Kalamazoo was ready for the Proud Boys. Then we weren’t.

Police spent weeks tracking the violent extremist group. City residents rang the alarm. Leaders appear to have disregarded it all, putting officers and the community at risk.

They knew the tension was going to be combustible in downtown Kalamazoo on the afternoon of Aug. 15, 2020.

It was during a summer in which police killings of Black Americans led to anti-racism protests. Hate groups took to the streets too. 

The Proud Boys – a group that, above all else, promotes white European cultural dominance – rallied in Kalamazoo that Saturday, marching from a parking ramp toward the Arcadia Creek Festival Place.

Awaiting them was a mix of counter-protesters, mostly organized by a local pastor and community activist who formally reserved the Arcadia site in response to the Proud Boys rally.

The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) monitored the scene from discreet vantage points, ready to move in if the day turned violent. 

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Officials said the low profile was intended to avoid the police becoming the spark to the powder keg. It was a decidedly different tactic used during protests against racism a few months earlier with visible deployments, riot gear, and tear gas.

Police finally intervened as the Proud Boys and the counter-protesters clashed. In the end nine people were arrested – including a journalist and a legal observer, both clearly identified – but no one affiliated with the Proud Boys. 

In the aftermath, the chief of public safety was fired. Six months later, the pastor went on sabbatical and is looking for work elsewhere. The city, accused of double standards and even siding with the Proud Boys, hired an independent consultant to look into the police response.

NowKalamazoo has reviewed hundreds of pages of internal Kalamazoo city and police emails, planning memos, and reports to city officials and to the public that trace how city leaders prepared the community for the Proud Boys rally and the likely violence that would accompany it. The documents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The 115-page report by the consultant, California-based OIR Group, was made public by the city last Friday evening and has further verified our account.

Informed by those documents, interviews with people directly involved, and experts who research hate groups, NowKalamazoo reconstructed and analyzed the city’s plans and actions to protect the city during the hate group’s event.

NowKalamazoo‘s investigation shows that the city and police leaders were well informed and prepared, but took actions that increased the risk of violence.

In particular, Kalamazoo police warned that there could be violence from the counter-protesters but did not mention the potential for violence by the Proud Boys, according to the Operations Plan disseminated by Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to the assembled law enforcement hours before the rally. 

That’s despite the department’s own research that found very few indications of violence from the pastor and other counter-protesters, and numerous warning signs and a history of violence by the Proud Boys.

Indeed, prior to and during the events of Aug. 15, counter-protesters were in detailed communication with police and city leaders. By comparison, the Proud Boys were ultra-secretive and have a history of violent events, and the police and city leadership knew it. 

Kalamazoo public safety later blamed the pastor for the problems that day, saying he asked them to downplay the police presence and allege that he was inciting violence, finger-pointing that was criticized in the OIR report.

“It also ignores social media posts cited in its own intelligence that identified the Proud Boys as ‘experts at instigating violence.’ ” the report said. “Where law enforcement has information that violent conflict is likely to occur in public spaces, it should develop a strategy aimed at preventing that violence.”

Formed in 2016, the Proud Boys have espoused racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic extremist beliefs. They allied themselves with former President Donald Trump, frequently attended his rallies, and were among the groups that participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

After the group announced plans for a rally in Kalamazoo, an international private intelligence company as well as U.S. and Canadian federal law enforcement agencies sent warnings about the potential for violence, and a Kalamazoo police intelligence unit spent weeks investigating.   

That unit was closely monitoring social media, looking for indications of the size of the rally and potential threats surrounding it. They tried to infiltrate the group but appeared to be blocked by the group’s secretive nature and the use of digital background checks. KDPS investigators also solicited assistance from federal, state, and other local law enforcement agencies that had previously interacted with the Proud Boys.

Social media posts for their Kalamazoo rally claimed the group was standing up to the country’s growing anti-fascism movement and defending the police against accusations of institutionalized racism.

But in practice experts say the Proud Boys turn up to recruit and fight.

“They say they only act violently defensively and that’s a strategy to avoid law enforcement attention and negative publicity,” said Elizabeth Yates, an investigator at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism who researches how individual Americans become radicalized. “In order to portray themselves as a group standing up for white men or Western civilization – which is an evolution of the way these right-wing groups for years have defined whiteness, repeated through generations with these different kinds of groups – they want these opportunities to fight.”

Senior Kalamazoo police leadership were routinely updated by a special operations task force. The police intelligence task force’s research included collecting news coverage about Proud Boys activities in other cities around the country in order to prepare for what was to come here. 

“When you see Proud Boys come into a community, you see fights in the community. That’s their method of operation,” said Carolyn Normandin, a researcher and director of the Michigan office of the Anti-Defamation League who briefed Kalamazoo’s city and police officials prior to the rally. “Law officers need to plan.”

Ryan Bridges, the spokesperson hired in the aftermath of the Proud Boys rally, said Kalamazoo city and police leaders declined the multiple interview requests for this story. 

City officials and KDPS officials said they will not comment before the OIR Group gives a public presentation on its findings at a Kalamazoo City Commission special meeting set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10. The virtual meeting will be streamed live on the city’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and by Public Media Network.

Questions remain about why police seemed to disregard their own research on the Proud Boys in its plans to protect the city, and why it took the opposite tactic during Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the summer. 

There are other questions, too.

Why did city leaders seem ambivalent to residents’ concerns about the Proud Boys rally and opted not to guide the community’s response? 

Could the violence that occurred on Aug. 15 have been mitigated or avoided altogether? 

Why did police treat the Proud Boys – a hate group – differently from not only anti-racism protesters that summer but also a 2007 hate rally in Kalamazoo? There, tactics were used to protect residents, the First Amendment, and prevent violence. 

And what would the city do if such a scenario happens again?

Facebook post reads "The proud boys are coming. Americans against antifa"
A Facebook post promoting the Proud Boys rally in Kalamazoo Aug. 15, 2020.

Plenty of warning

Within days, the Kalamazoo police’s special intelligence team went from looking into a possible Proud Boys event to preparing police leadership for its inevitability. 

The Michigan State Police sent a social media post for the rally to Sarah Chamberlain of the KDPS’ Strategic Operations Center in late July. 

“Thanks for passing along!” Chamberlain replied to the email. By then, a local tipster had already alerted Kalamazoo law enforcement.  

The State Police tip came from the Detroit Police Department’s Counterterrorism Threat Analysis Team. It had been keeping tabs on a Facebook user spamming comments of “ALL LIVES MATTER”, “WHITE LIVES MATTER”, “BLUE LIVES MATTER, and “TRUMPS LIFE MATTERS” during a local Black Lives Matter protest video stream.

A quick look into the user’s profile discovered a post shared on July 24 announcing “THE PROUD BOYS ARE COMING” to Kalamazoo on Aug. 15. 

“Stand with us ‘your brothers’ and ‘countrymen’ the time is now or never Liberty or death.” the announcement said. 

The Facebook user, who purported to live in Lansing, commented on the post: “Nice !! Proud Boys vs Antifa !! Kzoo Michigan !! Hell yeah I wanna be there !!”

Detroit police sent the details to an interagency Detroit Homeland Security hub for southeast Michigan, which forwarded them to the State Police and then on to Chamberlain on July 27. 

“Unfortunately, [the tip] is accurate,” Chamberlain then wrote to Matthew Huber, now assistant chief of operations for Kalamazoo public safety.

Later that morning, when a public safety colleague emailed links to two other social media posts, Chamberlain replied: “Likely to happen, it’s been shared A LOT!” 

That afternoon, in a “situational awareness” email to all KDPS officers and select law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including the Michigan State Police and the FBI, Chamberlain flagged the Proud Boys rally in Kalamazoo and a potential counter-protest.

As a strategic operations and intelligence analyst, Chamberlain played a primary role: monitoring social media; researching the Proud Boys and counter protesters; communicating with at least one Michigan Proud Boys leader and obtaining the contact information for a second; and providing regular updates and communication to KDPS leadership. 

“What you want to do is understand the character of the demonstration,” both protest and counter-protest, said Michigan State University criminal justice professor David Carter, who focuses on policing issues and law enforcement intelligence. 

If the group planning a demonstration won’t engage with police, such as providing estimates of attendees, plans, or route for a march, then police should use social media to learn as much as possible and coordinate with other law enforcement agencies for additional intelligence and backup support for the day of the event, Carter said.

On July 27, Chamberlain asked for a computer to be set up dedicated for undercover work, referred to as “UC”.

