Speakers and crowd by gazebo

Sunday, September 3rd, 2023 was a beautiful day in Columbus, Ohio. The air was warm but not brutally hot, and the sun shined brightly without a dark cloud in the sky. People sat on the park benches or in the grass staring at their phones or lying on blankets chatting with their fellow guests. Around the park, one of the city's busiest sections hummed along on an unusually busy Sunday; with Labor Day preceding this Sunday, the Short North experienced the same activity it would on a usual Friday evening. The familiar bike carts, powered by drunken tourists fully exploiting the novelty, chugged along the streets cheering loudly at any notable event or witty remark made by their driver. They often worked to entice those around them stuck walking on the sidewalks to join in their excitement, but they were usually ignored.

Despite the life of the city surrounding it, Goodale Park remained calm and peaceful. The elephant fountain splashing against the still water of the pond was the only sound that cut through the buzz of the insects with any regularity. But the tranquility of the park was not destined to last, and the first sign of this was the appearance of camera crews beginning to gather around the park’s gazebo. The time was 5:30pm.

One camera crew, a single person clearing working freelance, meandered the location scouting for the best spot – he apparently had never been here before – to sit his tripod on solid, even ground. Not far from him, another camera crew, working for a local news station, sat at a bench, clearly more confident in their final location. That, or they were waiting in anticipation of the crowd.

It was roughly 5:35 when I was approached by a man I had seen lying on one of the park’s benches. He was wearing toeless sandals and his long pants and t-shirt were ragged. He approached me asking if he could borrow my phone to make a call. Clearly anticipating resistance, he explained that it “wasn’t a scam” and began to explain that, while it may not look like it, he was not homeless. He was simply “roughing it.” He made three calls, two that went straight to voicemail and one to his mother, whom he announced before initiating the call. In this call, which I could not help to overhear as he shared my bench and spoke on speaker, it was revealed that he was indeed homeless and without family or friends to give him a ride away from the park. His mother, sweetly professing to love the man multiple times, told him he was on his own.

After stating that he would “convince” her in the following days, probably Thursday, he attempted one of the previous calls again. When this predictably went to voicemail, he thanked me for the act of allowing him to borrow my phone. I had ridden the bus to the park and was unable to help with the ride, but I did have $2 in my pocket. As he gathered his things to leave the tranquility of the park, I gave him the $2 for a bus. He thanked me again and headed towards the noise of High Street.

It was now 5:45 and the crowd surrounding the gazebo began to grow. Although it was not entirely clear everyone was here for the anticipated protest, another camera crew had arrived. People I could recognize from other street actions began to appear, likely being the organizers of the event. Along with them came the cops, sporting their light blue “Columbus Police Dialogue Team” vest and periodically providing updates to their backup likely lurking less than a block away. Anticipation was growing.

Despite this, the park remained quiet. A man sitting on a lawn chair pulled next to a park bench dropped a fishing line into the pond. His bobber the only thing that broke the water’s surface besides the ducks that dashed across the pond. Families strolled the paths, the parents working hard to keep the kids from simply running away, while those sitting on their blankets increasingly glanced at the crowd gathering near the gazebo. It is unclear whether or not they know what is coming. The time is now 5:55.

The core organizers of the event have gathered near the gazebo, casually talking and laughing as they move their gear. These laughs serve as small moments of glee before an event that is bound to be filled with anger. More cameras arrive, and the ones already here are finalizing their set-up. They say the revolution will not be televised, but there are a lot of television people here. Either it will be, or this is not yet a revolution.

As the starting time of 6pm comes, the crowd has grown to around 35 people who are not clearly media or the organizers. Gathering on the west side of the gazebo, many are carrying signs as they continue their conversations or sit in the grass on their phones. Only one bathroom option lies within sight, a sole porta-potty clearly here before the event, in one of Columbus’ finest parks. Rarely an option at these sorts of events, many attendees have already dashed for the plastic room before the start of the event.

The cameras are repositioned to better view the coming speakers, their crews still scanning around for better positions and to anticipate the final resting place of the crowd. When not scouting, the cameras are focused on interviews with organizers, the latter gladly jumping at the opportunity to voice their thoughts to a recorded audience.

