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Too Much To Lose: How A 'Very Strategic' Holyoke Protest Delivered Message Without Incident

Some of the protests across the U.S. in response to police brutality and the killing of George Floyd have played out as organizers intended. Others ended in violence and property destruction.

In Holyoke, Massachusetts, a march on Tuesday went off without a hitch.

Like other organizers across the country, Simbrit Paskins and Stephany Marryshow have now watched numerous protests devolve into violence.

“We’re not here to make a fuss and have everyone get taken away before we get heard. So we’re gonna keep this peaceful,” Marryshow said.

Simbrit Paskins (right) addresses the crowd at a protest against racism and police brutality in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
Simbrit Paskins (right) addresses the crowd at a protest against racism and police brutality in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020.

But Paskins, a teacher at Holyoke High School, said her community has too much to lose from that sort of destruction.

“As quick as we might want to tear it down to wake these people up, it won’t be built back up as fast,” Paskins said.

With over 1,000 people gathered in front of Holyoke’s City Hall at the start of the march, Paskins made clear this gathering had leadership and a vision.

“Remember that the folks who organized today were very strategic in the way that we’d like this to flow for safety purposes,” she said.

She also made clear she had all of the protesters’ backs.

“That ‘Defund Police — Black Lives Matter’ sign all the way in the back: I see you,” she said.

It’s no small feat to keep an angry and distraught crowd — a crowd that fills a full city block — silent and attentive.

In a recent Twitter thread, writer and cultural critic Touré critiqued a Brooklyn protest he was part of, in which protesters became agitated, and police responded with violence. He describes a crowd getting restless and losing faith in its leadership.

In Holyoke, organizers employed tactics from the Occupy movement to keep participants responsive — like Paskins getting the crowd involved in a call-and-response mic check.

“Can everybody say ‘mic check?’” she said.

“Mic check,” the crowd answered.

“Nice try. One more time. Mic check!” she said again.

“Mic check!” the crowd responded.

“Fabulous,” Paskins said. “So if you hear the term ‘mic check,’ or you hear it whispered next to you, or you hear it coming down the line from the front to the back, you know that an organizer or a leader has some very important information to spread throughout the crowd.”

A crowd gathered in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020, to protest police violence. Organizers helped the crowd remain attentive.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
A crowd gathered in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, to protest police violence. Organizers helped the crowd remain attentive.

Holyoke organizers also rallied close to 100 volunteers for first aid, bottled water distribution, cleanup and security. Volunteers reminded each other to keep moving their heads and scanning the area, and look out for cars that might be a danger to pedestrians.

At a protest in Northampton earlier this week, a small group engaged in a standoff with police, until chief Jody Kaper agreed to take a knee.

Minister Bernard Smith of Bethlehem Baptist Community Church addresses the crowd in Holyoke, Mass., on June 2, 2020, while march organizers confer among themselves.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
Minister Bernard Smith of Bethlehem Baptist Community Church addresses the crowd in Holyoke, Mass., on June 2, 2020, while march organizers confer among themselves.

In Holyoke Tuesday, organizers accepted a donation of masks from police chief Manny Febo, who also offered departmental assistance.

“And if you need something from me — if they’re not listening to you, a small group or whatever — I can help you with that, too,” Febo said.

At a June 2, 2020, demonstration in Holyoke, Massachusetts, against police violence, the chief, Manny Febo, walked up to protesters with a donation of masks and asked to participate in the march.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
/
NEPR
At a June 2, 2020, demonstration in Holyoke, Massachusetts, against police violence, the chief, Manny Febo, walked up to protesters with a donation of masks and asked to participate in the march.

But they assured Febo they didn’t need police help to keep the crowd under control.

“We’ll make sure we’re good. I promise you,” Marryshow said.

“Yeah — and I would love to march with you, if you would allow,” Febo said.

In front of the police station, five minutes into what was planned as a nine-minute-long silence — the length of time a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to George Floyd’s neck — a few people began a now-familiar chant of “I Can’t Breathe.”

Then, Marryshow and other leaders gently shut the chanting down.

Paskins said that particular chant wouldn’t help.

“We were like, you know — one, we don’t want to use the [chants] that are gonna traumatize people,” Paskins said. “And two, we don’t want to choose any chants that are gonna push people in a direction that we didn’t want to go. That would do a disservice to them.”

Organizers announced a list of demands to police, and protesters dispersed without incident. 

Many activists across the country are trying to deflect police antagonism, avoid life-threatening aggression from outside agitators, and channel public fury into positive change. It’s a complex equation.

For a few hours on Tuesday night, Holyoke got it just right.

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