Authors: Peace JV and Derrick M.
This past Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, was the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality and to honor those who died at the hands of law enforcement in 2020, a local organization, Re-Invest in Conway, sponsored a protest/memorial service that evening in front of the Conway Police Department. This was one of several such events held there or near City Hall over the past few months regarding issues and concerns about policing in our city.
We, the co-leaders of the Peacemakers Discussion Group (PDG), attended this event, accompanied by an associate pastor of a local church. We attended this event in the role of observers and peacemakers. We attended to observe, to learn, to listen, and to connect with individuals on different “sides” of matters related to policing, in the hopes of being able to serve in a later capacity of helping to mediate between different parties and perspectives on these issues.
When we arrived at the corner across from the police department, we saw a group of approximately 13 protesters assembling on the sidewalk in front of the police station. Behind them, standing between the police department sign and the building, and along the sidewalks running alongside the two front sides of the building were approximately 16 individuals dressed in paramilitary type clothing and gear and carrying what appeared to be rifles and semi-automatic weapons. One held an American flag. One of the protesters waved at us and called to us across the street that we were welcome to come on over and join them.
At first, except for one officer on our side of the street conversing with a lady, we saw what initially appeared to be an absence of law enforcement personnel, which at first was perplexing given the number of heavily armed individuals present, and the close proximity between the protesters (of which one or two appeared to be carrying firearms as well) and the heavily armed individuals.
We watched a man come out of the police department (who we later learned was the Chief of Police, William Tapley). He spoke directly to the spokesperson with Re-invest in Conway and also to one of the armed individuals (who we later learned was a member of a citizens’ militia called Arkansas Patriots). Since we were across the street, we could not hear any of the exchanges. The police chief returned to the building, and at that point, there was no police presence visible outside the building.
At this point, my co-leader called the police department regarding the absence of police personnel and asked if we could speak to the Chief of Police. The person he spoke with took his message and said they would get back with him. In the meantime, the protesters had begun to read aloud a list of names of individuals who had died during law enforcement encounters in 2020 in the United States. Also, we noted that an additional four-armed, similarly dressed, and geared individuals joined the militia members, bringing their number to 20 (that we were able to see and count).
Then, the police department called my co-leader back and stated that the police chief would be happy to meet and talk with us. We were invited inside the police station, where the chief and two other officers spoke with us. Regarding our inquiry about the absence of a police presence at the event, the chief stated that he had spoken with leaders/representatives of both groups and offered the presence of officers while they exercised their 1st and 2nd Amendment Constitutionally protected rights.
He stated that both groups expressed a desire for there to be no police officers present outside during the event. He stated that out of respect for the wishes of both groups, he had withdrawn his officers. Also, in this interaction, we took the opportunity to introduce ourselves, the vision of the Peacemakers Discussion Group (PDG), and explain that our purpose in attending the event was to serve in the roles of observers and peacemakers.
After talking with the Chief of Police, we went back outside and asked to speak with the leader of the militia group. We asked him if he was willing to speak with us, and he said yes. We spent approximately 15 minutes conversing with him, asking him about his group, their purpose for being present at the event, and various other questions that arose during the discussion. We introduced ourselves, Peacemakers, our purpose, and vision and sought to lay the groundwork for future conversations. He gave us a card with information about his organization.
As we were wrapping up our discussion with the leader of the militia group, the protesters had finished reading aloud the very long list of names of Americans who died in police interactions this year. The protesters formed a semi-circle facing the police department, with their backs to the street and chanted, “No justice; no peace.” We walked toward them and stood to the side, hoping to speak to them afterward so that we did not interrupt their activities.
A young lady approached us, identifying herself as a legal observer, and began to talk to us. We introduced ourselves, Peacemakers, and our vision and purpose as we had with the police chief and the militia leader. She had various questions for us, which we answered.
When the chanting had finished, we approached the spokesperson of Re-Invest in Conway and asked to speak to her. She was agreeable, so we asked about the organization, goals, purpose, and inquired about matters related thereof. During this exchange, the legal observer asked to speak to me again and asked further questions, which I answered. After a while, the spokes-person expressed that she was tired, and we wrapped up our conversation and headed back across the street to rejoin the associate pastor who had accompanied us to this event.
In summary, this event was completely peaceful from our observations. We did not hear or see anyone from either side yelling, insulting, or antagonizing anyone. Nor did we witness either groups interact with each other in any way. There was no dialogue, only a distance maintained between each group. Other than the two mentioned earlier, we witnessed no police presence outside.
We did not observe anyone being arrested. All parties: protesters, militia members, police personnel, conducted themselves respectfully and professionally during this event. Everyone we interacted with was polite and respectful toward us. Basically, what we saw was a peaceful demonstration of both the 1st and 2nd Amendment by two different groups of people with differing viewpoints and perspectives.
We were unable to attend previous such protests at the Conway Police Department and at Conway City Hall, so we cannot offer first-hand observations of those protests. We intend to attend any future such protests, demonstrations, rallies, and serve as observers, peacemakers, and mediators. We hope to connect with various participants of the different groups that might assemble to exercise their constitutional rights and hope they will be as open to dialogue with us as the individuals we spoke with at this event.