McKinney, Texas

in Black & White

There is no plaza in front of the McKinney Police Department — just a crisscross of concrete sidewalks and trampled monkey grass — and it was here, our feet unsteady, that we stood that night. Many voices were returned by the glass and brick facade and the many sounds were one great sound. Not a wall but a mountain range, not a roar but so many peaks and valleys — chants — shouts — silent sign bearers — and one man talking to me the way a man might talk to a nurse at the ER, his eyes slowly welling up with tears:

“This is a child! She was bathing, he grabbed her, he slammed her — this is a friend of mine’s child! They talking about ‘why’ — it don’t make no sense! At the end of the day this is a child, you put yourself in my shoes and understand how you would feel if your child was slammed to the ground. We don’t want to constantly be abused! This is a departmental issue throughout this country that’s taking a toll on everybody. I’m tired as a man seeing this happen, not only to my people but to everybody. This don’t make no sense at all! You got people talking about ‘Back the Blue’ — the department chief said the actions were reprehensible but then these people are gonna say that’s not the issue. Really?”

He went on:

“What is the issue? This is our community. We love each other. If we love each other and we’re doing the right thing how can you back something that’s totally wrong that you’re seeing with your own eyes? It’s crazy. That’s why I’m out here, because I have children at home. Aint nobody gonna do it for me. There’s departmental issues throughout this country that have pushed things to this point. It’s not only happening in the big cities, it’s happening in the suburbs. Ferguson was a suburb! McKinney is a suburb!”

McKinney, Texas: the trends here, on paper, the reverse of Ferguson: the population almost tripling in the last 15 years, the demographics — 75% white, 10% black, and 20% Hispanic — reflecting the more prosperous communities in Texas, with a median family income of $72,000. The police here are not known to use MRAPs, snipers, or flashbangs, but McKinney had been host to protests for more than a week, ever since a video showed McKinney police officer Eric Casebolt barrel-rolling into a pool party, forcefully shoving a black teen girl to the ground, and drawing his gun on two unarmed black teen boys.

That Friday in June another of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter protests gathered at the McKinney Police Department before marching through the streets; it was met by a counter-protest there to support the police.

The next morning, bikers rolled in to hold their own rally.

At both, members of the Open Carry movement and several Texas secessionists were present bearing loaded weapons and waving flags.

It was a small town protest, and often contentious: at similar protests in Dallas there has been little engagement between opposing sides while, in McKinney, there were people shouting at each other wherever you looked.

Around 200 hundred protesters were there that night, roughly split between “pro” and “anti” the #blacklivesmatter rally, or “pro” and “anti” police as others frame it, and the two groups were right up against one another, many of them yelling — either out of apparent anger and frustration or because it was the only way to be heard above the din. Emotions were high; Mr. Calendar, as soon as he stopped talking, suddenly grabbed me in an embrace and held me, tightly.

The lines weren’t always clearly drawn between skin color: in the first photo below, a white woman with four black children at her side (apparently her own, the children seemingly eager to be at the protest and especially eager to be photographed) argued with a black man who told her she was being “dramatic.” Another white woman was there to protest what her sign described as police brutality against her brother. Yet another man, also white, stood with his arm in the air in solidarity every time the #blacklivesmatter rally leader said something he agreed with.

Joseph Offett: “I stand for peace in my country and I’ll be damned if I let anybody else run my country.”

Joseph Offett had been heatedly arguing with Kenyatta Calendar a few moments before he talked to me:

“I’m here to bring peace between these two parties here. I don’t see colors, OK? I don’t believe there’s a right to start up a racial war out here, OK? We are all Americans at the end of the day and we need to stand together as Americans, not as different colors. Just like you’ve got Muslims, you’ve got all the different ethnicities and races out here, OK, but their title is American so we need to stand together as American.”

Of the two groups, around 90% of those there to protest police actions were black; a higher ratio of whites appeared to represent the counter-protesters. Mr. Offett, who later told me “I’m multi-racial, I’m not full black, I’m not full white” was there to support the police:

“Racism’s not gonna help anything. If one man can stand out here, like Martin Luther King did — there was racism back then but one man’s voice made a change. I’m sure if Martin Luther King was here he wouldn’t approve of this.”

“What do you think he’d say about what happened at the pool?” I asked.

“You know what, it’s two different times, two different generations, OK, and honestly if Martin Luther King was here at this time he would understand how society is now, the way we’ve got law enforcement — I can tell you right now, 90% of everybody here [pointing to the #blacklivesmatter group] was not in McKinney, OK? They’re giving their opinions but they’re never gonna know the truth. None of us are.”

“Are you from McKinney yourself?”

“I’m from Garland, I’m from where the Draw the Prophet Mohammed event happened — I was the patriot that went out with my American flag the next day, so I stand for peace in my country and I’ll be damned if I let anybody else run my country.” I mentioned I was inside the event when it was attacked and he shrugged his shoulders — the interview was clearly over. Mr. Offett climbed onto a nearby bollard and waved a large American flag until security asked him to step down.

Members of an Open Carry movement — fast becoming a fixture at Dallas protests — were represented as well, at least two men “open carrying.” Thomas Ballard on the right side of the left photo below wouldn’t shake my hand when I greeted him by name. I’d recently edited my interview of him for a photo essay and his name, surprisingly, came back to me; I continued to hold out my hand. When I told Mr. Ballard I interviewed him at a protest 6 weeks earlier he said “which one?” and, finally, shook my hand; the man to his right, also armed and wearing a T-shirt from the recent (and second) “Muhammad cartoon contest” — in Phoenix — wouldn’t speak to me.

