Joyce Beatty had never been pepper-sprayed before.
Growing up in Dayton during the 1960s, the 70-year-old Ohio congresswoman remembers having to use a different water fountain from the white people in her community, and having to swim in a different public pool. Throughout her life and political career, which began in the state legislature in the late ’90s, she’d taken part in many civil-rights demonstrations.
But the pepper spray was new to her. It “shuts you down,” she told me in an interview this morning. “It gets into your lungs. You’re coughing profusely. You can’t see.”
It happened yesterday afternoon, when Beatty joined a group of demonstrators in downtown Columbus protesting police violence following the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died Monday after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. In videos of the protest now circulating on Twitter, Beatty, with her gray hair, red mask, and hot-pink sweatshirt tied around her small waist, is easy to spot. Standing in front of a Pizza Rustica, she can be heard urging her fellow protesters not to taunt the police. “Don’t excite them!” she yells, again and again. For a few seconds, the scene seems as if it could de-escalate. Then, suddenly, an officer throws a protester to the ground, and any semblance of order is lost. The crowd surges forward, with Beatty at the front, waving her arms. The officers begin to pepper-spray people indiscriminately; the crowd disperses, screaming; and Beatty is led away by two colleagues.
In that moment, Beatty told me, she wasn’t a member of Congress. She was just another black American attacked while protesting injustice—one of innumerable others across the long expanse of history. The events of the past week, she said, represent “a collection of historic anger.”
I talked with Beatty about that anger, and the response from those in positions of power. Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: Could you walk me through your day yesterday? How did you end up at the protests, and what happened there?
Joyce Beatty: I wanted to go and stand in solidarity with the protesters, because they were peaceful protesters. They wanted their voices to be heard in light of what has happened nationally, because if something happens directly to one of us, it happens indirectly to all of us.
It was about standing up for George Floyd, what happened to Ahmaud Arbery; it was about what happened to Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and all of those before. I wanted to be a part of that and to show [that] this is my community, my district. I wanted to show them that I am not only their congressperson, but I’m also a black woman out here who sits on the floor with the honorable John Lewis—understanding that peaceful protesting is something that we should all be doing.
Racism is still alive. We see that all over the nation. We see the disparities. We see the voter suppression. That’s why I was there—as an individual who happens to also be the people’s congresswoman.
Godfrey: What happened at the protest after you arrived?
Beatty: It was a two-hour event, and an hour and 45 minutes [into] the event, absolutely no issues, no problem. Police were deployed at the end. At that point, there were protesters who went in the street [which was against the rules of the protest]. Now, many of those police officers were gracious. [But as protesters kept moving, another group of officers] were more aggressive with their bicycles and shields, pushing people back, even though they were on the sidewalk. There were some people who put their foot on the street, showing their defiance. But they were not in the middle of the street.
I’m not sure what happened, but there was an altercation of some kind verbally, and the next thing we knew [a man] was grabbed and tossed over the bicycles into the street. A police officer pushed and hit a woman with his bicycle—she was next to me, and she was a young sister. My instincts kicked in; I remember saying, “This is wrong, stop, stop!” And my arms went up in the air to grab her, and at that point, pepper spray immediately came.
Could it have been handled differently? I believe so. I think it was unnecessary force. It was not directly at me, but here’s what I [do] know: Pepper spray is not really directional. If you look at one of the photos, clearly there is an officer within six or seven inches of a young girl sitting on the ground, at the curb, being pepper-sprayed, and me and a couple other elected officials are right next to her. So it hit all of us, but it was not a point-and-direct spray at me. I do want to be very open and transparent with that.
It was an uncomfortable feeling, because I think most people who are being peaceful and protesting, you’re looking at authority [figures], whether that is me or a police officer, to be there in support and to protect you.
Godfrey: Do you think that the officers recognized you?
Beatty: There were many of the officers who absolutely recognized me. To some I had self-identified myself and said, “I’m here to protest and to be helpful to the protesters, but not to incite a riot.” I have no idea if the officer [who sprayed the crowd] knew who I was or not, and in some ways, it really shouldn’t matter. I left with the feeling of understanding now much of what you hear [from African Americans trying to protest peacefully]. Within the moment, I became someone who was attacked.
Godfrey: Does your family have a history of activism? Were your parents or relatives involved in civil-rights demonstrations?
Beatty: I married into a very political family. My husband, a former elected official, a brilliant attorney—his mother and grandmother were friends of Martin Luther King. His grandmother was an invited guest when [King] delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. My husband’s parents, Otto Sr. and Myra Beatty, had dinner with Martin Luther King, went to church with Martin Luther King. His grandmother, well before African Americans were going to the White House like we got to do with President Barack Obama, [went] to the White House with John F. Kennedy. She was one of the founders and vice president of the Colored Women’s Club, and was there presenting a proclamation to President Kennedy.
I have been entrenched all my life in church politics, community politics.
Godfrey: Were you thinking of them yesterday, as you were standing out there protesting?
Beatty: At one point, when we were on the sidewalk, all the protesters took a knee, [and] for those few seconds, there was a sign that was held up and it said Say Their Names. It had a list of some 20 names of individuals who had been killed. There was someone else who mentioned Emmett Till. And for that moment, I thought of Martin Luther King, because I know we were making some accomplishments in a peaceful way.
I thought of John Lewis when I was being pulled away. I thought of John Lewis saying, “You should always go and protest, because it’s good trouble but it’s peaceful.” I thought of him [telling] us the stories of how he was dragged and maced and pepper-sprayed and hosed. And he’s one of the most peaceful individuals you can think of. We have a long way to go in this country, and in this state, and in my own community. And it’s going to take all of us.
Godfrey: We’re seeing video after video today of police responding to protesters in ways that seem way too aggressive. How do you feel about how police have handled these demonstrations across the country?
Beatty: I think we have a problem in this country. And I think that we have to be more proactive. This has got to involve everyone as an individual, the individuals that are sitting [at] home that will be reading your stories and watching the national news. If we’re going to have real change, we have to make all communities our communities.
That’s how I grew up. I grew up when those who were protecting us lived in the same communities with us. There was a sense of ownership. So many of us are saying we need community review boards, we need community policing. Those are the things we need to marry—old school with new school.
Every protester is not tearing up buildings and looting, and every police officer is not being overaggressive, but [change] starts with all of us and it starts at the top. You cannot have our top leadership sending messages with racial overtures. You cannot. It’s going to have to happen from the bottom up, because we’re certainly not getting it from the top down.
Godfrey: There’s been criticism of these protests. People are calling them riots. Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Do you think that’s true?
Beatty: When you talk about rioting to destroy property, that attention is not going to bring about change from those who are in leadership. When you go and are marching and protesting against the injustices that have affected us, you can’t go in and break the windows of a young sister’s store that she just opened, or that she inherited as a family business. That’s not justice. That’s not eradicating racism.
I don’t believe destruction is helpful. It’s distracting. I don’t think it gets you protocols changed; I don’t think it changes systemic racism.
Godfrey: The officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis was arrested two days ago, yet the protests have continued across the country. Why do you think they’re still going? Is there some policy outcome that protesters are looking for?
Beatty: I don’t think I can speak for the nation or all the people. You have to look at the hurt. It’s more than one officer. It is the system that needs to change. It is officers standing by; it is the disparity in our system and what happens when certain people do [something versus] when people of color do it. I don’t think there is an answer I can give you on this call that will speak to how we change decades and years. We just recently came off the 400-year [anniversary of colonists] bringing in enslaved individuals. This is not something, unfortunately, your story or my answer alone is going to change.
People are hurt, people are angry, and it is a collection of historic anger.