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, some of whom returned to Courthouse Green on June 1, 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.
Mayor Tom Henry issued a statement June 1, his second dealing with the weekend turmoil.
It read in part, “The City of Fort Wayne continues to mourn as we remember George Floyd and the injustice that led to his tragic death in Minneapolis last week. We’re also saddened by the hurt and pain that we know our fellow minority citizens experience when these incidents make their way to the center stage of our country. Racism has always been wrong, still is wrong, and should never be tolerated.
“... The Fort Wayne Police Department and partner law enforcement agencies had to make difficult decisions that they believed were necessary to maintain order and the overall safety of all residents. I know concerns have been expressed about the actions of public safety personnel. I support the work that they did. The techniques that had to be used are no reflection on and not in opposition to the message that was trying to be conveyed by protesters.
“I want all residents to know that the Fort Wayne Police Department and my Administration support peaceful protests and demonstrations.”
Fort Wayne Police used tear gas to control demonstrations that spilled over from the Allen County Courthouse lawn, a traditional center point for protests, and into the surrounding downtown May 29-31. What began as peaceful, though emotional, protests morphed into something else the night of May 29. 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.
May 30’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.
Henry, law enforcement officials and faith leaders urged the media 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, a mayoral initiative that advocates
enhanced opportunities for all, but especially black men and boys, 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 the night of May 29. 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 May 30, 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,” Javiera Baer, of Fort Wayne, said 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 a hospital. The department said the injury was not life-threatening.
Police reported 60 arrests as of midnight May 30.
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 said.
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 an evening faith rally May 31 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.
About a half-dozen protesters were at Courthouse Green again at 2 p.m. June 1. James Sproat was taping up to street poles and utility boxes copies of photos from the weekend clashes. He said he worked all weekend at a hospital and when he saw the protesters, he asked if he could help. He joined them along Clinton Street, where they received a number of honks from passing vehicles. The Courthouse Green is across Main Street from the Rousseau Centre, home of the Fort Wayne Police Department. No police activity, other than a passing police vehicle, was seen.
The courthouse still had an expletive scrawled on the limestone wall of the Berry Street of the 118-year-old building and two boarded-up windows.
John McGauley, Allen County Superior Court administrator, said contractors were just getting in to begin work on the glass with another contractor expected to work on the graffiti.
McGauley described damage that occurred inside the courthouse. “The broken window facing east was into Courtroom 107,” he wrote in an email. “A gas canister got through the window, shattered glass all the way into the jury box on the opposite side of the room, and burned through the carpet. We’re all grateful it didn’t start a fire. We just renovated and modernized that Courtroom in 2017.”
The first-floor courtroom was nearly doubled in size in the renovation, which included improvements to its audio-visual system.
The second broken window was in Courtroom 110, but didn’t damage the courtroom, McGauley said.
The courthouse is the responsibility of the Allen County Commissioners. Unless the undetermined costs of the damages meets the high insurance deductible, the cost of repairs will most likely come out of the county’s general fund maintenance budget or the cumulative capital development fund, according to county spokesman Michael Green.
In addition to repairs, the potential for further violence caused nearby restaurants to lose money because they closed early.
Hoppy Gnome, a minority-owned business across from Courthouse Green, closed May 30 and 31 because of the demonstrations. Coney Island co-owner James Todoran said his staff after the first night of protests, “Thank God my employees all got home safe and the Coney Island was spared from vandalism last night. However, many of our businesses weren’t so lucky. I really feel for our downtown neighbors. Many are still hurting from the economic effects of the pandemic and were forced to close early yesterday, not open today and repair their damaged property on top of that. I strongly support people who feel the need to protest, but violence and destruction of property only hurts the cause.”