INDIANAPOLIS — This coming weekend marks the one-year anniversary of social and criminal justice protests that began peaceful enough in downtown Indianapolis but devolved into two nights of rioting that left two people dead, more than 100 downtown businesses and buildings damaged and more than eight million dollars in costs and financial damages.
What has Indianapolis learned in the last year…and has it left us a better place?
“It still feels the same to me,” said Kyra Harvey of BLM/Indy Ten who was one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that forced IMPD to change it protest response tactics. “Whether we won the lawsuit or not, I still feel like with IMPD or not what happened last year I still feel like they’ll be aggressive and be aggressors like they were last year.”
“We got to learn from that,” said IMPD Chief Randal Taylor. “We got to listen to some people that we don’t typically get an opportunity to listen to. They made their voices known.”
“I know we’ve come a long way in a year’s time,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “I think in many ways we as a community are more transparent than we ever have been before.”
The plywood over the broken windows is down, only faded outlines of the protest graffiti remains on the Soldiers & Sailors Monument where the first demonstrators rallied on the night of May 29th, Bodacious BBQ at the corner of Pennsylvania and Market Streets will never reopen because looters trashed the restaurant minutes after diners fled on the second night of rioting and more storefronts inside Circle Center remained locked and empty following the twin disasters of the COVID pandemic shutdown and the sacking of the retail center both nights during the last weekend in May.
“It was somewhat of a surprise, but I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected,” said Chief Taylor. “I guess I wasn’t so surprised that things kind of came up and got traction.”
All across America, protesters outraged by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer took to the streets at the end of May in civil unrest that lasted throughout the summer in some places.
In Indianapolis, demonstrators had already walked the north side weeks before following the fatal officer involved shooting of Dreasjon Reed who a special prosecutor and grand jury determined fired at an IMPD officer while fleeing a traffic stop.
“I think the conditions that we were under a year ago still exist,” said Jessica Louise, leader of a BLM/Indy Ten rally on Monument Circle earlier this month, “and that’s due to city leadership and the police and the FOP continuing to use reactionary measures in regards to the public. Some of the things we suggested seven years ago in regards to taking care of the officers, making sure the transparency and accountability happen, have still to be refused.”
Mayor Hogsett told Fox 59 News that some of the community demands for more citizen involvement in IMPD rule making and internal investigations have been met.
“Just this past weekend the General Orders committee with citizen participation had a full weekend of training as did our Use of Force Review Board with civilian participation. We are still ramping our Citizens Police Complaint Review Board, so, many of the commitments we have made over the last year, I think, have made us a more transparent, more open.”
“We see IMPD does the same thing after a killing,” said Harvey. “They want to give us more diversity training. They want to give us more police reform that they call themselves doing and nothing ever changes. What we want is accountability.”
It had been more than two decades since police in Indianapolis deployed tear gas in response to crowds refusing to disperse from city streets.
The IMPD reaction to three days of crowds downtown last spring when chaos ensued after dark and rocks and bottles flew as fires were set and the sound of gunshots echoed through the heart of the city led to reforms and more intensive training for police officers.
“Our officers did an outstanding job in some pretty incredible circumstances and I’m proud of the work they did,” said IMPD Assistant Chief Chris Bailey. “Obviously we can always get better. We can look at what national best practices are.
“We have to continue to contact and make contact with the people that organize these events so we can establish a relationship before anything happens and kind of set boundaries and ground rules ahead of time.
“There are few things that we could do better like making sure that people hear our announcement before using chemical agents and that we do more traffic control and bike patrols rather than officers in riot gear and things like that. We’ve spent a few weeks training, not only with our officers here but officers from other parts of the region so that we’re all on the same page and so we’re using the United States government’s standard field force training operations.
“The businesses in our city on the whole paid the price for that weekend and a lot of hard lessons learned there but we’ll be prepared in the future to make sure that doesn’t occur.”
“There’s encouraging news from this time last year,” said Sherry Seiwert, President of Downtown Indy, Inc. “Things are opening up and people are beginning to respond, the weather’s warming up, so, all of those signs point to we’ll begin to see people want to get out of their houses and support businesses.
“Downtown is getting incrementally better.”
From that first Monday after the weekend of riots, Seiwert and her staff were out surveying the damage to the downtown area and asking merchants what they would need to reopen.
Seiwert also heard from the community that made its frustrations known throughout downtown that weekend.
