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Spurred by George Floyd's death, protesters resist having peaceful message hijacked

“I’ve been trying to hold people together,” a protest organizer said, “but it’s difficult when rubber bullets and tear gas get used whether we’re peaceful or not."

After hundreds of protesters in New York City peacefully confronted police in front of the Barclays Center late on Saturday, the crowd then marched across the street and came to a stop outside of a Target in Atlantic Terminal, a mall and train hub in downtown Brooklyn.

Tensions quickly spiked, as the chain store has been preyed upon in riots across the country recently. But in Brooklyn on Saturday, protesters confronted one another on how to proceed: Should they express their frustration peacefully or fully engage their anger by breaking into the shopping center?

A few white-knuckled minutes passed as protest organizers linked arms to hold at bay the few people who were angling for the doors of the store. The march then moved on, leaving the closed Target store undisturbed.

The brief showdown illustrates a growing division between the vast majority of protesters who aim to remain nonviolent, and the few who see the moment as an opportunity for violence or even chaos.

Outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee for more than eight minutes, added to long-simmering anger and frustration over the many black Americans who have died in circumstances considered avoidable — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and countless others.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

While most people are moved to hit the streets to peacefully protest against unequal policing, racism and the perceived devaluation of black American lives, once among the massive crowds, an individual's motives are difficult to discern.

New York Police Department officers gather as activists hold a rally in response to the police killing George Floyd in front of Barclays Center on May 29, 2020, in Brooklyn, N.Y.Justin Heiman / Getty Images

One of the main organizers in Brooklyn, who asked to be identified as Shaman, helped steer the peaceful protest from early Saturday afternoon. After setting the march’s direction, leading chants and speaking directly to police, he ended up putting his body between demonstrators and the entrance to Target.

“Some people aren’t being realistic,” he said, as the march began to disperse around midnight after police officers charged demonstrators with pepper spray and batons. “They want to fight with emotion. You can’t do that as a community. We have to fight with intelligence and let them know that we’re not going to play that game. We’re going to play by our rules and show you what our true character is.”

Many protesters and those leading the marches this past week said that a nonviolent message was key to effectively share their disdain. Yet there is a growing feeling, fed in part by local, state and federal leaders, that there are outside groups trying to undermine that message or take advantage of it for their own chaotic means. This is a growing frustration for some demonstrators who feel their message is being hijacked and used as cover for more nefarious acts.

“People are aware of the fact that there are two different groups out there,” said Jay Maki, 39, a photographer in Minneapolis who went to the protests in his city this week. “And when there is one person in the crowd behind you who throws a bottle at the police, there’s a sense he’s using the other peaceful protesters as a human shield.”

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said Sunday that about 20 percent of those arrested were from out of state, much less than an earlier claim by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz that 80 percent had come from outside Minnesota.

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Walz had also suggested without evidence that some of the rioting may have been directed by white supremacist groups or drug cartels. in Washington, Attorney General William Barr claimed the rioting was “planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics.”

While the driving ideological force remains unclear, Maki said that the 20 percent of people coming to the city to stir up trouble was enough to strain a movement and change the tenor of a demonstration.

“I saw a lot of white people destroying businesses in communities of color,” he said. “To me, even if it was only 20 percent of the people arrested that’s enough to incite a riot, that’s enough to influence, and it’s disheartening to see the looting of black businesses that are lifting up oppressed communities.”

A protester in front of a fire in Minneapolis early Saturday.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

And it’s enough to scare a community.

Stacie Brudenell, the founder of Sovereign Hughes, a small film studio in Minneapolis, said she is up until 4:30 every morning, but it isn’t because she’s participating in the protests. She lives in a historically black neighborhood where many of the demonstrations and the rioting have occurred.

At this point, Brudenell said, she’s exhausted — physically and emotionally.

“It’s all exhausting — always has been,” she said. “You keep us in a spot economically, a lower class. We get paid less, our properties are worth less, our schools are underfunded and yet you tell me I should love it. Why? That’s not equality.”

While she said that it appears some white people may finally have begun to understand the historical brutalities that minorities face in the United States after the viewing the graphic video of Floyd's death as he is pinned by police, Brudenell noted the difficulty she finds in having to constantly explain her experience.

The lack of empathy, emotional curiosity and historical reckoning is what has led to this moment, she said.

“People have a computer in their hands every day, and they ask us to explain these atrocities that are systemic," Brudenell said. "You have a massive search engine that can get you any answer you want and you won’t do it yourself? That’s the part that’s exhausting to black people: They [white people] have no interest in us, and so they have no interest in peace.”

But the biggest challenge that protesters and organizers say they face is how the police have reacted to them so far.

For demonstrations to remain peaceful, organizers say, they must be met peacefully by law enforcement.

“I’ve been trying to hold people together,” Shaman said, “but it’s difficult when rubber bullets and tear gas get used whether we’re peaceful or not. And I think police have proven that over the last week.”