TOPEKA — Hundreds of police supporters gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the capital’s city hall to protest demands by Black Lives Matter.
Standing in sweltering heat, they chanted “back the blue,” joined in prayer, sang “God Bless America,” and cheered speakers, including three Republican candidates for the Kansas Legislature, who urged them to brace for a long battle against activists who would restrict police from keeping them safe.
The demonstration preceded a special city council meeting in which dozens of community members signed up to speak in favor or opposition of proposed police reforms.
Some of the rally participants hawked T-shirts. Virtually all of them were white, and few wore masks as they packed into shady corners of the city block.
A contingent of Black Lives Matter supporters held court on the edge of the larger protest, engaging in spirited verbal clashes.
“Black lives matter!”
“Jesus was black, baby!”
“This is like a comedy show I didn’t even have a ticket for.”
The rally was organized by retired Topeka police officer Ron Gish in response to various proposals inspired by the death of George Floyd earlier this year, and countless other Black men and women who have been killed by police nationwide. In Topeka, Black Lives Matter is asking the city council to overhaul qualified immunity for police officers, classify a chokehold as a crime, prohibit racial profiling, establish a registry of police misconduct to be maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice, and create a civilian review board to represent and empower the community.
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about more than police brutality,” said Pjay Carter, an organizer for Black Lives Matter-Topeka. “We’re talking about incarceration, health care, housing, education, and economics — all the different components of a broader system that has created the reality we see today, where Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, where Black people are given harsher sentences for the same offenses, where Black people are more likely to be held on bail pretrial, and where Black people are dying not only at the hands of police, but because of an unequal health care system.
“Black lives should matter in all stages of life, and to honor that truth, we must radically transform the system from its roots.”
Speakers at the pro-police rally warned supporters of the dangers of pursing such reform.
“We have to be vigilant,” said Francis Slobodnik, a Topeka resident and district manager for the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which bills itself as Catholic inspired and is known as an anti-LGBTQ group.
“Be vigilant,” Slobodnik told the crowd. “Because what the people who want to reduce the police, weaken the police, what they will do is they will try to wait us out. They will hope we fall asleep.”
Republican Jeff Coen, a former Topeka councilman who is now running against Democratic Rep. Jim Gartner, lamented how the council in one year had gone from talking about fixing potholes and water main lines to talk of police reform.
“You know, if one of our officers was struggling with a bad guy, and it was a chance to get a little jujitsu action to put the person to sleep, so they could put the handcuffs on him — that’s not asking for much,” Coen said.
Janlyn Nesbett Tucker, a Republican who is running for a Statehouse seat held by Democratic Rep. Annie Kuether, led the crowd in chanting the names of fallen Topeka police officers. It was her take on the “say his name” references to Floyd.
“When someone says, ‘Black lives matter,’ and we say, ‘All lives matter,’ it’s like saying, ‘My grandmother died,’ and, ‘Well, all grandmothers die.’ And you know, I want us to really think about that,” she said.
She continued: “I believe in my heart of hearts that what started off as an awareness movement has turned into something that is so out of control, that we are going to be lucky if we ever get control of it again. And it’s going to be up to us to stand up and say, ‘No, this is not right.’ ”
Michael Martin, a retired investigator for the Topeka Fire Department, is the Republican candidate running for a Statehouse seat held by Democratic Rep. John Alcala. He urged the community to get better at treating law enforcement officers well. Police need more funding, he said, not less.
“They’re to be our sheep dogs,” Martin said. “They’re to guard the flock. And we need to make sure that you don’t protect the flock by hobbling them, putting them in cages, or unnecessarily punishing the sheep dog. You protect the flock by making sure the sheep dog has the tools necessary.”
He added: “Why are we so divisive on this issue? Because it’s Topeka, Kansas. OK? We don’t have the problems on the east and west coasts. We don’t have those problems. This is Kansas. We’re better than that.”
Reeves Oyster, communications director for the Kansas Democratic Party, responded in an email to the remarks by Republicans. She pointed to the shooting this week of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the latest “tragic example of police brutality, white supremacy and institutional racism,” and said it was disappointing to see political hopefuls denying the issues impacting their communities.
“In times of crisis, we need leaders who listen, show empathy and acknowledge the uncomfortable realities needed to move forward — not spread disinformation or block needed progress for the sake of a political agenda,” Oyster said.
As rally participants began to disperse ahead of the special meeting, several police supporters moved to escape a camera’s view of a Black Lives Matter demonstrator who had climbed to a high point to flip them off.
“Come on, let’s make it a family photo — me and the KKK,” the Black Lives Matter demonstrator said.
“He’s family, alright — if I s*** him out my a**,” the police supporter replied.