“To join their group, they’ll conduct background investigations and my UC guy will obviously not pass, nor do I think our other UC account will pass,” Chamberlain wrote to Huber. “They actually have a secure website, which gives the indication that they may be tech savvy, I tried not to stay on it too long, otherwise they will know the COK (City of Kalamazoo) was looking into it. I will still try and safely dig deeper to see what I can find.” 

Chamberlain collected news articles about violent Proud Boys incidents in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, plus one that dug deep into “the Proud Boys and their possible involvement with the 2020 elections,” Chamberlain wrote in a July 30 email with links to the stories to Dave Boysen, now deputy chief of Kalamazoo public safety. 

“In addition, the author claims the Proud Boys are known for espousing violence, members are repeatedly arrested for engaging in violence at rallies, and leaked Telegram chats from earlier in the year indicating much of the violence is premeditated, discussing which ‘weapons’ to use and how to ‘bait’ counterprotestors into throwing a punch,” Chamberlain wrote.

On Aug. 3, an international private intelligence and threat-monitoring company called TAM-C Solutions issued an alert to clients about the Aug. 15 rally. The Canada Border Services Agency sent the alert to U.S. federal authorities, which sent it to Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.

Days later, a manager at the Residence Inn hotel in Kalamazoo called KDPS.

“She stated that she received a fax today saying that the Proud Boys will be staying there on the 14th and 15th of this month,” an officer wrote in an email to Chamberlain.

A senior hotel official later clarified to NowKalamazoo that the hotel was alerted by an online poster and then contacted police. The hotel then switched to walk-in only reservations for that weekend in order to limit the potential for violent groups to congregate at the hotel. 

The nearby Holiday Inn notified KDPS it too received a fax about the Proud Boys, and offered to provide the names of registered guests for those dates. The Holiday Inn employee “kept the fax and is concerned by what [they] saw when [they] looked into the group,” an internal police email said. They are “worried about [their] employees and others.”

A large crowd of people gathered near several men fighting.
A fight broke out between a racist group and counter-protesters on August 15, 2020 in downtown Kalamazoo. Fritz Klug

‘The greater threat’

It appears city and police officials were well aware of the likely risk posed to the community during the Aug. 15 Proud Boys rally, based on their own research, and from the concerns and information shared by various community members.

Yet on the day of the rally, two hours before the Proud Boys were set to appear, KDPS issued an Operations Plan that downplayed those concerns. 

Bridges, the city spokesperson, said the plan was created by KDPS “in coordination with our local mutual aid partners in preparation for the Proud Boys’ rally held in Kalamazoo on Aug. 15. The plan was shared with all officers working the event,” including teams from the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department and Michigan State Police, with other law enforcement on stand-by to assist.   

The plan mostly detailed the logistics for when police should take specific actions. 

It began with the situation report: a summary of what brought them there that day, and the threat they and the community would face from Rev. Nathan Dannison, then-senior pastor of First Congregational Church in downtown Kalamazoo and organizer of the peace vigil, as well as two other anti-Proud Boys protest groups – but not the Proud Boys.

“In viewing the pastor’s social media, he has made several posts instilling hate, attempting to get a rise out of people, including an interview with televised media, and ask for people to attend and take a counter-protest stance. Lastly, social media posts are calling for ‘blood’ and to throw ‘objects’ at the ‘Proud Boys.’” the Operations Plan told the officers preparing for the rally. “Considering previous acts, these threats are being taken very seriously.”

However, the hundreds of pages of city and police documents provided to NowKalamazoo do not offer corroborating details about those concerns.

Moreover, the documents show Dannison had been in communication with city and police leaders, including providing the type of details of the counter-protest that the Proud Boys refused to divulge about their rally. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that there were several different groups of so-called counter protesters at the protest site. I viewed my role as communicating non-violent action,” said Dannison. 

Police did note – once – in an email chain a few weeks before the rally, just as the Proud Boys event was becoming known on social media, that anti-racism protesters were suggesting a militant approach to countering the Proud Boys. 

“Our local protest group is now wanting to counter-protest the Proud Boys. There are also talks of violence if it comes down to it,” Chamberlain wrote in an internal email to Boysen, Huber, Capt. Matt Elzinga, and five other senior KDPS officials. 

There was no follow up research or discussions on what to expect and how to prepare for the counter-protest, either, all of which indicates a much lower threat level than the Proud Boys, based on the police’s own research. 

