Hundreds of people gathered on the corner of Fourth and Main Streets in downtown Chico Tuesday evening (June 2) to protest racism and police brutality in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25—an act of violence that has triggered similar demonstrations in communities large and small throughout the nation.
In Chico, it was the first of two protests in as many nights in the city center. Despite concerns from city personnel and merchants that the initial gathering on Tuesday could turn violent and activists’ concerns about protesters’ safety, the hours-long action remained peaceful but passionate and ended with Chico Police officers walking alongside participants.
A protest planned for that day by Justice for Desmond Phillips, a group that’s advocated for local police reform and officer accountability since the killing of 25-year-old Phillips in March 2017, was canceled due to safety concerns.
“We do not do this out of fear, we do this out of love for our community and supporters,” the group announced via social media. “We are strategic. There are very real threats of violence coming from multiple directions. We are real about knowing that the police will not protect us and may do more violence to us too.”
The group did not expound on the potential threats, but over the past week certain locals have posted messages to Facebook vowing to meet demonstrations with an armed response. Some also cheered violence carried out against peaceful protesters in other cities, by both police officers and citizens who’ve deliberately driven their vehicles into crowds of people.
Downtown, fears about the possibility of riots manifested in a handful of boarded-up businesses and a strong law enforcement presence. Police cruisers and unmarked black SUVs circled the area and gathered in the parking lot of the Municipal Center. In the minutes leading up to 5 p.m.—the scheduled start time of the aborted protest—workers finished attaching plywood coverings on the doors and windows of the Chico Chamber of Commerce office across from the City Council chambers.
A few hundred feet away, demonstrators began to gather with signs and a bullhorn. They brought water to keep participants hydrated as temperatures reached the mid-90s, the effects of which were exacerbated by the masks protesters wore to protect themselves from the continued spread of the coronavirus in Butte County.
Over the next hour, the number of protesters grew from a few dozen to several hundred, with an estimated 400 attendees at peak attendance. The number of Chico police officers—who distanced themselves from the demonstration, gathering near the steps of the City Council chambers facing Fourth Street—also grew to more than a dozen.
Several officers said they were present to protect people and property both because of real violence that’s erupted during similar demonstrations across the country, as well as internet threats by apparent counter-protesters. A City Council meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. was canceled at the last minute (“due to security concerns ‘in and abundance of caution,’” said Councilman Karl Ory on social media).
With the protest lacking a formal organizer, a few different people from the crowd stepped forward to facilitate, leading rounds of “No justice! No peace! No racist police!” and other chants and offering a megaphone to anyone who had something to say. Dozens of people of all ages and races addressed the crowd—many speaking about Phillips and others killed at the hands of police—and called for systemic change. Chants of “Say his name, Desmond Phillips” and “No justice, no peace” rang out throughout the evening.
At one point, hundreds of protesters laid on their stomachs continuously chanting “I can’t breath” for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the length of time then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck as three other officers stood by or helped restrain him.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the crowd began marching. As they did several laps around the Chico City Plaza, police officers moved to the area previously occupied by the protesters. The crowd returned and gathered in front of the officers, collectively urging them to “Take a knee!”
After several tense minutes and some face-to-face communication, other protesters began chanting, “Walk with us!” The officers ultimately refused to take a knee, but joined protesters in marching down side streets and taking several more laps around the City Plaza. The protest eventually dissipated at around 8:30 p.m.
Wednesday’s gathering drew around 100 people by early evening. Demonstrators again spoke about police brutality, held signs calling for change and chanted “black lives matter.”
Protests likely will continue on Thursday (June 4). Another event scheduled for that day, Racial Justice Protest and Candle Light Vigils, was also canceled by organizers. However, several participants in Tuesday’s action said they’d still gather in the City Plaza at 4 p.m.
Following the initial protest on Tuesday, Justice for Desmond Phillips put out another statement reiterating that the group is not involved in organizing and will not be in attendance at any events taking place this week. The group expressed appreciation for attendees of the Tuesday protest, but criticized the inclusion of Chico police in the march.
“We know that some people still showed up downtown and we appreciate you showing up even though there was risk of violence,” reads the statement, which is available in its entirety on the group’s Facebook page.
“We also heard that after a while the marchers invited the police to march with them. If we had been there that never would have happened. So we must be clear that we do not march with, organize with, or include police. The police need to hold their criminal killer co-workers accountable.”