Above: a man supporting Eric Casebolt, the officer who wrestled a teenage black girl to the ground in the viral video of a McKinney pool party.

After several speeches — largely unheard by a majority of a crowd that seemed too busy arguing to listen — the #blacklivesmatter protesters finally gathered and marched off into the night; apparently some marchers later attempted to block highway I-75.

Soon after the march receded in the distance, the sun finally set and the counter protesters walked back to their cars parked in the nearby Home Depot parking lot.


The Next Morning:

The next morning a #BackTheBlue rally was held, again in front of the McKinney Police Department, organized via Facebook by Rich Kent who hoped to raise $1 million to keep Al Sharpton (who’d earlier mentioned, but had since decided against, protesting in McKinney) out of Texas.

In his video accompanying the $1 million fundraiser, Kent, in a voice betraying barely-contained rage, said “Me and my people are mounting up right now as we speak … we are gonna tell you — we’re not asking you — to get out of Texas. This is how America should be, people.

One of the commenters to Kent’s video said this:

“Too many people posting crap. It’s like no one can have a civil discussion to express their views. I don’t get it, we have to sit here and watch lies, rioting and destruction spread out by one race, but when it comes to another race speaking out against it, it’s not tolerated. Bunch of hypocritical animals too stupid to even matter. ‪#‎YourLivesDontMatter‬

However, the rally on Saturday morning was small, about half the size of the rally the night before, and no counter-protesters showed up.

The merchandise table, set up before the rally began, was selling this shirt:

and the tenor of the early morning gathering was religious — Evangelical Christian, specifically — in nature. One man set up his signs along the road:

while this man set up his own podium and preached from Psalms, Chapter 2:

“Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

He was one of two black men at the rally (the other, surprisingly, was selling the T-shirts and other merchandise shown above) and attendees didn’t know how to receive his message, both looking at him in confusion and, from time to time, shouting “Amen!”

I had come to the protest that morning to cover it as a journalist but, 15 minutes in, my throat was dry and my voice, small. I live in Texas as an out gay man — no huge feat in Dallas — but I’d come to a far flung suburb to cover a protest about another minority and wasn’t prepared, somehow, to find myself in the mix.

Signs; t-shirts; conversations mocking Caitlyn Jenner.

The protesters were here to praise the policeman who hurled a black teenage girl in a swimsuit to the ground and pulled his gun on two unarmed black teen boys standing nearby. The crowd gathered was out for blood, the mayor’s job in particular (he neglected to defend the barrel-roller), and they were washed in the blood of Jesus — it seemed every other sign was emblazoned with a cross or a Bible verse and a justice that could only come from their evangelical god.

The queer angle at the rally wasn’t a one-off; it represented McKinney well: just a few weeks before, middle school students who supported their bullied gay friend by wearing “Gay OK” t-shirts were sent home for refusing to take off shirts that the administration called a “disruption.”

It was assumed I was straight; had I been a black reporter at that rally I would not have been able to hide from the glare of the crowd. Steven Thrasher wrote in the Guardian recently how his white mother, married to his black father, once went to lunch by herself to bask, for one sweet moment, in the anonymity of whiteness — no glares, no waiters mistreating her — and felt guilty for it the rest of her life. I cling to my vaguely-butch outer skin often, to my disgrace. It was for that reason, I think, that I lost my voice that morning and went home without talking to anyone. “Objectivity” — when the protest is suddenly personal — vanishes quickly.

It may not always be so but, in McKinney that morning, “Don’t Tread On Me” looked a lot like white supremacy telling the local black population to behave.

The same crowd that insists on its right to defy the government at any time and by any means necessary (and wears clothing broadcasting disrespect for authority) held signs telling local black people that all will be fine as long as they immediately and always comply with orders — the same thing you hear in hostage situations in the movies.

Irony was in low supply.

Finally, thirty minutes later than expected, a group of bikers rolled in, all 15 of them; I later heard a biker tell another protester their numbers were diluted because there was another protest in Austin.

But: spirits were high when the bikers rolled in; local policemen went down the row of bikers shaking hands and hearing “thank you, officer, thank you.”

Members from an Open Carry group were present that morning as well: one of the flags often carried by their members, an American flag with a Roman numeral three, was held proudly. The Three Percenters mix talk of secession with a glorification of the U.S. Constitution, a rallying of patriots to a cause that is not quite “pro” or “anti” government:

These patriots are also involved in training citizens with military tactics to add to our already uncountable numbers. A very large percent of our group are active military, police, and government officials so do not be afraid of the “government.” We the people are the government and the defenders of the constitution.

Along with flags, many shirts also told a story: support for the Texas Secessionist movement and support for the “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” movement which translates as “come and get it” and is a reference to the Battle of Thermopylae when Persians demanded Greek weaponry.

After another thirty minutes of holding signs and walking along the grassy area in front of the police station, the crowd seemed to decide it had fulfilled its mission and quickly dispersed.

Unlike the night before there was a purity in that morning’s rally, a straight line between law and citizen, between bikers and god: the chaos of a teenage pool party, resolved.