- Rep. Maxine Waters said protesters should be “more confrontational” if police enjoy impunity.
- Some on the right have accused her of inciting violence. But protesters did not see it that way.
- After Waters spoke, most people went to bed. One woman said she was inspired to run for office.
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Did an 82-year-old Black woman incite a riot, or even commit an act of “domestic terrorism,” by urging people to continue protesting if police continue to get away with what they believe to be murder?
That was the claim in the right-wing media ecosystem this week — one which made it to the defense team for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, and into a column by CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who watered down the critique to “irresponsible.”
What did it actually set off?
Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democratic member of Congress from Los Angeles, attended a peaceful protest in Brooklyn Center, where a police officer this month killed an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop. While there, she addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes.
“I’m here from Washington, DC, because I could not sleep. I could not rest. I could not be satisfied that another young Black man has been killed by police. And Daunte Wright did not deserve to be killed,” Waters said.
“I’m here to say that I stand with you,” Waters said. And “there are many in Congress who feel like I do,” she said, assuring the crowd it had allies, of all colors, in the halls of power. “We’re going to stand for justice. We’re going to fight for justice.”
To this point, her remarks, posted online by the nonprofit media outlet Unicorn Riot (beginning at 2:12), were typical of a politician speaking to activists in the streets. If anything, they were palliative, serving as a reminder to those outraged by police killings that there are two tracks to criminal justice reform — that there are people who share the outrage of those in the streets who are working within the political system.
Rather than “defund the police,” Waters spoke of reimagining the role of law enforcement, questioning the utility of having cops respond to mental health calls, not challenging their existence.
It’s what she said after addressing the crowd, when speaking to a smaller group of reporters and citizen journalists, that went viral. Asked what protesters should do if Derek Chauvin is found not guilty of murder, Waters said: “Well, we gotta stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business,” Waters said.
That is the snippet being cast in the least charitable light as incitement to riot, among the conservative blogosphere, and on CNN as having “inflamed a very volatile situation.”
Waters’ Democratic colleagues don’t believe she even committed a faux pas, much less a crime or a reason to declare a mistrial in the Chauvin case. “I don’t think she meant violence, I’m convinced of that,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Monday. “She believes in her issues. And she speaks truth to power.”
But did protesters take it that way? The last time a politician was accused of inciting a riot, a violent mob stormed the US Capitol, attacking police officers with bear spray and fire extinguishers in an effort to thwart the peaceful transfer of power.
In a word: No. There was no riot in Minnesota after an elder stateswoman addressed a peaceful crowd of some 350 people. Many people left — her comments were just minutes before the city’s 11 p.m. curfew. “We are pleased to share that the city of Brooklyn Center had a quiet night on Saturday,” Reginald Edwards, the city’s acting city manager, said in a statement.
According to local media, protesters themselves made sure of that. Although assembled outside the local police station, “there was no attempt to breach the fences,” the Star Tribune reported; police likewise kept the calm, declining to escalate the situation with tear gas or flash-bang grenades. And when a few people shook the fence, later in the evening when the crowd had dwindled to less than 100, they “were dispersed by other protesters who argued for a more peaceful approach,” according to the paper.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, there was only one arrest on Saturday, and the crowd was “more subdued compared to Friday night,” when around 100 were arrested. MPR said that at times there was music and dancing and that even after curfew set in, “police did not advance on the crowd; instead, it dissipated on its own.”
If Maxine Waters sought to incite a riot, she plainly failed. But if she may have inspired someone to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m going to school to be in her shoes,” one young woman told Unicorn Riot after hearing Waters speak. “Seeing her, here right now, just makes me ready to be in her position,” she said, hardly able to contain her excitement. “So I’m running for president.”
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