I stood on the sidewalk Saturday night between the Gainesville parking deck and Carroll Daniel building. It was near midnight. After midnight. I really don’t know.
I was there to witness the first night of local protests, provide some backup to our on-call reporter and take what photos I could with my cellphone.
At this point, the reporter had already returned to the office, and I sent a quick note to our contact with the Gainesville Police Department to see if the police had a statement.
The crowds of protesters that had earlier filled the intersection of Main Street and Jesse Jewell Parkway had dispersed or moved on. I waited on that piece of sidewalk, and the officer soon pulled up in his police truck.
A couple of women I soon learned were involved with the Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville’s civil rights group, strolled by and stopped to say hello to the officer. This clearly wasn’t the first time they’d spoken, and everyone was friendly. I took the opportunity to interview them. Then they left, and I interviewed the officer.
“I’ll be blatant and honest, we have a lot of the same views on this incident,” he told me, speaking of the protesters.
What happened after that is a bit of a blur. I think we were still talking when a small group ran in to the intersection again. At some point the officer was on the phone. At some point someone in that group shouted, “He’s by himself. Let’s get him!”
At some point during this, he was still on the phone, and I tried to get his attention.
He had not spoken to this group or threatened them in any way. He was in fact by himself, except for me standing next to him. More law enforcement was stationed well up the street.
He calmly called for backup. I don’t remember if that was before or after the group had surrounded us, shouting, but it was definitely after they had approached. I couldn’t tell you what they were shouting. I know I heard a few in the crowds earlier cursing the police. I don’t know if this group used those same words, but they had targeted this officer. Journalists have been injured in protests nationwide, sometimes by law enforcement. This incident wasn’t about me. I was just witness to it.
The next thing I knew, his helmet had been flipped off and he was running into the street. Someone there picked up his helmet, looked at me and then put the helmet in the back of the officer’s truck.
At some point the officer pulled what I assume to be pepper spray. The group backed up. I don’t believe he sprayed it, at least not while I was watching.
When he returned to his truck, I pointed out his helmet. And the next thing I knew someone was throwing firecrackers at my feet.
Maybe a better journalist than I would have backed off and continued observing. I made a beeline for my car, breathing hard and tears beginning to flow as the law enforcement up the street moved toward the scene.
What I’d witnessed made me angry. One moment, we were on the sidewalk chatting with protesters and moments later others had targeted him because of a uniform.
It was hard to watch him be treated that way.
In those moments and since then, I’ve thought about how hard it’s been for those with the same skin as George Floyd to watch him be treated that way. They have every right to feel outraged, and while most of us feel outraged at that incident, when it hits home, it’s different.
The officer and I weren’t injured in any way, yet still I felt outraged leaving that scene. How so much more outraged we should feel when a man is killed, whether that’s a suspect whose life is seemingly given no regard or a retired officer killed by looters. How so much more outraged I imagine many to feel who worry that could be them, their brother, son or husband.
There’s been a lot of debate over the difference between protesters and rioters and looters. One line of thought that struck a chord with me this week is that at least some of this reaction is a trauma response.
In the world of foster care, we talk a lot about trauma. I’ve certainly been the target of a lot of anger due to trauma. Sometimes it’s a child screaming at me, including some downright hurtful words. Sometimes it’s a child throwing things. Sometimes it’s a child hitting me with his little fists.
It’s tempting to minimize his trauma, not knowing what the world really looks like through his eyes. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have minimized it before. That heals nothing.
Sometimes I have to step out of the room to give us both space. Sometimes I need to sit in the room, showing I’m there for him. Eventually, the outburst fades and what’s left is often just the gut-wrenching cries of a child who is hurting.
It’s difficult to manage the behaviors born from trauma. Throwing things and hitting aren’t OK, but I can tell you punishing those behaviors in the midst of an outburst has only increased the poor behavior, in my experience. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not arguing those who target police officers and damage property shouldn’t face consequences. I’m drawing some parallels here, but trauma comes in different kinds and severities. And we react to it in different ways.
There are ways we can responsibly express our anger and then use it to effect change and promote justice. And there are ways we should respond responsibly to those who have been traumatized.
Rather than minimize their pain and focus solely on punishment, can we consider what healing it looks like?
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent.