OPINION: Journalist first, observer second

Nicholas Hunter headshot

Nicholas Hunter

Buzzing down Summit Street, Stater editor-in-chief Henry Palattella gazed past me in the passenger seat out the window, taking a moment to gawk at the parking lot neatly filled to the brim with state trooper cruisers.

“This looks like an Orwell novel,” he said. Police stood like the Blue Light safety phones around campus — there wasn’t a spot you could stand without seeing a small group of state troopers mingling and waiting.

We walked into his apartment, our command station for the day, to three other reporters either getting settled in to start live-reporting, or slowly gathering camera equipment and notepads and pens to go out in the field.

Once everyone arrived, Sue Zake, our student media faculty adviser, gave us the rundown of our buddy system — I was paired with her for the day — and about being safe in this environment.

If things go south or we see a violent situation, she said at one point, we were to move to the edges. The statement felt a bit overzealous, but it was also an important reminder: We didn’t know what we were walking into. It could’ve been a sea of cops surrounding 50 bickering students for a half-hour, or it could have ended in a cloud of tear gas and mass arrests.

Walking down Summit Street from the Schwartz Center to the adjacent parking lot, where the pro-gun participants were gathering before the walk started, Sue saw the same scene Henry did an hour earlier. This time, students dotted the open spaces between police.

“It looks like OU (Ohio University) on Halloween,” Sue said. “But that’s a little more innocuous.”

Open-carry marchers slowly trickled into the lot, strapping on firearms to their holsters and backs and full accessories from their trunks and truck beds.

Local media poked around the crowds as they grew larger, putting recorders and cameras in the gun rights activists’ faces to ask why they were here. “For Kaitlin,” seemed to be the nearly universal answer.

Kaitlin Bennett, a gun rights activist and a Kent State alumnus, was easy to spot throughout the day. Her big blonde wave of hair makes her stand out in any crowd. The ring of cameras and mics ceaselessly surrounding her provided a human arrow to easily find the walk organizer, as well.

Bennett gathered the smattering of press and marchers in a circle while she stood directly in the middle to kick off the walk. She said the day was about creating awareness for the cause: legalizing open and concealed weapons possession for students on all college campuses.

From there, a loose line, headed by two students holding a Liberty Hangout banner, took off. Immediately, people started pointing and yelling. A mass of protestors descended up the campus side of Summit Street, some nearly running, toward the gun-toting marchers. The riot police, who were stationed on the street, made a human barricade between them.

For the press, that moment was like the gun firing at the start of a 100-meter dash: Cameras and recorders in tow, every member of the media who figured out what was happening sprinted past the two masses of people to get ahead of the action.

Cutting across Summit and up the hill toward the Esplanade, I found myself among the protestors. Deep enough in the crowd, I couldn’t discern what chant they were on, and I ran past annoyed sign holders to get back up front.

I backpedaled while moving to get a better picture of what was coming and saw two waves crashing ­­­­­­— one fronted by black-clad protestors and the other by the younger and more spry of the marchers.

With most of the press in the background, the front line of protesters turned around, locked arms and became a human wall. The riot police became the middle layer of the pileup as the marchers stood close behind, but not against, the riot police.

For nearly an hour, the three parties hit a standstill. The walk stalled between Bowman and Olson Halls, right in the heart of campus. The scene was still kinetic; protesters pushed against the police, occasionally starting a mosh or scuffle. The press buzzed around the outside of the commotion. A few pushed through, including photographer Carter Adams, who stood among the front lines of protesters to get the best angle.

Henry’s hand pulled me back by the arm while his other assured me he was someone I could trust. I didn’t finish turning my head back to tell him he didn’t need to do that before I felt a rush of air and smell of nylon and sweat — the riot police, marching through the side of the crowd to get in formation.

After a protester with a cut on his forehead hit the ground and police ringed around him, pulling him up for arrest, Henry looked hard at me, a pencil gripped hard in his teeth.

“How does this end?” Henry screamed at me. “How does this fucking end?”

Incredulously, I shrugged and shook my head. “I don’t know, man,” I said. “I don’t think anybody does.”

It did, however, end — with only four arrests and the one minor injury. Eventually, the crowd was coaxed back down the hill into the parking lot. The marchers retreated back to the far end of the lot while the protesters and riot police stood at the entrance.

The protesters scattered after an hour-long waiting game with the marchers. One participant said it was because they got tired, and another said it was to keep students from getting in any more trouble. Likely, it was a mix of both.

Most of the media cleared out after the initial standstill broke up. A Channel 19 crew was still conducting interviews in the lot with the marchers, but all the camera crews left once they got a final quote from Bennett.

Carter, enterprise editor Laina Yost and I hung around the scene until Bennett left with her personal security detail, the III% militia group. A small crowd of mostly student protesters had made their way down to her, but all action had petered out. Through the line of people, I saw a man cut around her security to tap her on the shoulder and ask for a selfie. “Of course,” I heard Bennett say, her voice no longer drowned out by chants and chatter.

She vanished behind her detail, and we walked back to Henry’s apartment, not fully sure what we just witnessed.

Nicholas Hunter is the opinion editor. Contact him at [email protected].