We saw peaceful protests, and unfortunately, some violence and criminal behavior across Arkansas this week. Today, I’d like to talk about our duty to protect free expression and the proper response of law enforcement when there is violence or destruction of property.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is a travesty and a crime. The image of him lying face down on the street as an officer pinned him there with a knee on his neck is deeply disturbing.
His cries of “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” will rightly haunt our collective conscience for a long time.
I understand the anger that compelled people to take up posters and march to the state capitol and in various cities in Arkansas. We share in their sorrow and acknowledge their anger and their demand for justice.
I’ve listened to members of the community. I hear their cries for change. We will continue to talk and seek solutions. As governor, I will protect your right to march and express yourself in whatever peaceful and lawful way you choose.
Ninety-five percent of the protesters in Little Rock this week marched peacefully. The police officers who were standing by were there to make sure the protesters were safe. When they blocked the interstate and put themselves and others in harm’s way, officers encouraged them to move.
Each night, as the hour grew later, a few in the crowd did things that put others at risk. They poured flammable liquids on the road and set them afire. They threw fireworks. They threw rocks and bottles at police. They broke windows, beat a journalist, and destroyed property. That’s when the police responded.
On Saturday, I activated the National Guard. On Tuesday, I declared a state of emergency, which directed the State Police to form a Unified Command structure so that all levels of law enforcement could work together. The Unified Command respects the chain of command from the city police departments to the state police to the National Guard. It simply created and defined a chain of command for a specific need in a troubled time in our state.
Three nights in a row, police had to disperse the crowd. Many protesters ignored the curfew that Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. had put in place. Even then, officers showed restraint. But as some in the crowd grew more aggressive and began to set fires and throw rocks through store windows, police had to act. They had to stop the lawbreakers and protect the peaceful protesters.
When I saw the violence increase on Monday night, I knew we couldn’t let that happen again. The rule of law is important to us all. Tuesday night, nine agencies from all levels of government participated in the patrol, and officers quickly contained the elements of the crowd who were there only to coordinate and motivate destructive behavior. They were there to confront police and destroy property. They didn’t care that their violence might overshadow the message of the peaceful marchers.
When protesters march in Arkansas to express their grief and anger, we must protect them and their right to peacefully speak their mind.
When the protest turns into violence and vandalism, we must protect everyone else. That’s what we did this week.