While the George Floyd Demonstrations Turned Violent in Many Cities, Those in the Gables Were a Model of Peaceful Dialogue – Thanks in Large Part to its Organizers
It was the image seen round the world: 22 police chiefs taking a knee in front of Coral Gables City Hall. It made it to CNN, CBS, NBC – and went viral in publications, TV programs and websites as disparate as The Cape Cod Times, E! News and Afterbuzztv.com.
That moment, on the last Saturday in May, saw the chiefs from cities across Miami-Dade County join protesters in kneeling together to pray. “For me, I literally looked around and kind of just took in the moment,” says Oshea Johnson, one of the protest organizers. “My eyes kind of filled up and I was like, ‘Wow … this is historic.’”
Johnson organized the protest with Ahzin Bahraini. Both are Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Sociology at the University of Miami. Johnson and Bahraini, through their @ProtestsMiami page on Instagram, were able to spread the word to others who also wanted to stand up against systemic racism and police brutality. Hundreds showed up. “Our people came out and it was a lot of people from all different parts of Miami,” Bahraini said. “We thought it would just be 10 of us hanging out on this little street corner.”
The idea of demonstrating against police mistreatment of black citizens in Coral Gables – where only a tiny percentage of residents are African American – at first seemed incongruous. But what became immediately clear was that, in these protests, it was not just people of color demanding change. “I think there was like a white awakening happening, that people realized, ‘Wait, this is racist and we need to do something about it,’” Bahraini said.
A key factor ensuring a peaceful outcome was contact between Bahraini and Johnson and Coral Gables city officials. Both City Manager Peter Iglesias and Police Chief Ed Hudak were emailed, and Hudak spoke with the organizers ahead of time. Hudak pledged restraint so long as the protest was peaceful. As the current head of the county’s association of police chiefs, he went one step further. “My fellow colleagues in the chiefs of police association agreed to be at City Hall, and if everything stayed peaceful, to hear their demands,” he said.
That set the stage for what turned into an hour-long session of dialogue between protesters and police, with grievances and replies – an interaction the organizers felt was overshadowed by the image of the kneeling officers. “It was a dialogue protest,” Bahraini said in reference to protesters who told their own stories of experiencing racism. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen something as emotional and interactive as what we did. But a lot of that got covered up because of this photo. In reality, those narratives and what we did was way more important than that [photo], in my perspective.”
Vice Mayor Vince Lago, who attended the protest said, “What impressed me the most was the dialogue between the police and the protesters… it was a message about their pain. And while we are not going to solve this long-standing issue today, we can acknowledge that racism does exist.”
The sociology students who organized the protest both have goals they hope to achieve through their activism. “My end goal, very broadly, is social justice for all. And that is not excluded to black people,” Bahraini said. “I’m standing against ICE, I’m standing against xenophobia, I’m standing against the travel ban and I’m standing for Black Lives Matter.” Johnson wants to see economic, healthcare and criminal justice equality for the communities that have been “impoverished and disparaged” for decades. “I want to see those [communities] be built up and be reinvested in,” he said.
The protest they organized is a personal step for both, and just the beginning. “We’re getting this Ph.D. in sociology and part of it is writing papers and publishing, but for us, the other part is participating in social movements to effect change on the ground,” Johnson said. “We have to go from the protest to the policies to the polls. There’s a process … and it takes time and it takes planning and strategy and organization and people.”
In the meantime, what they created in concert with our city officials literally set the bar for the rest of the country. As Fox News put it in their description about violent protests in other cities, “In contrast to the display in Coral Gables…”