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Addressing systemic racism in Indianapolis

For the last several weeks, anyone living in downtown Indianapolis could hear chants of "Black lives matter" and "No justice, no peace" echoing throughout Monument Circle. Anyone walking downtown the morning of May 31 could see crews working to clean up glass and board up business windows after violence ensued the night before.

Some claim officers from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) threw tear gas unprovoked, starting the chaos. IMPD officials claim violence and destruction of property gave them no option but to deploy tear gas canisters on the crowd.

Regardless of which side started the chaos, could it — and the last three weeks of demonstrations — have been avoided?

The recorded murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sent shockwaves throughout the country and the rest of the world. Indianapolis was no exception, with demonstrations popping up downtown, calling for the officers involved to be charged.

Beyond Floyd's murder, however, Indianapolis was still reeling from the May 6 death of Dreasjon "Sean" Reed. Reed, 21, was shot and killed by an IMPD officer following a car chase recorded on Facebook Live. The demonstrations in memory of Floyd served a double purpose here in Indianapolis: call for justice for Floyd, and call for answers in Reed's death.

Throughout the past few weeks, shouts of "Who killed Dreasjon Reed?" have been heard at demonstrations, and signs demanding answers from IMPD have been raised high in the air during protests.

Despite calls from the community, IMPD did not provide the name of the officer — citing safety concerns — for more than a month after Reed's death. On June 10, Taylor confirmed four-year IMPD veteran Dejoure Mercer was the officer involved in Reed's death.

On June 4, Rosemary Khoury was appointed as the special prosecutor on the case by the Marion County Supreme Court.

On June 10, Khoury requested Indiana State Police handle the investigation.

Outrage surrounding Reed's death spiked again June 3, when his mother, Demetree Wynn, hosted a press conference near where her son was killed. Speaking candidly about seeing Reed's body for the first time after his death, Wynn said "They couldn't fix his face," describing the damage done to Reed's face alone. Further, Swaray Conteh, lead attorney for the family, said they have evidence that contradicts IMPD's claims that Reed had a gun.

On June 5, community members gathered outside the northwest IMPD precinct to demand justice and answers.

"We're here to do what we gotta do," organizer Asia Giles said. "Hopefully, it will be peaceful."

The demonstration at the precinct ended without conflict, despite not resulting in any answers from IMPD. A sit-in at the statehouse June 6 and a "Wake up for Black lives" event on the morning of June 7 also did not yield results.

However, Mat Davis of the Indiana Racial Justice Alliance believes the issues in Indianapolis go beyond Reed's death.

"I think that there are many groups who are fighting for Dreasjon Reed, and that's important," Davis said. "The Indiana Racial Justice Alliance is made up of several groups, and what we're fighting for is systemic changes that need to be addressed for IMPD as an entire institution that affects every aspect of our city."

Whether or not they refer to it as "systemic racism," many demonstrators have felt the same way.

"This is about more than George Floyd or Sean [Reed]," one protester, who declined to be named, said on May 30. "This goes deep."

At the statehouse sit-in, one protest sign getting a lot of attention referenced Mayor Joe Hogsett's June 4 announcement of the demolition of a Confederate monument in Garfield Park.

"Removing one Confederate monument?" the sign read. "Is that all you got?"

Local activist Cambria York said this is a distraction from the real issue.

"I am in general very disappointed by attempts made by Joe Hogsett to placate his community," York said. "The removal of a Confederate monument in Garfield Park, while long overdue, is not what we were asking for. ... It ultimately hurts everyone if we allow ourselves to get distracted by this fluff."

In response to what he plans to do to further address systemic racism in Indianapolis, Hogsett said he wants to continue to push Project Indy and Indy Achieves, programs helping with job placement and education, respectively. Both programs are race neutral.

Perhaps the biggest step forward in addressing systemic racism in the city was a special resolution, Proposal 182, presented to the city-county council June 8. City-county council President Vop Osili was one of the sponsors of the proposal, which passed unanimously and declares racism a public health crisis in Marion County.

The proposal described racism as a "barrier to health equity" throughout the country, citing inequities in employment, housing, health care and food access, as well as links between school funding and tax revenue that historically put children of color at a disadvantage in education.

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said one in four Black children have been exposed to violence and called this proposal a first step in addressing the issues systemic racism causes in Indianapolis. She urged the council to come back with concrete recommendations to help the issue, comparing the proposal to prescribing aspirin for a brain tumor.

Osili is optimistic this proposal will allow the city to undo past injustices through examining data from all city and county departments.

"We don't like to talk about things that are uncomfortable," Osili said. "But, the needle won't move unless we have those uncomfortable discussions and make changes that reverse, as much as possible, negative impacts of decisions we've made historically."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

"This is about more than George Floyd or Sean [Reed]," one protester, who declined to be named, said on May 30. "This goes deep."

'Nothing short of a war crime'

The 1925 Geneva Protocol — an addition to the Geneva Convention — categorized tear gas as a chemical warfare agent and banned its use shortly after World War I. Under this protocol, the United States can still use tear gas on rioting prisoners of war and in rescue missions to recover isolated personnel. However, the protocol dictates civilian casualties must be avoided.

So why then, many community members are asking, did the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) deploy tear gas on protesters during the weekend of May 29?

