So I attended a protest the other day. It was the first time I’d been downtown since it started and I had walked there (and back) from one of the suburbs. A nearly 5 mile walk each way, with the inner-most mile or two containing a lot of plywood covering up a lot of damage.

But you know what stuck out to me? Two things:

  1. Which places were hit.
  2. Of the places that were damaged and thus boarded up, which had murals and which had graffiti.

These two things speak volumes about the situation.

When people hear the term “riot,” they generally think absolute, destructive anarchy a la “The Purge.” But even MLK recognized that riots aren’t anarchy. They are the manifestation of rage, but not blind rage. As much as he spoke out against rioting, he understood its meaning and its message (emphasis mine):

Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.

This message is abundantly clear right now, visible in broad daylight for anyone who is willing to take the time to read and understand it. Literally written on the walls.

If a group wanted to just indiscriminately destroy everything, it would be exceptionally easy to do in downtown Columbus, with its century-old churches and colleges, and its plethora of high rises with what seems like more square acres of glass than there is green space in the city. And yet, only very specific places took damage.

The Law School and the Art Museum sit unscathed in a moat of plywood. The iconic Trinity Episcopal Church likewise remained untouched by protestors, even as it stoically and silently witnessed the damage to the statehouse. The glass facade of PNC has a plywood shell, while a block away, the Ohio Education Association building, with all its own glass, is pristine, as is the State Teachers Retirement System building. Meanwhile, several blocks down, a real estate company’s front is nothing but plywood.

Likewise, plywood covers random windows of equally random buildings – obvious signs of crossfire damage from rubber and wooden bullets and other projectiles used by police the first few nights. (This is pretty evident in the difference in damage to the different windows when you find footage of everything before it got boarded up. Hands and random items of convenience break glass differently than rubber-coated metal.)

The Ohio Theatre is the one standout exception. Its entire frontage destroyed (and the answer to “who did it” remains unknown). In its place stands (for now) a large mural.

A variety of Black Lives Matter mural cover the plywood facade of the Ohio Theatre in Columbus

It’s among the largest displays of the same theme - the buildings of supportive organizations get breath-taking murals if they were damaged, while those that represent or perpetuate the racism or racist system being protested get graffiti.

(To note: the paintings aren’t ad hoc, the store owners work with the Greater Columbus Art Council to find artists to hire, but paying local Black artists to paint murals is itself a show of support and it’s a conscious decision to hear and support the community instead of trying to retaliate.)

How do you know it wasn’t just luck or something about the buildings that make them more resistant to damage? 

It’s not like the untouched buildings have forcefields.

The Law School is not only known for accepting less-traditional students (meaning its student body can be more diverse), but its legal clinic provides free and low cost legal services for tenant’s rights issues, in particular – a highly valuable service to BIPOC communities, given the issues they struggle with.

Trinity Episcopal Church has been a supporter of the protests since the beginning, even serving as an aid/supply station. (They also have been ringing the bells during at least some of the marches.)

The Columbus Museum of Art has discount and free days/times, making its learning and experience accessible to everyone.

Conversely, companies like banks and real estate agencies embody the systemic racism of our history, through policies like redlining and the predatory lending that was a major driver of the 2008 recession.

And what about the other buildings? Minority-owned businesses were destroyed, too! 

Yep, but not by protestors (at least not intentionally).

There’s this thing called “accelerationism” and it’s growing in popularity among white supremacist groups in particular. In the cases where damage and provocation weren’t done by the police themselves, there’s mounting evidence that these accelerationists are inciting violence, including the president, himself. Sometimes, they’re even one and the same.

But enough about them 

Their goal is destruction, chaos, and even civil war. They don’t deserve any more of the energy I have to give. That’s not what this is about and isn’t what the protestors stand for, and it shows in the murals and the unspoken messages they leave.

Property destruction is by no means right, but it is understandable. It’s shock and awe, because as MLK put it, they do it “knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.” And the focus of recent outrage has proved Dr King right, even over half a century later, and it speaks volumes about how little has really changed in the intervening decades. We may have gotten rid of the segregated drinking fountains and bathrooms, but the underlying discrimination is still there, it’s just grown more subtle and insidious.

To those willing to listen and hear the message, it’s a heart-wrenching cry for change – real change. It’s the collective cry of family members who had to bury loved ones who died at the hands of police, of families torn apart because racial profiling put their husbands, fathers, brothers (in particular, but also their wives, mothers, and sisters) in prison for obscene and downright inhumane lengths of time, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. It’s the ever-present fear of parents not knowing if their children will make it home from school each day, or if their house will be broken into by police and they’ll be shot in their own home.

To them, I say: I see you. I hear your message. I stand with you. ✊