A mass of sign-waving demonstrators has become a familiar sight in downtown Napa in recent weeks. But on Wednesday, that sight took a radically different turn, becoming a show of support for law enforcement rather than an attack on police violence.
Video: Early minutes of the We Back Blue rally this evening on the Third Street Bridge in #Napa, where participants are waving signs and flags in support of law enforcement after three weekends of local rallies against police violence. pic.twitter.com/ytehov9NOv— Howard Yune (@HowardInNapa) June 18, 2020
American flags with blue stripes, and placards reading “BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “THANK YOU FOR RISKING YOUR LIFE FOR MINE,” festooned the north side of the Third Street bridge as a crowd gathered for We Back Blue, a rally that drew approving horn honks from passing drivers – and the occasional burst of verbal abuse from opponents.
The pro-police gathering at one of central Napa’s busiest gateways followed three successive Sundays in which hundreds of protesters have chanted and marched downtown against racism and brutality by uniformed officers, part of a wave of protests to erupt nationwide after the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police in May. For many of those who showed up on Wednesday, it was a belated opportunity to stand up for officers they said are being unfairly tarred by the crimes of a few.
“Everything in the news is where they’re bashing cops; without law and order, we don’t have a civilization, simple as that,” said Greg Bailey, who arrived at the bridge wearing a “We the People” T-shirt and holding a large American flag sewn in black and white – and incorporating a blue stripe symbolizing law enforcement. “I drove past the Black Lives Matter protest and I don’t understand their viewpoint. You have a few bad people in every tree but as a whole, the police are here to protect us.”
“Police officers have to deal with the dregs of society, the worst of the worst,” added Steve Cook of Napa. “Any of these pantywaists saying we should defund the police, are they going to deal with those people?”
The Napa demonstration began taking shape late last week and was modeled on a We Back Blue march Saturday in Washington, D.C., according to Francine Knittel and Sheri DeBow, organizers of the local event. A webackblue.com website lists similar rallies scheduled for Milwaukee on Saturday and Trenton, New Jersey on July 9, and eight others are in the works in other cities, said Knittel, a friend of the Washington event’s organizer Melissa Robey.
Despite a tide of nationwide protests that have included increasing calls to defund or even abolish police departments and turn their funds toward social services, DeBow declared her pro-police gathering was not intended to return such rancor in kind.
“We’re here to support local law enforcement, and law enforcement in general,” she said minutes before the rally began at 6 p.m. “We want to bring some love and peace back to our nation.”
Facing a crowd of We Back Blue participants that extended from the bridge midpoint to the corner of Main and Third was a gathering of about a dozen on the opposite side of the bridge, silently answering the pro-law-enforcement placards with signboards reading “DEFUND THE POLICE” and “Black lives matter – liberty and justice for ALL!”
Joshymar Graham, an organizer of the anti-racism and anti-brutality rallies in Napa that began May 31 – six days after Floyd’s death when a policeman leaned his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes – on Sunday instructed supporters not to show up Wednesday to counterprotest.
DeBow said she and other organizers deliberately scheduled We Back Blue for midweek, after meeting with Graham before Sunday’s demonstration, to avoid the possibility of conflicts.
But Andrew Engdahl of Benicia was one of the handful who determined to keep the slogans of racial justice within sight of pro-police demonstrators.
“I wanted us to make sure that the dialogue is still on Black Lives Matter, because police brutality is still a major issue,” he said. “When (police) protection doesn’t apply equally to all, we need to make sure that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The We Back Blue gathering “glosses over the issue we’re trying to talk about,” said Engdahl. “If more money goes to social services to deal with the problems that Americans deal with, maybe then we don’t have to solve these problems with a billy club.”
Despite organizers’ calls for a peaceable atmosphere, flashes of partisan politics sporadically appeared during the first hour of the rally.
Amid the many signboards urging passers-by to thank and appreciate people in uniform, one man held a placard attacking the liberal philanthropist George Soros as “8.3 billion of evil.” Later, a man wearing a President Trump T-shirt and cap broke away from the rally, ran across the bridge and held aloft a yellow “DON’T TREAD ON ME” banner on the south sidewalk – standing next to the handful of Black Lives Matter supporters – before running back to the pro-police assembly.
Participants entering the rally from west end of the bridge strode over names an unknown person had written in pastel-colored chalk on the sidewalk – the names of people of color shot and killed by police, including Aiyana Jones in 2010, Tamir Rice in 2014 and Floyd on May 25.
Meanwhile, windows were lowered on passing vehicles as drivers and passengers cheered We Back Blue members or gave the thumbs-up sign. Sprinkled with those shows of support were encounters with a woman shouting “Black lives matter!” from her car, and a male driver yelling “No justice, no peace!” while shaking his fist.
Despite such touches of hostility, We Back Blue participants like Beverly Turner remained steadfast.
“I think it’s a shame they’re blaming officers that aren’t to blame, because these people put their lives on the line every time they go out the door,” said Turner, who spent 23 years as a Napa emergency dispatcher. “I think it’s wrong to lump them in the same category with the bad seeds, who are very few.”
You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or email@example.com