For nearly three weeks, local activist Cambria York offered medical assistance at nearly every demonstration in Indianapolis. Usually, York and others known as protest medics treat dehydration or rolled ankles. But on May 29 and May 30, they treated protesters and bystanders one as young as six months old — for exposure to tear gas. Others needed treatment for wounds caused by rubber bullets and pepper balls. To make matters worse, those on the scene say IMPD officers confiscated medical supplies, including inhalers, water bottles and general first aid kits.

In a press conference June 5, however,

IMPD Chief Randal Taylor said those supplies ceased to be medical supplies when protesters began using them to counteract the effects of the tear gas.

"Some of my concern initially was things were being projected towards officers," Taylor said, citing frozen water bottles that were allegedly thrown at IMPD officers May 30. "The hope with tear gas is that it will move people along. ... I'm concerned whenever someone has something to try and negate that for fear of it's going to continue what happened before."

While tear gas may be an effective way of clearing out a crowd, there is also the possibility of harming bystanders, which is why the chemical compound is banned in war under the Geneva Convention.

When gas was deployed on a crowd at Monument Circle on May 29, IMPD Sgt. Stephen Fippen said later only five people were directly hit, but admitted it is impossible to target tear gas as it lingers in the air.

Beyond the inability to target tear gas, York takes issue with saying the supplies are no longer for medical use just because they are being used to treat injuries relating to tear gas.

"To set that kind of precedence is extremely dangerous," York said. "Then you can say an asthmatic's inhaler, or water, or milk of magnesia is no longer medicine. Saying that anything that is straight up medical but happens to counteract tear gas is no longer medical is not only unscientific, but a calculated way to delegitimize our role as non-combative support staff."

While Taylor said IMPD had a reason — such as violence from the crowd or destruction of property — to deploy tear gas, York said the actions of IMPD are "nothing short of a war crime," citing the Geneva Convention.

"According to the Geneva Convention," York said, "it is unlawful to use against enemy actors in wartime, and it should be illegal to use against civilians. The fact that they are not only using tear gas as, according to their own verbiage, a less than lethal method of crowd control, the phrase 'less than lethal' is far from the truth."

According to IMPD, which follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tear gas is an acceptable and safe method to disperse a crowd.

Throughout the country, there have been instances of tear gas resulting in miscarriages and disruptions of the menstrual cycle, as well as death from asthma attacks or other breathing problems.

York, who is CPR and rescue certified, had enough medical equipment in a backpack to assist people after IMPD seized supplies. However, York and other medics had to use the inhalers they had on their person to reverse asthma attacks after tear gas was used.

Beyond the seizure of supplies, York and Jes Cochran, who trains protest medics to work at demonstrations, said they and other medics had negative interactions with IMPD and state police.

"I personally have no expectation of being treated fairly by the police," York said. "Not only as an indigenous person, but as a transgender and gay person. ... On Saturday, there were multiple instances of police and National Guard singling out medics and playing it off like they're trying to coordinate. There's a lot of not subtle efforts to intimidate."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

"it is unlawful to use against enemy actors in wartime, and it should be illegal to use against civilians.

Cambria York

Officer involved in Dreasjon Reed's death named

Dreasjon Reed

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) Chief Randal Taylor named officer Dejoure Mercer as the officer who shot and killed Dreasjon Reed on May 6.

Mercer has been with the department for four years, and according to case files was named Northwest district officer of the year just a week before Reed's death.

"As Chief of Police, my responsibility is to protect the safety of all in our city, including our IMPD officers," Taylor said in a statement. "With that in mind, I am following up on my commitment to be transparent with the community we serve. The disclosure policy will be made available to the public when it is finalized and approved."

During a press conference June 5, Taylor declined to name the officer involved in Reed's death, citing a safety issue as a result of threats received.

Further, Taylor named 15year veteran Steven Scott as the officer who made comments about a closed casket funeral for Reed, who was shot multiple times. According to Taylor, Scott was disciplined for his comments.

Reed's death and the car chase that preceded his death were streamed live on Reed's Facebook page.

Check for continuous coverage.

Person drives through protest crowd downtown

A person drove a minivan through a small crowd of demonstrators downtown June 8 on Monument Circle.

No one appeared seriously injured.

A video of the incident posted to Facebook shows the van, which had been stopped by protesters, accelerating through the group.

One person was hit off to the side, and two people ended up on the hood of the vehicle. The van came to an abrupt stop, which sent the two

people to the ground.

Some people caught up to the van and smashed in a window and busted a mirror.

Police, who weren't present for the most part during the demonstration, arrived at Monument Circle shortly after and confirmed officers had found the van.

Alexandria Trove, one of the people hit, said she wasn't in front of the van at first but saw it start to push through the group, so she walked over.

Trove, 26, ended up on the hood of the vehicle and was thrown off. She hurt the outside of her right knee and walked with a limp.

Alex Vaughan, 25, said he was a few layers of people in front of the vehicle and landed on his back and head when he fell off of the hood.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Aliya Wishner said in a statement there are "conflicting accounts" of what occurred and that the driver called 911 immediately following the incident.

The driver is cooperating with the investigation, Wishner said.

It was a violent ending to an otherwise normal night of demonstrations in Indianapolis. The group of roughly 40 people gathered at Monument Circle and walked through some downtown streets before meeting back at the Circle.

Most people were starting to leave the area when the van drove through the crowd.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.