'On the side of justice'

Terry Schuhmacher Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
The Rev. Myra Brown is pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, where many people had congregated during protests the night of Sept. 5. The rally spilled out into the area around the church.

ROCHESTER — Sept. 5 was the largest and most tumultuous night of protests to date, and the Rev. Myra Brown was among the people seeking justice for Daniel Prude.

The protesters marched, chanted and rallied for hours in downtown Rochester. By the end of the night, three police officers and an untold number of protesters would be injured.

When some of the protesters fled the police, Rev. Brown's church, Spiritus Christi, took them in. At one point, police surrounded the church, and pepper balls splattered against its walls.

The next day, Rev. Brown appeared at a press conference with Mayor Lovely Warren and Police Chief La'Ron Singletary, and it was clear she had something to say.

When it was her turn to speak, she talked about a community that needed the space to grieve and protest.

She talked about policing being based on "slave patrol blueprints."

And she advanced a proposal that had been conceived by the protest group Free the People Roc: That dozens of church elders would stand as a buffer between police and protesters.

A skeptical member of the press asked her if she was worried about elders being injured. No, she said. She had done this kind of thing before.

"They'd better not get injured," she said, sternly.

Since that night, the policing of the protests has changed. While there have been tense moments and huge displays of force, the response has been more tempered.

Here is how the night, and the involvement of elders, unfolded.

A place of refuge

Rev. Brown was in the middle of the crowd near Exchange Street that night when she heard popping noises. “I don’t know who drew what first,” she said. But when she saw the police chasing the crowd, she ran to her church at 121 N. Fitzhugh St., near City Hall.

There, she had arranged for a group of doctors and nurses to be on hand to treat any protesters that were hurt. When she arrived, three people were already being treated for injuries.

A young girl had her knee shot — she thought it was with rubber bullets — and could barely walk. Another woman was having seizures.

Kristan Johnson of Syracuse had been hit by a projectile on the inside of her foot. She had also been engulfed in pepper spray and/or tear gas. Medics had rinsed her eyes and face to remove the residue from the chemicals, and she was icing her foot.

Rev. Brown assumed that the crowd had dispersed at that point. She had to prepare her sermon for the next morning, so she headed for home. She told two church staff members to call if there were any issues.

It would not be a quiet night.

Confusion on Fitzhugh Street

Rawson Duckett and a friend were standing toward the back of the crowd when the police started pushing toward the protesters. Things got too intense for his friend, so Duckett gave her a ride to her car then moved his own car closer to the protest.

West Main Street was blocked, so he parked in front of Hochstein Music School on North Plymouth Avenue, then followed voices to the area around City Hall.

Initially, the area was loud with chanting but otherwise calm. But when a group of protesters started calling out “Daniel Prude!" the police responded by shooting pepper balls toward their feet. The protesters threw four or five half-empty water bottles; none hit the officers.

Duckett spotted a group of four or five people — either in their teens or early 20s — trying to break a door in a dark corner of City Hall. They stood out because they wore bright, beautifully colored clothing in contrast to the dark attire of most of the protesters. Other protesters were trying to convince them to stop, saying they were going to hurt their cause.

Duckett saw police start advancing in a straight line from City Hall down Fitzhugh Street. They would chant “move, move” and then advance slowly but deliberately down the street. Duckett jogged away but also turned to keep an eye on what was happening. He ended up standing in front of Spiritus Christi Church.

Kristen Walker arrived at the church at around the same time. Walker is the Young Adult Minister for Spiritus Christi and also is involved with Free the People Roc. She had led the march from Jefferson Avenue to the police barrier and toward the front when the police response started. Knowing that the church was set up as a sanctuary space, she headed there.

A line of protesters was waiting to enter the church as volunteers took temperatures, handed each person a new face mask and told them to social distance as much as possible. Milk and water were stacked just outside the church for first aid.

As the officers made their way down the street, Walker grabbed a megaphone and told the protesters they were welcome to enter the church.

"Move, move," the officers chanted again and continued forward. They shot pepper balls into the street toward the crowd.

Several pepper balls then hit high against the church walls, and the contents rained down onto people standing nearby. Duckett and others rushed inside the church.

When he sat down, he noticed a white substance on his jeans; he guessed it came from the pepper balls striking the wall. His hand brushed his face as he changed into the fresh mask. “It felt like I had cut a hot pepper and rubbed the juice on my face,” he said.

After sitting in the church for a short time, Duckett got nervous and decided to leave. He started walking down the ramp that led into the church, but he saw officers in helmets walking toward him. He turned to go back inside and heard the church gate slam.

The police had closed the gate, and a police officer was standing guard.

“Then I really started to panic,” Duckett said.

Inside the church

Spiritus Christi Church rents space from Downtown United Presbyterian Church, and they share a sanctuary. It is an impressive, solemn and historic space. Two rows of shiny wood pews face the altar; a two-story pipe organ provides a towering backdrop. A horseshoe-shaped balcony rings the upper level.

Colorful, arched stained-glass windows are dedicated to long-ago members of the faith community. One depicts grazing sheep and has two lines from Psalm 23: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters." It is dedicated to members of the Prentice family who died in 1910 and 1927.

In the church that night, a medic was set up in back to treat injuries. People lined up outside bathrooms to rinse off residues of tear gas and pepper spray. Others had bruises, welts or bleeding sores from having been hit.

The church was mostly quiet, with coughs echoing now and then from the effects of tear gas and pepper spray. Some people peeled of clothing that been hit by the chemicals.

