Defenders of Youngstown Help to Keep the Peace at Protest

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Protesters took to city streets in two waves Sunday: one group in peace, another that incited heightened actions and some vandalism – both expressing their outrage at another death of a black man in police custody.

Julius Oliver, first ward councilman, who was at both protests, said minimum damage was caused by “out of town provocateurs” at the later protest that ended when Mayor Jamael Tito Brown invoked an 8:30 p.m. city curfew and police made some arrests for violators. 

Reports state a door window at Choffin Career and Technical Center was broken and another window at United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley. The vandalism occurred after the initial organized protest ended. A group of about 30 protestors remained in the street and that crowd slowly grew over the evening.

Thirteen arrests were made. According to Facebook coverage and photos from WKBN, one arrest was a of a man who reportedly punched a police officer. He was arrested near the WRTA terminal.

The country is in midst of crisis from violent protests over the filmed death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Fired police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he was face down and handcuffed for more than eight minutes.

In the video, Floyd can be heard saying he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin was arrested and faces third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers, who also were fired, are under criminal investigation. 

The protests were a tale of two cities: that Youngstown could hold a peaceful protest and that perception and fear of the protest would result in violence.

Derrick McDowell, of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, Oliver and other Youngstown residents, worked through the night to make sure the second tale wouldn’t become the message. 

“Mr. McDowell and myself simply appeal to the people so their voices can be heard and at the time, keep our hometown safe,” Oliver said. “We had a lot of help from other Youngstown residents. Leonard Carter was very passionate about protecting his hometown. So was Joseph Napier. But they also were very passionate about putting it to police genocide along with the rest of us.”

Napier said he believed some of the agitators may live here, but are not originally from Youngstown. 

“Tempers were quelled by Derrick McDowell and Len Carter,” Oliver said. Carter is a neighborhood organizer from Youngstown.

McDowell had asked protesters at the end of the first rally to leave the city as they came, peacefully. 

“We wanted to rally the people in this electrifying moment so that we could use that energy for option. We wanted to make sure because Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past is rooted in the principles of non-violence. So we were ensuring that the is protest was rooted in peaceful assembly,” McDowell said.

McDowell can be seen in a video on Twitter at the top of the stairs at Choffin where a window was broken quashing the crowd that started to move back. 

“I’m not going to let you do this,” McDowell says to the crowd.

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown addresses those gathered for the protest. The mayor imposed a city curfew of 8:30 p.m.

Around 8 p.m. a photo on Facebook shows McDowell standing in the middle of a crowd of protesters and police officers with a post that says, “Situation diffused. One guy acted as a peacemaker.”

Napier is a Youngstown State University graduate and young entrepreneur who believes in the future of Youngstown and the important role African Americans have in the future, he said. He doesn’t want the later protest to be headlined by violence.

“Youngstown has as many disparities, if not more, than other cities across America. One act of violence didn’t spark the events that occurred today. A multitude of events did,” he said. 

The mayor’s announced 8:30 p.m. curfew was distributed to the press at 7:55 p.m.

“I order the closing of all businesses and close all city streets to motor vehicles and pedestrian traffic except for emergency vehicles. This order shall remain in effect for 12 hours, unless canceled earlier,” the mayor said.

Earlier Sunday the cities of Campbell and Struthers declared an emergency and separately imposed curfews effective at 9 p.m.

As afternoon turned to evening, the mood began to change, but the message was the same, groups of people wanting their voices to be heard and calling for justice and an end to systemic racism.

As the second wave of protesters grew and began moving through the city, social media began to churn. Again, it was a tale of two Twitters: One showing how a peaceful protest can occur and the other fear that violence would erupt.

Twitter photos and video of the Youngstown protest, mainly from the afternoon, showed hundreds of people holding signs, chanting, “no justice, no peace,” and listening to speakers on the steps of the Mahoning County Courthouse. Users shared photos and applauded the peaceful protests while others asked for peace as rumors began sweeping social media about violence and that businesses were closing.  

After the afternoon rally, a group remained to protest. The group grew throughout the night.

“The blackest town in Ohio has begun a peaceful protest,” reads one Tweet.

A woman tweeted, “I just had to leave work because of rumors of riots in Youngstown area. I fully support a peaceful protest but please do not begin violence.”

A number of protestors took the march to Interstate 680, chanting “Hands up. Don’t shoot,” and “No justice, no peace.” The group blocked both directions on the highway, according to one Facebook Live broadcaster.

The view from the windshield of a motorist blocked on Interstate 680.

The video showed a woman leading a group of protesters back to the city via the Market Street bridge, where they met a contingent of police officers who advised them of the curfew. However, the officers allowed the marchers to go back to their vehicles, which were parked downtown, so the protesters could go home.

“Go in small groups to your cars. We will cooperate with you if you cooperate with us,” one officer was heard saying.

The woman leading group spoke briefly to a member of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department, then the two embraced before the group made their way back to their vehicles, followed by the officers on foot.

The Facebook user shooting the video commented on his pride for Youngstown, the protesters and local law enforcement for how everything was handled.

“Nobody got violent. Nobody got hurt,” the Facebook user said. “This was incredibly peaceful. I’m happy to be from Youngstown.”

Samantha Turner, third-ward councilwoman was leaving the protest Sunday afternoon when she saw a small group of white women who were standing in the street holding signs. She ran over to them and hugged one.

Samantha Turner, Youngstown third ward councilwoman, hugs Wendy Totsta at the afternoon protest. Behind them is Wendy’s daughter, Tiffany Tosta, Nicki Thomas and Dominic Letlow, both of Boardman.

“A lot of my friends don’t look like me, and every time someone who doesn’t look like me speaks out against the injustice for my people I tell them thank you, because the change is going to happen when everybody comes together to say, this cannot go on,” Turner said.

“To see people who don’t look like me out here with signs protesting, doing their things, it’s like yes, we need you here.”

Tiffany Tosta, 16, her mother, Wendy Tosta, of Youngstown stood with her sister Nicki Thomas and her son, Dominic Letlow, holding signs that read, “Black lives matter.”

Nicki Thomas has three black sons. After the video she called her 18-year-old son crying and told him to be safe. 

“Racism is very real,” Thomas said as she began to cry. “We have to come together like we are to stop the violence stop the hatred. It’s sad and it’s scary.

“My kids will never be white men; they’ll always be looked at as black men. And with the system the way it is toward black men it has to stop. It has to change,” she said.

Thomas said she’s been “crying my tears my whole life because I’ve always liked black men.” She shared her disgust for not only racism, but also for injustice and police officers who take advantage of their badge. 

“This is a step in the right direction, coming together, standing united and just standing our ground. I’m a white woman and I’m sick of white people being racists toward black people,” she said. “I’m tired of it. I want change, and I’m going to fight and I’ll stand her until my dying days and protect my boys and protect my brothers and sisters. We’re all God’s children.”

Jeremy Lydic contributed to this story.

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