Nine minutes past start time, music begins playing through the speakers set up on the gazebo’s steps. First on the playlist is LAND OF THE FREE by Joey Bada$$, a fitting narrative of America’s shortcomings and ironies, best expressed in the song’s title and chorus:

            In the land of the free, it's full of freeloaders

Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors

They disorganized my people, made us all loners

Still got the last names of our slave owners

In the land of the free, it's full of freeloaders

Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors

They disorganized my people, made us all loners, yeah

General criticisms of the United States ahead of the Columbus-specific criticisms to come. Behind the speakers are signs – large placards – announcing the intention of the gathering. “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE;” “THE POLICE IN COLUMBUS MURDER” (murder painted in red in contrast to the other white letters popping from the black background). Beside them are much fancier banners, that were clearly printed, bearing the names of those who are gone: Donovan Lewis, Casey Goodson Jr., and others, each with “Columbus” printed along the bottom in official government font. Other handmade signs dot the crowd, echoing slogans we have become much too familiar with.

As more people arrive, they greet each other and embrace. This crowd has become quite familiar with each other over the years, each new death another opportunity to mourn the loss and call for change in the park together. Vigils have become their regular socials. They greet each other in happiness and with hope, in spite of the anger and sorrow that truly brought them to the park. Amidst this cheery crowd sit the signs that angrily demand change, accountability, or share the names of those gunned down. The anger and intimidation of these signs seem to come from a world far different than the one inhabited by the park’s guests.

Bob Marley is now blasting through the speakers as people stand continuing their conversations. Words are more personal than political: people catch up, inform each other of what is going on in their lives, and use the opportunity of the comfortable park to socialize. The one exception is someone standing next to their bike – bikes being the second most common item among the crowd following the signs – working to convince their neighbor that the Soviet Union should serve as an inspiration, not a cautionary tale. Even with the increased crowd and music playing, the park is still calm.

By 6:17 the crowd had grown to around 75 people. I was told the crowd was already larger than at a similar gathering held on Friday. The “Dialogue Team” stands far away at the back of the event, engaging with no one and ensuring that they are not part of the event just spectators. At this point, event attendees try to entice bike cart riders to join the crowd or, at the very least, continue their cheers of excitement for the gathering, not just random events. It is at this moment we saw a rare instance of silence and apathy from the usually loud riders.

The crowd surrounding the gazebo begins moving forward as a speaker announces a 6:30 start time, asking attendees to use their spare time to find an organizer with a clipboard and share their contact information to stay informed of future events. The core basis of using anger to channel people into an organization continues to hold true, although no mention of who would be keeping everyone informed is ever made. The crowd approaches 100 as 6:30 comes. The quiet of the park was now filled with noise.

Speakers engaged the crowd for about an hour and a half. The cheerfulness that dominated the event’s build-up is quickly dispensed with, replaced with sadness and, more than anything else, anger. Non-government organization (NGO) leaders who have been doing social justice work for years spoke of the problems and provided possible solutions: fire those who have murdered citizens, repeal qualified immunity to allow convictions, and modify Marcy’s Law so the murderers can not hide in anonymity behind “victimhood.”

Family members of those who were killed spoke of their lost ones -- including the grandmother of Ta'Kiya Young, who was murdered just this week -- providing anecdotes to portray the victim’s humanity and lack of need for the senseless violence that was inflicted upon them. They thanked the crowd for coming in solidarity and fellowship with them and stressed the importance of continuing to do this. More murders were taken as a matter of fact, and speakers emphasized the importance of not sharing videos or pictures of the murders on social media: they experienced enough grief already. While anger certainly held its place in these speeches, sorrow dominated their talks. They were sad, devastated really, at the tragedies that surrounded them, and already hurt by the murders that were to follow. The topic of conversation frequently turned to actions that could be done to lessen the hurt of future tragedies.