Kristen Walker, the young adult minister, got word that the church was surrounded by law enforcement. She relayed the information via bullhorn. "We had people who were flustered," she said. "Emotions were high. It was a scary time for all of us."

She tried to keep the group calm, telling them they were safe and that there was plenty of water. Someone played the piano.

"We were going to be all right in a church," she said. "I held that belief."

Angry pastor texts authorities

Minutes after arriving home, Rev. Brown’s phone started to ring. Davis Craig, the church’s operations manager, told her the police had chased the protesters down Fitzhugh and were shooting chemicals at protesters and the church. Rev. Brown agreed to let them take refuge in the church.

Soon, Rev. Brown got another call. Craig told her an officer had gone up to the ramp and slammed the ramp door exit, effectively trapping them in the building. Now she was furious.

“He had no right to touch the gate on our property,” she said. “It was an act of defiance and an act of bullying and an act of power to send a message to that group of people.”

She had the cell phone number of Mayor Warren and Chief Singletary from participating in community conversations about issues like COVID-19 and the census, so she texted them to say the officers needed to stand down.

The Chief responded that protesters were trying to break into City Hall. She responded that the officers should protect City Hall and get away from her church.

The exchange went back and forth. Rev. Brown said Warren backed her, and Singletary agreed to talk to the officers.

Craig called Rev. Brown again. The people in the church were texting people outside the church and were afraid that they'd be arrested or harassed if they left the building.

She again texted the Chief requesting a guarantee that the people in the church would be safe. After some resistance, she got her guarantee.

A nervous departure

In the church, Kristen Walker got word that the police had agreed to give everyone safe passage. She relayed the information over the megaphone.

"Everyone started laughing in complete disbelief," said Duckett, who was still in the church. "Bull. No way."

Kristan Johnson and friends decided to take the chance to head for home. As they left, they saw that the bottles of water and milk stacked outside for first aid had been slashed and dumped into the street. From the blasts of pepper spray, the building looked like it had been splattered by a paintball tournament.

When they got in their car, every street in sight had been blocked by police.

They pulled over into a nearby parking lot and slunk down in their seats as a military-style procession passed them. They estimated seeing 150 to 200 officers from many different law enforcement agencies. They counted more than a dozen vehicles, including cruisers and prisoner transport vehicles. They also saw a couple of military-style vehicles, one carrying a frightening looking weapon; one guessed it was a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) while another swore it was the Active Denial System (ADS).

Finally, they were able to leave the city, with police posted at each intersection.

Meanwhile, back at the church, Duckett initially did not see officers when he left; he heard someone say the police had headed to another group of protesters. He saw some of the military-style vehicles pass by in the distance.

Before heading home, he ran into a 17-year-old boy and walked him to his ride.

For others who remained in the church, Kristen Walker helped coordinate white allies to drive people to their cars or homes. She did not leave the church until 2:30 a.m.

Elders enter the fray

After Rev. Brown preached on Sunday, it was time to have a conversation with the people who held the power in this situation.

“I was enraged that this could happen — that this system would think it could bring its audacity to my church, to my doorstep to treat people that way,” she said.

Spiritus Christi is considered a progressive congregation, and Brown leads the church's social justice team. Her goal was serve as a bridge: To advance ideas that originated with the activist group Free the People Roc, including guarantees of free passage, free expression and their right to call for justice.

She requested a meeting with Mayor Lovely Warren. Singletary and his team eventually joined them. Warren understood Brown's perspective and spoke of her part in creating the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE) in June. But Brown advocated for more immediate action.

She proposed getting rid of the police cars blocking off streets. She asked for room to let protesters manage themselves. And she advanced the idea of the elders getting involved.

“Eldership is deeply dimensioned,” she said. In Black and brown communities, eldership isn’t about age. It’s about taking care of younger people — walking alongside them and sharing wisdom.

They came to an agreement for elders to be present; they had already been in the crowd on Saturday at the invitation of Free The People Roc. After some hesitation, the police agreed to the plan. Rev. Brown offered to be the point person for the elders, and Warren offered to arrange transportation.

Mayor Warren invited her to the Sunday afternoon press conference that already had been scheduled. She agreed, in order to get the word out to elders.

“Somehow my presence at the press conference got politicized,” she said. People assumed she was partnering with the police. “I was never a partner with them. I don’t partner with systems of oppression. I call on systems of oppression to transform themselves. To dispense justice. To reimagine their role from harm to healing.”

Elders lined up in front of the Public Safety Building that night, Sept. 6. While there were moments of tension, police allowed the protesters themselves to deal with members of the crowd who were trying to agitate.

Elders have also joined subsequent protests.

“The reason we had a reprieve that night is because we were able to negotiate that they stand down, get away and leave the protesters alone," Rev. Brown said.

The police response has generally been more tempered since that night, although police turned on Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) at a protest on Sept. 12.

Brown continues in her role as a bridge between various groups. A recent example: She led a group of elected officials and candidates in racial justice training on Sept. 12.

“God wants us to figure this out," she said. "Whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, our God is on the side of justice. God has always been on the side of liberation. God has always been a God to hear the cry of the oppressed.”

Many city, county and state law enforcement agencies were spotted at the protests on Sept. 6, including some from other counties. The Rochester Police Department did not respond to two emails seeking comment about whether or how the department has changed its response to protests. The New York State Police said it was not present at Spiritus Christi Church and declined to comment on its tactics and strategies, saying it could pose a safety risk for its members and the public.

Police line up a shot with a pepper spray gun during a demonstration on Sept. 5.