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A county commissioner, a city councilman and a U.S. congresswoman attended a protest in Columbus to support demonstrators and encourage peaceful tactics. Then police showed up.
Pepper spray residue is almost impossible to wash off, according to Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce.
“What I didn’t know is that heat activates it, so the minute I tried to take a shower, it burned,” he said. “I had to get out of the shower to research it, and I learned that you have to neutralize it. I read that olive oil helps, so I took olive oil from my kitchen and poured it all over my face and my scalp. It’s a pretty tough agent.”
The Ohio county commissioner, along with U.S. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty and Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin, was among those pepper sprayed by police at a protest in downtown Columbus on May 30. The trio of lawmakers, all black, had decided that morning to attend the event together to offer support for participants while encouraging peaceful, nonviolent protests.
The day began that way, Boyce said, with protesters chanting, singing and interacting without incident. But when the police showed up, things changed.
“The police were trying to keep people on the sidewalk and out of the street, but the crowd was growing so fast that it was hard to contain,” he said. “We were encouraging people to stay on the sidewalk, to comply, and then there was a confrontation between an African-American woman and one of the police officers.”
Police pushed the woman, which angered protesters, Boyce said. A video of the altercation shows the police officer then pushing a white man to the ground, prompting Beatty to step forward, which Boyce said was an attempt to defuse the situation. And then police started spraying.
Boyce and Hardin jumped in to move Beatty out of the way, but they weren’t fast enough. All three were doused. Hardin took the worst hit; Boyce found him minutes later, spinning in circles, unable to see. The trio escaped to safety shortly after.
“It all happened so fast,” Boyce said. “It was really probably 10 seconds’ worth of verbal altercation, followed by 30 to 40 seconds of melee. And it was awful.”
Boyce, Beatty and Hardin are among a growing group of elected officials who have been injured or arrested while attending protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis by a police officer who knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes.
New York state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and state Rep. Diana Richardson were pepper sprayed by police during a peaceful protest in Brooklyn on May 29. That night in Charlotte, City Councilman Braxton Winston was arrested for ‘failure to disperse’ during a protest he attended to attempt to de-escalate tensions between residents and police. On May 30, Virginia Del. Lee Carter was flash-banged and pepper sprayed at a protest in Manassas; a day later, in Fredericksburg, Del. Josh Cole was pepper sprayed by police.
Other than Carter, each of those lawmakers is black. And that’s troubling, Boyce said. If it’s happening to prominent black elected officials on camera, what’s happening to black residents when reporters aren’t there?
“If the police have this disregard for high-ranking officials—particularly, in Shannon Hardin’s case, the one who sets their salaries—what does that say about the rest of the community?” he said. “Yes, I think it does imply a powerful statement about what else is happening.”
In some cases, the altercations have led to legislative action. On Monday, Winston will ask the Charlotte City Council to defund “chemical agents used for crowd control and dispersal” and to create an oversight committee to “evaluate, scrutinize and recommend adjustments to police spending and policy involving such tactics.”
“We can demand that de-escalation is at the core of every police interaction with citizens,” Winston said in an email. “This is how we will comprehensively reform policing.”
In New York, Myrie and Richardson are cosponsoring a bill to make it easier for localities to establish independent oversight boards for police departments, part of a legislative package on police reform endorsed by the state’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
“Public trust and confidence in law enforcement requires independent, effective, and accessible mechanisms for holding police officers accountable for misconduct,” the bill says. “When police disciplinary proceedings are governed by and held entirely within a police department's trial room, public trust is undermined.”
At the federal level, Beatty on Thursday introduced a resolution to recognize racism as a national crisis and to “call on Congress to undertake a truth and reconciliation process following the unlawful killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless more Black men and women who die simply because of the color of their skin.”
“The death of George Floyd at the hands of the four former police officers in Minneapolis represents the highest of inhumane treatment and abuse by our law enforcement,” Beatty said in a statement. “This is a clarion call to action that police brutality or the threat of it against Black people must cease and desist immediately.”
In Franklin County, where officials recently declared racism a public health crisis, Boyce is focused mostly on trying to eliminate racial inequities at their root, including a comprehensive county-wide plan to reduce poverty. But he supports the creation of citizen review boards at every level of law enforcement. And he’s still waiting for a phone call from the Columbus police chief to discuss what happened at the protest.
“The mayor reached out to me to make sure I was okay, to his credit, but to this day, I have not heard from the chief,” he said. “I’ve recently been contacted by the [police union]. I referred them to my attorney. I’m not pursuing any legal action, but at this stage of things, it would have been nice to hear from the chief. But I think that’s pretty indicative of police relations right now, particularly with black men.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.