“We learned to listen,” she said. “We also learned that we can’t have that level of violence happen again because it was so detrimental to our downtown that it took a significant amount of time and energy and money to recover. Our downtown drives our economic vitality for the entire city, so minimally, we need to make sure we’re continually investing in our downtown, not allowing damage to occur.”
By the time of the riots, the COVID-19 pandemic had already taken its toll on downtown, sending some 145,000 daily workers home and gutting the convention and visitor’s industry which in the last good year of 2019 pumped more than $5.6 billion into the local economy, even though locals were still flocking to restaurants and bars while the tear gas flew those Friday and Saturday nights.
“We’ve certainly bounced back. We’re open again,” said Denny Sponsel of RJE Business Interiors. “I think we see the wood is off the windows, people are opened up, people are more confident today and it opened up a whole dialog and discussion that didn’t exist in this city like that before and in that way it’s very very healthy what’s happening and people with their awareness have found an openness to that whole subject matter and so I think that downtown is a better downtown because of it.”
A frank discussion about race and social injustice and criminal justice system and police reform sparked some painful soul searching and debate across America and in Indianapolis.
“We’re reacting to that now. Will that get us to a better place? I hope so,” said ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk who successfully litigated limits on IMPD’s protest response tactics. “I think that police leaders and leaders here in Indianapolis are sincerely committed to avoiding those problems in the future and trying to deal with it. How that all plays out we’ll have to see but I have to hope it’s going to; we’ve made things better just because you have to hope.”
Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl is charged with bringing visitors and conventions back to downtown Indianapolis while he monitors the face the city shows to the rest of the country.
“There was not a city in the nation, and rightfully so, that didn’t wrestle with the civil unrest and the issue of equity last summer and certainly we were bumped and bruised in Indianapolis and saw that play out,” said Gahl. “Nationwide equity inclusivity is top of mind so in working convention and event organizers for 2021 and beyond they are asking about what local experts could be tapped to talk about those very important emerging topics. That’s rewarding from the city’s standpoint. We know that these breakout sessions will focus on equity and equality and inclusivity and diversity in a positive way and in an enlightening way and so us to be the convener of conferences that will focus on breakout sessions and time and effort and energy and national speakers coming in to speak on these important topics will ultimately help position Indianapolis as a thought leader in this realm and in this arena.”
As the crowds and workers and residents and visitors return to downtown a year after the riots, they will find that the heart of the city is beginning to resemble what it once was before that history-making last weekend of May, 2020, when the Motor Speedway at the corner of 16th and Georgetown was abnormally quiet but the Circle around the Monument roared with voices long silenced and orders for calm, and now art flourishes in murals where broken glass exposed a once darker interior.
“The roll of artists has always been expression, about their truth about inspiring understanding,” said Julie Goodman, President & CEO of the Arts Council of Indianapolis which commissioned many the pieces that visualized the aftermath of the unrest and recorded the names of the fallen. “It created a canvas not only for expression but for creating space for listening and for conversation and for reflecting on these truths, these difficult truths, and it started us on a path for healing.”
The activists who took to the streets in protest last spring promise they will return to the pavement and chambers of the City County Council to persist in their call to defund IMPD.
Mayor Hogsett pledges to continue to replenish the ranks of the police department with dozens of new hires, and Chief Taylor says he will continue reform training while opening up IMPD rules and operations to more community oversight.
Some downtown businesses are gone for good, but one merchant’s misfortune is another’s opportunity as new restauranteurs prepare to reopen spaces abandoned a year ago as weekend visitors and diners slowly trek back and sometimes stand in line awaiting a seat, ready to shake off the fear of 2020’s pandemic and riots.
“Without question, from an image standpoint, a branding standpoint, a tourism standpoint, from an overall health of ecotourism, Indianapolis is leading the pack,” said Chris Gahl, fresh off booking another $50 million worth of conventions in one week. “We are in the pole position.”
“You know in many respects, I think it’s going to be better than 2019 but it will not look the same as it did before,” said Sherry Seiwert when I asked her if Indianapolis will ever get back to what it once was. “I think whenever there’s a crisis, you react and you recover, which I think that our city has done, and then you start to plan for the future and right now we need to commence that plan for the future.”
If May of 2020 caused a social and criminal justice earthquake underneath Monument Circle, perhaps, in the year ahead, we’ll see if the repairs we made will make Indy stronger and more attuned to the warning signs when the ground shakes again.