Crowds denouncing the death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis brought their message to downtown Fort Wayne over the weekend.
Protesters shouted "I Can't Breathe," the words that have become the symbol of the outrage against the May 25 death of George Floyd. Demonstrators lifted signs proclaiming "Black Lives Matter" and cited names of those whose deaths have provoked similar anger over recent decades.
Fort Wayne was only one of dozens of cities that witnessed the demonstrations. Greater confrontations erupted in Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere.
Fort Wayne Police took steps to control demonstrations that spilled over from the Allen County Courthouse lawn and into the surrounding downtown. What began as peaceful though emotional protests morphed into something else Friday night. Police said they responded with tear gas only after demonstrators began to pose a threat to public safety.
Twenty-nine arrests were made, mostly for disorderly conduct. Most of those arrested were from Fort Wayne.
Saturday's daylight revealed scattered broken windows.
Volunteers from Fort Wayne and the vicinity answered the call to bring brooms and trash bags and energy to clean up debris from city streets. They also brought masks, the symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic that has barred or limited public gatherings since mid-March. And they brought pride in their city, voiced sympathy for the right to protest, and questioned the consequences of the previous night.
Alan Swim of Fort Wayne cleaned glass from a windowsill on the ground floor of the courthouse. He said the east lawn has given audience to so many causes — he cited rallies for conflicting viewpoints — should have been littered in that service.
Amanda Brock of Fort Wayne, daughter Sienna, 11, and son, Landon, 4, filled a trash bag. "We thought we would help clean it up this morning," Amanda said.
Both Saturday morning farmer's markets were canceled for the day, each citing concern for the welfare of vendors and shoppers.
Mayor Tom Henry, law enforcement officials and faith leaders urged the press to ask the public to show respect for the city. Henry said outside agitators incited the crowd to vandalism. "This is not Fort Wayne," said the 13-year mayor, who said he has witnessed many demonstrations and was not objecting to the right to dissent.
Iric Headley of Fort Wayne United asked Fort Wayne not to confuse the fallout from the protest with the message. "I think that's what's happening in our country and in our community right now, is the voices are hard to hear because of what we're seeing, and that's the issue," Headley said. "Because what took place in Minneapolis is an injustice. The voices need to be heard. The mission is good, the message is good, the motive might be good, but the method is what the issue is. And we want the voices to be heard. The injustices that have been taking place in our country for years need to be talked about and the voices need to be heard."
Fort Wayne Police Chief Steve Reed and Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux also addressed the news conference outside Citizens Square. Reed said more than 100 police officers were deployed Friday night. Gladieux said 35 to 40 sheriff's deputies were on hand. Police said they would move more quickly, if necessary, to control a second night of confrontation.
That pledge became a prophecy on Saturday, when crowds returned to surround the courthouse. Police ordered crowds to disperse, warning that failure to leave the downtown area would result in arrest. The crowd stayed. More arrests were made. The tear gas fell. One protester reported being injured when a tear gas canister exploded in the protester's face. Police said that person was attempting to pick up one canister when another canister landed, and that police did not intentionally fire the canister at that person's face.
Some protesters left the area when police issued that order.
"They're tear-gassing people over there," said Javiera Baer, of Fort Wayne, as she and Zamantha Mulder headed west on Wayne Street.
"We're here after a peaceful protest," Mulder said. "Some people got overboard and police retaliated and it went a little crazier than expected. They're arresting people for just walking. It's just gotten too far. What's meant to be a good cause — whether it's the police or the people — it's just taking it a little too far. Freedom of speech is different than lighting things on fire."
One police officer was injured and taken to the hospital. The department said the injury was not life-threatening.
Police reported 60 arrests as of midnight Saturday.
Day 3 brought more protests. Crowds began to leave the streets surrounding the courthouse at 7 p.m. One protester said his group had made its statement, and wanted to leave at its own time and on its own terms. But many protesters stayed or returned.
At 11:18 p.m. gunfire was reported at Clinton and Superior streets, just north of the viaduct. Police made an arrest after a short foot pursuit. Four shell casings were found.
Police issued this statement: "Shortly after the shots fired and due to the danger of ongoing gun violence, Fort Wayne Police began giving audible orders to disperse. Orders were given by drone and by vehicle loudspeaker. Officers began pushing protesters out and those that would not leave were arrested." That statement, issued at 12:39 a.m., promised to report the final number of arrests when available. "There were no incidents of injury and no chemical agent or other less lethal munitions were used," police said.
In contrast to the scene downtown, Pastor Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Temple arranged a Sunday evening faith rally at the church and nearby Lutheran Park. About 200 people stood or kneeled in prayer as several faith leaders called for respect for all people.
Early Monday afternoon, the mayor issued a statement citing "the opportunity to reflect and move forward to determine how we can unify around one another to prevent traumatic incidents from happening in our city."
Henry called for dialogue and trust. "By working together, we’ll be a stronger and more caring and giving community," Henry said. "It will take some time and healing, but I have no doubt that our best days are ahead us."
Protesters were at the Courthouse square again at 2 p.m. Monday