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Kalamazoo city leaders respond to Saturday protests, violence

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson starts the news conference on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020 in which Kalamazoo officials discuss protests and violence on Saturday, Aug. 15. (WWMT/Gabriel Balderramas)
Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson starts the news conference on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020 in which Kalamazoo officials discuss protests and violence on Saturday, Aug. 15. (WWMT/Gabriel Balderramas)
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In a news conference starting at 3 p.m., Kalamazoo city officials responded to protests and violence in the city's downtown area on Saturday.

During a rally held by the Proud Boys, fights broke out involving the group's members and counterprotesters. A Newschannel 3 crew on scene said it appeared to take five to seven minutes for Kalamazoo police to intervene, despite officers seeming to have been staged in the area beforehand.

Later that day, protesters staged a "Protect Us, Don't Reject Us" rally outside the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety headquarters. They said police had failed to keep the city safe during the protests.

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson started the conference by denouncing the Proud Boys, saying he rejected the group's tactics and beliefs.

The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Proud Boys as a hate group and says it has ties to racism, while the Proud Boys group describes itself as a "Western Chauvinist" organization on its website and denies racist beliefs among its members.

"The city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo administration for a fact support Black Lives Matter," Anderson said.

Karianne Thomas, Kalamazoo's public safety chief, said the department first learned of a potential visit from the Proud Boys in July of 2020. They also learned of a potential counterprotest around that time.

Kalamazoo officers spoke with the counterprotest's organizer, but could not reach a member of the Proud Boys.

She said 111 officers were on duty to respond to the rally.

Kalamazoo officers weren't made aware of the fact that counterprotesters would be carrying rifles. Thomas said members of the Proud Boys were also armed with rifles when they arrived. Members of the Proud Boys dispersed pepper spray.

She said although it didn't seem immediate from videos, officers responded as soon as they were aware of violence.

"What we’ve seen in other cities and here is when the officer is standing there, they then become a target and it sort of sidetracks from the message," she said. "Our goal was to be in the background and be available."

Thomas said there were nine adults and one minor arrested, including a reporter. Five of the cases were being handled by the city while four were being handled by the county.

For all five arrests handled by the city involving charges less than assault, Anderson said he was consulting with the city attorney to see if charges could be dropped.

Anderson said he didn't want to dismiss the seriousness of what was happening, but asked the charges to be dropped based on the context of the protests.

"We will soon have an answer back on that but I’ve made that request and that is not normal for a mayor to interject themselves into the legal system in that way, but that’s relating to five folks who were charged under city ordinances," he said.

Thomas apologized for the arrest of a reporter who was carrying credentials. Anderson said the reporter had been released and the charges against him dropped.

The chief said she did not immediately know whether those taken into custody were counterprotesters or members of the Proud Boy group, but said she did not believe any proud Boys were arrested.

A number of Kalamazoo activists were invited to attend the conference to address their concerns with city officials.

The group came with a list of demands, including the defunding of KDPS and reallocation of those funds towards Black-led initiatives, the posting of body camera footage of Saturday's protests to the city's transparency website and the dropping of charges for Kalamazoo's counterprotesters.

They called on more communication between city officials and community members.

"As of right now, the trust factor and the camaraderie that we have in our city is very low. We do have poor rapport amongst each other and I think-- how do we go about bridging that gap and alleviating the trauma? Because that’s the key thing here" said activist TC Custard.

When activists asked why the Proud Boys rally was allowed to happen, Thomas said it was the group's right to protest regardless of their beliefs.

"Law enforcement is put in the position of having to respect everyone’s first amendment rights, whether we agree with them or not," she said.

Thomas said she did not immediately know her department's response time once violence erupted on Saturday afternoon.

City Manager Jim Ritsema also attended the conference. He said the city would continue to pursue those who participated in criminal activity.

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