Late Sunday night in downtown Lafayette, a few small groups were still gathered at the intersection of 3rd and Main Streets, quietly talking and watching the Tippecanoe County Courthouse and surrounding streets. They were piecing together the past few hours.
Grant Vasquez was still holding on to a brightly colored sign. He and his friends described what they experienced as a mostly peaceful evening of protest that turned chaotic.
“No one’s breaking anything right now,” Vasquez said. “It’s all peaceful right now.”
Earlier, people had raced around street corners to get away from the courthouse; some stopped to scoop milk into eyes streaming from the release of tear gas. A protester named Hugo, face covered by a bandana, said he’d been there since 8 p.m, at the start of a planned demonstration to protest police brutality that had officially ended around 9:30 p.m. His eyes were trained anxiously down the street, where the lights of parked Lafayette police vehicles flashed behind a slowly advancing cloud.
There were two official demonstrations scheduled for Sunday night -- one starting at 6 p.m, the second at 8 p.m -- and when they ended, a large portion of the remaining crowd marched together over the Myers Bridge into West Lafayette. A sign with sparkly purple letters bobbed over the heads of the crowd: “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.” A group huddle of ten or so formed, arms stretched into the middle, and a cheer went up: “Black lives matter!” When the marchers turned around in West Lafayette, and began walking back down the middle of State Street, the energy of the evening seemed to surge. Cheers erupted at an explosion of fireworks in the night sky, and at a passing motorcyclist revving the engine. People flooded back towards the courthouse, up its steps and back into the street. Chanting rose again.
Then, Tippecanoe County Sheriff Bob Goldsmith -- stationed inside the courthouse that night -- said the situation escalated too quickly to give a verbal warning to the crowd to disperse. Graffiti had been sprayed onto the courthouse in bright blue paint, and people were attempting to break through the courthouse doors; Goldsmith said a large rock that was hurled through the glass struck the wall behind him. There’s an investigation into whether gunshots were fired into a courthouse window, and at one point an explosive device was detonated; an arrest in connection with that detonation was announced Friday. A task force comprised of members of the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Department, the Lafayette Police Department, the West Lafayette Police Department, the Purdue University Police Department, the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s office, and the High Tech Crime Unit are investigating events at the protest.
Goldsmith said a smoke canister was initially dropped as a warning -- followed by tear gas, which was dropped to more directly target people attempting to break into the building. It still spread into the gathering.
“I don’t like that,” Goldsmith said. “But we had to do something.”
“Whenever you have large crowds, or big groups of people, they can take on a life of their own,” said Lafayette Police Chief Pat Flannelly. “And so, again, that’s part -- our responsibility is to do our best to ensure that people have a safe environment to march in.”
Flannelly said the department wants to know who event organizers are and how they’re planning marches and similar events. But he acknowledged that’s not always possible.
“Things like this -- you know, sometimes when they grow organically, it just grows fast, and you have to be prepared,” Flannelly said. “But, you know, if you’re a business owner, or you live downtown, there is -- you have cars parked on the street, you have property that’s out here. We’re responsible for them as much as we are for the safety of people in crowds. Even if it’s people who are angry with the police, and want to come down and protest police action. That’s the thread that we’re trying to weave.”
“It can be hard to sort of identify what--who is part of this, and who is not part of this,” said Rachel Einwohner, a Purdue University sociology professor who studies protests. “Or what are all the different factions, or the different ideologies, or the different motivations of everybody being here. It’s a phenomenon--an outpouring of fear, outrage, hope, support, love--all the different things that brought people to the demonstration that night. But you know, it can be very messy.”
People who were still at the courthouse late Sunday night as protests continued -- who had been there for the earlier, planned demonstrations; who marched spontaneously across the Myers Bridge and into West Lafayette; who were still chanting, but who were not involved in spray painting the courthouse, or throwing rocks or explosive devices -- were also affected by the release of tear gas. Flannelly says the level of precision that would have been needed to “immediately” identify and extract the people vandalizing the building was not possible.
“If a police officer, or even a small group of officers, enter into that crowd by themselves, for those that are angry and violent and doing destructive things -- the officers themselves become the target,” Flannelly said. “And that’s when bad things can really begin to happen.”
Flannelly said protesters had the right to protest and let their voices be heard. He said some people were there to “yell and scream,” but most were there because they knew that an injustice had been done -- or had been directly affected by police brutality or misconduct.
“What we saw in Minneapolis -- that was evil,” Flannelly said, speaking of the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, and whose death has set off a wave of daily protests across the country.
Sarah Stantz owns the Java Roaster coffee shop on 3rd Street. Standing outside late Sunday, where she’d been passing out water to protestors throughout the evening and watching events unfold, Stantz said she didn’t know if the response from law enforcement was warranted.
“It makes me wonder if there was another way to disperse the crowd without the tear gas -- without that,” said Stantz. “Maybe not. Maybe people would have never left. But like -- isn’t that the point? Pay attention to us until something happens? It’s hard. It’s hard.”
Protests continued throughout the week in downtown Lafayette; some are expected this weekend.