The bulk of the internal communications between city and police officials before the rally were focused on the Proud Boys. Yet, although police had been researching the Proud Boys for weeks, there was no mention in the Operations Plan for the potential of violence from the Proud Boys.

“Police are more likely to respond with force to the actor perceived to be the greater threat,” said Jason Blazakis, who spent 10 years as a senior U.S. State Department director focused on countering terrorism and violent extremism, and is now senior advisor at the global intelligence and security consultancy The Soufan Group. “In this case, it sounds like the pastor was perceived to be the greater threat.” 

women flipping off a crowd of proud boys
A protester flips the bird to a crowd of Proud Boys during a rally in Kalamazoo on Aug. 15, 2020. Fritz Klug

‘Getting the response right is critical’

In the weeks before the rally, residents, neighborhood association presidents, condominium representatives, and downtown economic authorities shared concerns in emails to city and police officials. 

Some provided open source research from a prominent national anti-hate organization about the Proud Boys’ background and tactics. 

Some asked for guidance, such as how to protect an adjacent, majority Black, neighborhood if the Proud Boys entered it. Likewise, community activists in another nearby neighborhood suggested an organized public defense plan.

Public information transparency, whether on a website or media announcements, “around what’s going on with the demonstration and the police response, can go a long way to informing people and building trust in the police,” said Michigan State’s Carter, the law enforcement intelligence expert.

No direct help was offered by city officials, however. What little guidance was given came late, and effectively said to turn the other cheek.

“Just as our own rights to speak freely and peacefully assemble are protected, so are those of people with whom we disagree,” Mayor David Anderson said in a statement issued by the city two days before the rally. “If a person or group comes to our community to spread a message that does not share our values, let it only serve to strengthen our resolve to become the city that we aspire to be.”

Anderson’s message was the culmination of the city’s response. For some, it created an environment without leadership or direction which, in the face of an incoming hate group with a record of violence, people like Dannison and others felt the need to step in.

When asked by NowKalamazoo about his approach, Anderson wrote in an email that ignoring “bullies” like the Proud Boys “is not a passive activity, it is a very intentional act to diminish the impact of those who seek to divide.” He referred all questions to Bridges.

According to the documents provided by the city, the majority of citizen concerns were emailed to the mayor, who in multiple interactions replied simply “we are monitoring it,” or “we are aware.”

“There’s no room for organizations like the Proud Boys to be here. Ever,” Nancy Arcadipone, a local property owner and landlord who emailed Anderson with concerns, said when asked about the response to her concerns. “I would have liked to see the Proud Boys run out of town, period. But I don’t think that happened.”

Linda Lesniak, who at the time was president of the Arcadia Condominiums, which abuts the park where the Proud Boys were to rally and Dannison had reserved, said she never got a response to specific concerns she raised.

She took proactive measures on her own, including having residents of the building move their vehicles from the parking lot next to the park. 

“You have to have the right police presence and coordinated city response. You need to have this organized. This is an active domestic violence group,” Lesniak said. “You don’t pretend you don’t need to do active, specific things.”

With no guidance from the city, Edison Neighborhood residents, business owners, and leaders had been organizing a response as well. An email awareness campaign was circulating with the warnings about the group, as well as pictures of hate symbols Proud Boys often display, in order to recognize them. There was also a six-step checklist to prepare the neighborhood. 

“The threat is what they intend to do in our broader community during and after” the rally, the checklist said. “Proud Boys have a history of descending on marginalized communities to harass, vandalize, assault, and recruit.” 

The checklist included talking to vulnerable youth beforehand in order to prevent recruitment; coordinating with neighbors to keep watch on the streets and protect potential Proud Boys targets; putting up signs and street art that claim the neighborhood on behalf of anti-hate sentiment; and, finding leaders to de-escalate when residents’ anger begins to boil over.

“It’s not outside the realm of possibility you would have individuals (from the Proud Boys) fan out into the neighborhoods to provoke a fight if the fight wasn’t had at the event they participated in,” said The Soufan Group’s Blazakis. 

For instance, on Jan. 4, 2021, Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio was arrested upon arrival in Washington D.C., on a warrant for destruction of property at a historic Black church. The month prior, after fighting with counter-protesters at a rally alleging election fraud, Tarrio and a Proud Boys contingent fanned out into the night, ripped down a Black Lives Matter banner from the church, and burned it in the street.

