Black Lives Matter rally in Wichita
Violence. Injuries. Arrest. Rocks and bottles thrown at law enforcement officers.
“We didn’t have any of that” at the Black Lives Matter protest Tuesday night in Wichita, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said.
And that’s why organizers and police officials were calling the march an unqualified success on Wednesday.
Police officials estimated anywhere from 70 to 100 people were involved as the march along 13th Street began sometime after 8 p.m. But those numbers grew steadily as word of the march spread.
By the time it ended about three hours later, lead organizer A.J. Bohannon said he estimated the crowd to be in the neighborhood of 500 people.
“And we were able to pull it off peacefully,” Bohannon said Wednesday. “We got a lot accomplished last night.”
Similar marches have occurred around the country in response to the fatal shootings by police last week of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Wichita protesters shouted names of recent victims of local police shootings.
Ramsay said he learned of Tuesday’s planned protest hours before it occurred and worked with the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate traffic and crowd control.
“It’s a volatile time,” Ramsay said. “I made the decision to allow it to go on.”
The march clogged traffic on East 13th Street for a while Tuesday night, but Ramsay said no arrests were made because motorists had access to side streets that would allow them to avoid the protesters.
It was “a relatively small section of the roadway that was blocked by the protesters,” he said.
Those who marched “got to express their emotions … their First Amendment rights,” he said.
Kansas Highway Patrol troopers blocked the exit and entry ramps to I-135, halting protesters from getting onto the freeway to block traffic there. While nearly 50 Wichita police officers were in the area monitoring the march, Ramsay said, they maintained a low profile.
“I don’t know if it would have been productive at that point” for police officers to have a highly visible presence next to the march, he said.
“We didn’t have any contact with any of the protesters,” Ramsay said. “We were going to be respectful and treat people professionally.
“If someone (an officer) was having a bad day, we didn’t want them there.”
Ramsay maintained contact with clergy and other leaders in the crowd to monitor the unfolding event. He also credited marchers with doing an effective job of policing themselves.
“There were a lot things going on behind the scenes” to keep things under control, he said.
A man on a motorcycle spent about a half-hour trying to incite people in the crowd through remarks and revving the engine of his bike, Bohannon said. But people maintained their composure.
“I’m so happy that nobody gave in to that,” Bohannon said. “Everyone kept their eyes on the prize, and everyone went home safely.”
The march succeeded “beyond my wildest imagination,” said Bohannon, who is already looking ahead.
Another march and protest was scheduled for Sunday night, but instead, police and organizers will have a cookout, beginning at 6 p.m. at McAdams Park on 13th Street.
He plans to meet with Ramsay later this week to discuss ways to build trust between residents and the police.
“I’d rather work with him, honestly,” Bohannon said. “It’s going to take both sides to get this thing figured out.”
It will take learning different ways for people to interact with the police, he said – and more instruction for police officers in how to more effectively interact with residents.
Ramsay concurred on Wednesday, saying more “cultural competency training” is needed for officers.
“I want to do everything I can to make sure we treat people fairly and equitably,” Ramsay said.
The protests and anger over the recent police shootings “are part of a larger problem,” the chief said. He pointed to elevated unemployment rates, higher infant mortality rates and lower graduation rates for African-Americans around the nation.
“I believe that, right now, police are the flashpoint for issues of poverty and issues surrounding race in this country,” Ramsay said.
He said he has been meeting with local community leaders to find ways to address those issues.
“We just need to figure these things out,” Ramsay said.