were mocking and laughing at them.
Delaware Capitol Police chief Hertzfeld said those officers are under his supervision and he’ll review video footage to see if those claims are true. If they are, he’ll address it with the cops, he said.
Another example of how toxic the relationship is between police and black residents is one woman, whose son is black and has special needs, said her son is scared of the police. So it didn’t help when they were pulled over in Smyrna for no reason, she said.
“As a mother, I was terrified, because I gave my son the put-your-hands-on-the-[steering wheel], put-your-radio-away, don’t do… I don’t want to give my children those speeches. That is so heartbreaking,” said the protester, who was in tears.
Delaware Capitol Police chief Hertzfeld said he totally understands the plight of black people, because he’s black.
“I will tell you that I have two sons, and I teach them the same thing,” he said. “I teach them to put their hands on the steering wheel. I teach them to turn their interior light on, because I always say if an officer is coming up to your car, I want you to make him as comfortable as possible.
“Is it wrong, and we have to teach our kids that?” he asked. “Yes. But the society that has been raised to this point that we’ve come to know, unfortunately, has put us in that position.”
Hertzfeld also admitted something very troubling, which exclaimed why the protesters are peacefully disrupting traffic for change.
“I’m afraid of the police from time to time, depending on where I go,” said the Capitol chief. “It doesn’t change because I have this uniform on today. It doesn’t mean that when I take it off, I don’t have the same fears that you do.”