“It is a part of the Proud Boys playbook that they goad people into starting fights, or trip somebody, or elbow somebody. They show up in communities armed for assault,” said Normandin of the Anti-Defamation League, the national research organization focused on uncovering extremist organizations, which characterizes the Proud Boys as a hate group.

Yates, the University of Maryland radicalization researcher, said Proud Boys “are looking for opportunities to fight.”

“They portray themselves as defenders of Western civilization which is code for all kinds of xenophobia and everything else,” Yates said. “Their ability to physically engage in confrontation is central to their identity. It’s a major recruiting tool.”

Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association, wrote to concerned residents that the neighborhood’s community police officer assured them that there was “no information” that the Proud Boys planned to move into other neighborhoods. KDPS “will also be in attendance to keep the peace,” Taylor wrote. 

Kalamazoo police knew of the Edison neighbors’ concerns, the research about the Proud Boys’ history, and the plans to counter them – the email chain was forwarded to senior KDPS officials.

Downtown Kalamazoo’s economic development team was concerned as well, according to the documents provided to NowKalamazoo by the city and police. The Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership had already been monitoring social media posts when they were contacted by the Anti-Defamation League, which asked if the Proud Boys had applied for or been granted a permit to rally.

Andrew Haan, president of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership, a non-profit that has a nearly 20-year-old agreement with the city to manage the Arcadia Creek Festival Place, sent an email to city leaders asking for a meeting and guidance for a scenario it had never faced before. 

The Proud Boys had not requested use of Arcadia, but Dannison had – and was eventually granted a permit for an anti-hate rally and prayer vigil.

“Our hope is to balance free speech considerations, equitable access to public space, safety, and the values of our community members. It would be helpful to us to better understand how [city of Kalamazoo] would approach this at Bronson Park or another public space, so that we are meeting the above goals, and maintaining consistency with the City,” Haan wrote on Aug. 3. “Getting the response right is critical.”

a man yells toward a group of people in a video. a headline reads "video of initial physical confrontation with dispatch audio added.
Bodycam and phone footage shows violence as it broke out during an Aug. 15, 2020 rally in downtown Kalamazoo.

‘A pretty significant failure’

An Aug. 7 meeting with Haan and his team included a deputy city manager, a representative from the city attorney’s office, and Elzinga, who had been put in charge of coordinating on behalf of police.

According to one participant in the meeting and the internal police memo following it, the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership was never given explicit guidance for managing the park for the rally, so it followed its standard protocols.

Elzinga argued that no permit should be issued and no group should be prevented from accessing the park.

That’s a departure from how the park is managed, however. Permit applications are available online and provide for exclusive use during the day and time stated on the permit, according to the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership. Yet, Elzinga’s concerns were passed up the chain-of-command. Then-chief Karianne Thomas repeated it to city officials two days before the rally, in comments on a draft statement being circulated for city commissioners.

After the meeting with the downtown economic team, Elzinga did not convey Haan’s concerns and requests for support to top police officials, or provide any intelligence about the Proud Boys event that could help Haan’s preparation, according to Elzinga’s memo. By then, police’s research into the Proud Boys and their rally in Kalamazoo was well established.

Police did, however, raise concerns that taking a public stance on the Proud Boys would be akin to taking sides, and that using police to restrict public access around the rally would violate First Amendment rights to free speech. 

“During this meeting, I discouraged any language that would be drafted whether it be a news release or a written permit to not allow other groups to occupy this festival site,” Elzinga wrote in a memo to Thomas, current chief Coakley, and five other senior KDPS officials following the meeting. “The reason being is I do not want Public Safety to appear as if they were partial to one group and not the other. I think it would only appear that we are showing favoritism to one and attempting to hold back another.” 

Elzinga wrote that the deputy city attorney agreed.

“That sounds like trying to hide behind the broad First Amendment rights,” said Blazakis, the senior advisor at global intelligence and security consultancy The Soufan Group. 

These were talking points that found their way into internal police discussions and with city leaders anyway.

It appears to have led to the decision of an invisible police presence to begin the day of the rally as well, instead of a proactive approach to prevent likely violence that had worked for Kalamazoo law enforcement before.

In 2007, a collection of state and national hate group leaders, including representatives of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other groups, held a rally in the parking lot of what’s now police and city court headquarters on Crosstown Parkway. Police cordoned off the rally points with fencing and, with sheriff’s deputies on horseback, separated them from counter-protesters.

