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NWA EDITORIAL: What the replay shows

Protest explored with some deeper reporting July 31, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

The folks on the news side of this operation did a bang-up job in a story appearing last Sunday doing what newspaper reporters do -- when everyone else's attention faded, they dug in.

Reporting is often an immediate act. Timeliness is among the fundamental qualities of a lot of news stories.

That was certainly the case in Bentonville on June 1 when as many as 2,000 people gathered to express their frustrations in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. It was one of several protests in Arkansas and among the hundreds held across the nation.

"Rally gets violent in Bentonville; tear gas deployed" was the front-page headline greeting readers on June 2. The story that followed shared descriptions of the previous evening's chaotic end as well as the two-plus hours of preceding peaceful demonstrations on the city's downtown square.

For many of the people there, the disruptive ending of the night's activities made no sense. It seemed the appearance of officers in riot-control gear was sudden, unexplained and contrary to the experience many protesters were sharing.

So what was left to be told last Sunday? Reporters Doug Thompson and Tracy Neal used public records, videos and interviews to piece together the best obtainable set of facts about what happened at the protest -- what triggered the use of tear gas and a decision to declare the event an illegal assembly shortly after darkness fell?

Details outlined in the story Sunday, all of which can't be repeated here, provided clarity as to why it seemed to some protesters the law enforcement response was uncalled for and why officers, who had quietly monitored the night's activities, felt compelled to disperse the crowd with anti-riot techniques.

The law enforcement response in Bentonville had little to do with the behaviors of most protest participants. But the facts show officers in two vehicles beyond the view of most protesters were surrounded, with aggressive protesters doing damage. Some protesters tried to stop the more violent elements, to no avail. The larger-scale deployment came after the two vehicles, and the officers inside them, were attacked.

Police reports indicate local authorities had been warned people intent on disruption were expected to attend. It also became clear some protesters came prepared for confrontation, with milk (to neutralize tear gas on people's faces), with frozen water bottles that were thrown and, in at least one instance, a bottle of urine, according to Police Chief Jon Simpson.

To Simpson's credit, he acknowledged some moves by his department could have been better, such as use of a public address system that fell short and police vehicles to block traffic to the square. Simpson said the police cars, designed to protect protesters in case someone wanted to ram a car through the event as has happened elsewhere, were "symbolic more than I expected." In other words, they raised tensions unnecessarily.

We're glad to see the Bentonville Police Department trying to learn from the situation, because protesters and officers alike are best served by avoiding unintended escalations and understanding each other more clearly.

Did the sheriff's office learn anything? That's hard to say. Unfortunately, Sheriff Shawn Holloway declined comment about the night's events and deployment of his office's "mobile field force." Holloway couldn't comment or release requested documents, he said, on the advice of his attorney because of possible litigation over the night's events.

For an elected public official whose job includes building trust and demonstrating accountability with the public, that's tone-deaf advice. Holloway serves the people of Benton County. Particularly when the issue being protested is law enforcement behaviors, it's a shame Holloway chose secrecy over transparency. The situation cries out for insight from law enforcement leaders. A discussion about the event and what his agency learned, if it learned anything, could be an opportunity to build public confidence in his agency. It's was a missed opportunity.

More News

What’s the point?

A deeper examination of the events surrounding the June 1 protest in Bentonville shows how different groups had different experiences, making the event’s violent end confusing.


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