By Eden Elieff
As I live on the corner of Churchill Way and Hillcrest, I didn’t have to travel far to witness Thursday’s rally that gathered in reaction to the president’s visit to the Gateway Church. I could watch the four-hour event from our study that overlooks Churchill Way. Or I could leave the house, walk across the street, and become part of the crowd that kept growing as the president’s scheduled arrival time approached.
I grew up in the ’60s on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood where political activism was as routine as going to school.
Even as a budding adolescent, I, along with my friends, protested the Vietnam War. Just about everyone we knew railed against Mayor Daley and his City Hall Machine, and whose “Shoot to Kill” order during the ’68 Democratic convention turned downtown into a theater for bloody riots. We worked for candidates who advanced the Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King came to our synagogue at the invitation of our rabbi, a leader in the movement, my parents took me along.
Witnessing and participating are in my blood.
Yet George Floyd’s murder had personal resonance. Before moving to Dallas, my family and I lived in Houston for six years, in a neighborhood just six miles west of where George Floyd went to high school. I frequently visited Emancipation Park, the oldest park in Texas, and what anchors his native Third Ward home.
Emancipation Park was the only public park open to African Americans during the Jim Crow era. I took our houseguests to see it. Now a UNESCO site, the park held one of the first Black Lives Matter rallies after Floyd’s death.
And now, the protest movement that was filling streets in cities in all 50 states had found its way to the intersection where I live, the most Mayberry-like street corner I’ve ever called home.
This was not a time for witnessing.
I took one of my “HATE IS NOT GREAT” bumper stickers I had on hand, ran string through the holes I punched, and wore the thing like a necklace. With both my Chicago and Houston legacies guiding every step, I crossed the street and became part of the protest for racial justice, joining a crowd of nearly 400 people.
You’d have to hang out at Medical City for several hours to see such diversity in this ZIP code: young and old, black and white, local and out-of-towners, grandmothers with their young adult grandkids, and young couples with their kids in strollers. Supporters of the president showed up as well, but the two groups were separated from each other in areas marked by barricades.
“We don’t want any fighting,” a plainclothes cop explained to me.
Protesters vastly outnumbered the supporters.
Layers upon layers of police filled our streets — patrol cops, cops in full riot gear, and cops on horseback. Dozens of cars lined Churchill Way, at the ready. It was easy to feel the flight-or-fight response looking at all this, that is, anger and fear. Overkill? Wasn’t it literally overkill that had sparked these protests and continued to roil our streets? Intimidation can provoke violence. The scene felt like a microcosm for what the country was wrestling with.
My hope was to eventually penetrate the human citadel, the sea of blue uniforms, and have a conversation with one of them. I wanted to know, what were they thinking about the protests? How did they feel about their jobs that were now under this global spotlight?
So when two young women in their 20s with a sign declaring All Cops Are Bastards wandered next to me, I spoke up.
“Excuse me,” I said politely, “your sign — do you really mean that? Are all cops really bastards?” I explained I was probably three times their age and had worked for civil rights and progressive politics my whole life. But that sweeping statement wasn’t helpful — or accurate.
“No, we don’t think that,” one of them said. “It’s the system that’s bastardized. The system has to change.”
“So why doesn’t your sign say that?”
The other spoke up.
“If you work for a system that requires you to tear gas people, your work is immoral. You should quit. If you don’t, you’re a bastard.”
I thought, “Was I like that at their age?”
“Things aren’t so simple,” I muttered, shook my head, and I walked away discouraged.
After the president’s motorcade whizzed by, I joined my husband, who was sitting on the brick retaining wall on Churchill Way in front of our house. Three cops from the Fugitive Unit stood directly in front of us all outfitted for worst-case scenarios. Helmets, several weapons, a vest, boots. Here was my opportunity.
I asked one of them about their long yellow weapon strapped to their belt. It was a stun gun. Very scary-looking. He opened the case of bullets to show us: big blue foam balls. He let us hold one. It was rock-hard.
“These won’t kill anyone but they’ll stop you. It’s like being hit with a 99-hour fastball,” he said.
We kept talking.
Yes, the formidable show of force was necessary, “just in case someone threw something.” I didn’t need to ask what “something” meant. But he stressed that the department ordered the same level of coverage when any president came to town, as they did for Obama and the two Bushes. He and his partner brought up the Defund demand. “We’re so shorthanded here in Dallas. If anything, the department needs more money. More for more of us, more for better training.” And to my surprise, they both agreed that the system and priorities need overhauling. They revealed their frustrations. “We spend too much time answering calls of parents asking us to discipline their kids. It’s ridiculous.”
I asked if the chant “F*** the police!” — which the crowd was shouting now — bothered him. No, he said. “I shrug it off. Part of the territory.”
Our conversation lasted 15 minutes. My gut told me we were not on the same side politically, but we both agreed that the police and the community must find a way to create a true and trusting partnership. He actually expressed a yearning to return to days where cops patrolled beats and got to know neighbors. But he didn’t see that happening.
It was a great way to wrap up the afternoon. I felt energized having connected with people I’d normally objectify.
Yet I wondered, if I were a young black man, would he have been so open? Would he have let us handle those foam bullets? I have my doubts. And I doubted the president heard or, but for a passing glance, even saw us all.
Still, we took a stand for ourselves and for each other, which was good enough for me. And maybe our greater community became a bit more connected, one conversation at a time.