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By Matt Cole
Protests and riots have swept across the country since the May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis, MN police officer Derek Chauvin. Looting, riots, and violence has broken out in cities from Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Washington DC, New York, Rochester, and Buffalo among others.
Early Sunday afternoon word spread of protests and groups planning to loot the Niagara Falls Factory Outlet Mall, as well as rioting to begin at the old police station in the heavily residential neighborhood on Hyde Park Blvd. City officials led by mayor Robert Restaino and police from various agencies assembled at the 66th Street Administrative Building to prepare to defend the city, as many businesses closed early.
While no looting occurred at the Outlet Mall, a small crowd assembled the old police building, followed by a much larger crowd of many hundreds of people –many from out of town- assembled at police headquarters on Main Street in Niagara Falls.
“We had received information that there would be a protest, the way it was put to us was there would be violence and rioting.” said Niagara Falls Police Chief Tom Licata.
“We’re prepared to assist our residents in defending property and defending them.” added Mayor Robert Restaino.
With 10s if not 100s of thousands of people watching live on television and social media, the crowd of hundreds at the Main Street Niagara Falls Police Headquarters continued to grow in size and intensity.
With the threat of more violence hanging in the air and ready to manifest, shouts from the mob began to demand the police take a knee with them in solidarity. Others called repeatedly for the mayor “where is this mayor?”, “If he cared about us he would be here!”
Little did they know, one of the many people watching them live was just that mayor from the city command center. Top city officials say a immediate call was placed from the command center to one of the Niagara Peacemakers -a top-notch volunteer civilian organization on the scene on Main Street- who confirmed in their opinion the calls for the mayor were genuine.
However –to the best of our knowledge- no mayor in any of the cities that has fallen under protest or attack since the death of Floyd has put themselves in such a dangerous position to be among and surrounded by the very mob taking over their cities.
As this large mob would soon find out, this night would be different, because this mayor most certainly is. A quick conference at the city command center with Chief Licata & Acting Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti, and Mayor Restaino would immediately make an executive decision, “Let’s go!”
Minutes later -as the chants and intensity grew, with many waiting for yet another night of violence and destruction to begin- Mayor Restaino appeared among the crowd -flanked on either side by Police Chief Licata and Acting County Sheriff Filicetti- looking and feeling much like Robert Kennedy’s now famous spontaneous appearance on 17th & Broadway in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto to speak to people and morn with them when he learned Martin Luther King was killed.
After some brief words from Sheriff Filicetti to get the crowds attention, Mayor Restaino gave the order and the entire police force & mob of protestors took a knee together in a show of solidarity.
What happened next was exactly what this country needs and nothing short of a miracle. The first protest since the death of Floyd –with legitimate threats of planned rioting and violence- that ended with hugs and fist bumps, instead of violence.
The crowd immediately began to cheer for the mayor, police, and Peacemakers alike. “That’s all we wanted” and “Thank you Mister Mayor” could immediately be heard again and again.
For anyone still not convinced, just know this was no photo op. Mayor Restaino stayed – of his own accord – on site for hours talking to hundreds of protesters 1 on 1 who approached him with questions, comments, and hugs… yes, hugs.
Police from various agencies lined up in formation to receive and return fist bumps to the large crowd that walked past to end the night with a final show of solidarity.
People that came feeling disenfranchised, hopeless and angry, with the intention of violence and rioting, left with hugs and fist bumps because a city and its police force –led spontaneously by the first mayor in any city so far to put himself in harm’s way- just simply stopped and showed that they cared.
A tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to the Peacemakers, our police, and our mayor.
Let’s hope and pray our country can learn from them a lesson in leadership, unity, and compassion.