The most common solution to both assisting the grieving families and instituting political change to prevent the need to grieve in the first place was community and organization, used interchangeably. The need for people to come together and act as one was stressed repeatedly throughout the event, both by the speakers and the yells of the crowd. Everyone just needed to come together despite any specific disagreements that might appear in the specifics of any future events or strategies. However, no solution was ever provided as to how such an organization could be created or what existing organization could serve as the foundation of such an idea.

The speakers from the NGOs stated what organizations they were from in their introductions, of course, but their organization was only explained in terms of what small part they play in the larger effort for change. If these organizations hoped to be the foundations of such a mass movement it was never stated, and even a casual observer would know that they are not nearly prepared to serve as the foundations for such an endeavor. This act of strategic importance was the only thing that went unsaid at the event. Anger and sadness dominated the airways, but hope rang above it all. This hope and faith in their fellow human beings rounded out the event as attendees circled around the victim’s families for an energetic and inspiring prayer.

It was shortly after 8 as the crowd began to disperse from the gazebo, but not everyone left the park. Darkness was now falling, but the majority of the crowd stayed nearby to join the march that was planned to follow. “They won’t listen to us unless we get in the way of their money” it was declared, as the mass of people moved towards High Street, their calls for action and accountability following them. Now the noise of the park was to join the noise of the cars and tourists in Columbus’ money-making center.

The crowds witnessing the angry procession through High Street consisted of three types of people: those who stopped to join the chants or throw up their fist in solidarity; those who stopped to bask in awe at the people disrupting traffic, usually with a phone in their hands; and those who moved along, only acknowledging the protest with a brief glance or with a scornful glare as they stopped their cars or their walk to allow the crowd to pass. Of the first group, although confident enough in themselves to cheer or raise their arm in a fist, few joined the march. Held back by indecision or an unwillingness to further inconvenience their evening with an unexpected walk in the middle of the street, less than a dozen joined the crowd.

Of the second group, it is not clear what their recordings of the event were meant to accomplish. Proof of their witnessing it for story time at their next party? To share on social media and spread the same message that has been repeated in American political life for more than a decade? A memento of the brief interruption that challenged the norm of their evening among the shops of the Short North? Regardless, these onlookers did little to promote the message of the angry marchers. Of the third group, easily the largest behind the passive onlookers, nothing more embodies their experience than apathy, only sometimes hinting at scorn depending on the severity of the inconvenience created by the crowd on their otherwise blissful Sunday. In the main, the crowds of High Street did little to offer support or sympathy to the marchers, and the efforts of the march had even less of an effect on them than it did on the life of the city itself.

Undaunted, the marchers on High Street continued north. Names of the victims were shouted, anti-police slogans were chanted, and denunciations of the world were repeated. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Only the gods will know if the passive onlookers along High Street realized this chant was directed at them as much as everything else.

The people most clearly affected by the march were the Dialogue Team. Engaging in words with drivers along the city’s main artery alone, these officers ensured cars kept moving along the side of the road not blocked by protestors and sometimes ran ahead to intersections to block traffic. The blue-vested cops would give protestors the street whenever they moved into an area, but when opportunities arose for traffic to keep moving, they angrily scolded any driver who did anything to block the flow of commerce. These drivers were the only people worthy of receiving words from the police. The protestors would “get in the way of the money” as much as they liked, but the cops were there to ensure it would resume again as soon as the protestors were gone. They were quickly obliged.

The protestors turned around at 3rd Avenue and marched south back to Goodale Park. High Street returned back to its usual hum of commercial activity. Upon returning to the gazebo, the organizers thanked the marching crowd for their time and offered to walk people to their cars if they needed a buddy. And with that, it was over. Darkness had completely fallen on the park, and the silence of peaceful tranquility was replaced with the stillness of night. This stillness continued as I walked back home. We had replaced the silence of the park with hopeful noise for change. We replaced the regular buzz of city life with calls for accountability and action. But our noise receded, and the regular silence of everyday life returned. Would anyone other than the passive crowds of High Street hear our calls? More importantly, would this noise lead to the change and action we had hoped for? As I write this in the silence of my home, it is hard to tell, and I am left wondering when the noise will come again.