Video of the 2007 event shows shouting matches, but no reports of clashes. The speeches at that rally threatened violence against liberal politicians, railed against Black and Jewish people, and demanded the dominance of white European descendants as masters of the United States’ destiny and way of life. The counter-protesters, separated by fencing and law enforcement, held signs and yelled expletives. There was no physical violence.

It’s “Protest 101” to create physical and police barriers that don’t curtail free speech rights but impede the sort of violence deemed likely based on threat assessments, said Blazakis. “Seems like a pretty significant failure on law enforcement’s part” in 2020.

U.S. courts have agreed that there are limits to freedom of expression when a risk of violence is involved, and the government can intervene to a degree, according to Michael McDaniel, professor of constitutional law and director of the homeland security law program at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

“There are always going to be contrasting values that a city or a government has a right to enforce on its people,” McDaniel said. This includes a permitting process and cordoning off so-called ‘free speech zones’, regardless of the message of the rally organizer or counter-protest group. 

Just as warnings and concerns about the Proud Boys from residents and law enforcement investigators were mounting, KDPS leadership instead began to focus on Dannison.

Elzinga’s memo to police leadership eight days before the Proud Boys’ scheduled rally put the message and threats of counter-protesters on par with the Proud Boys, despite the lack of evidence, a mindset that seeped into the final days of preparation.

As the Operations Plan was being finalized, two days before the rally, Elzinga tasked Chamberlain with writing what would become the “situation” section, which set the tone and stage for police that day. 

The initial draft was straightforward, indifferent to the background of the groups, stating that Proud Boys would rally and three counter-protest groups would be there too. Elzinga then requests Chamberlain “add information on the First Congregational Church and approx. members who will be present.” Chamberlain’s final draft added the uncorroborated references to counter-protest violence, and omitted any reference to the research on Proud Boys violence that public safety had spent weeks collecting. 

“There’s clearly a failure in that operations plan,” said McDaniel. “The introduction to the operations plan has to advise whoever the responders are, in this case all law enforcement officers, what – and I use this as a military term – you want to know the forces who are arrayed against you. They are not providing a clear picture of your opponents here. If they are doing any open source intel, you can easily ascertain that they are attempting to incite hate and, with the Proud Boys, incite violence. They want others to throw the first punch. It is not a sophisticated concept.”

Also on Aug. 13, a memo that was cleared by police was sent by the city manager’s office to the mayor and city commission specifically referencing Dannison’s plans and communication with police, and did not mention any threats of violence. That same day, the city manager’s office circulated to the city attorney’s office and police a draft of an update to the city commission regarding plans, as well as two statements to be released – one from the city itself and the statement from Mayor Anderson. 

The city’s statement referred to “unconfirmed social media posts” and a “possible protest.” Police by then had been in contact with two Michigan Proud Boys members that confirmed the event but provided no additional information, and finalized planning based on their own research that the rally and counter-protest would almost definitely take place.

Meanwhile, Kalamazoo public safety was keeping the FBI, state police, and local law enforcement up to date, taking in additional leads, and continuing their research for their own preparation as well as to prepare Kalamazoo police leadership to inform city leaders.

Elzinga was to follow up with the two hotels that allegedly had reservation details for Proud Boys members, as well as talk to a senior Michigan Proud Boys member, the name and contacts for whom were provided by the FBI’s Ann Arbor office. 

“In our short dialogue with the Proud Boys VP, he would not disclose whether or not they would be marching or how many members would be present,” Elzinga wrote in an Aug. 13 email to Chamberlain. 

“I am not surprised,” Chamberlain responded. “The guy I was talking to clammed up too. Thanks for trying!”

On Aug. 14, Chamberlain, who had been coordinating with local police in Indiana, asked the Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center for help locating a South Bend resident who had been talking on social media about coming to Kalamazoo for the Proud Boys rally. This too was a dead end.

Chamberlain created a presentation submitted to police leadership on Aug. 12 and used to inform city leaders and the community at large. It said the Proud Boys: “demonstrate a potential nexus between these individuals or groups and individuals or groups engaged in criminal behavior.”

In the three-bullet slide about counter-protesters, it references Dannison “encouraging people to show up,” a statement from a Kalamazoo protest group member warning that the Proud Boys are “violent and going for blood,” and the likelihood of a “US-based Anti-Fascist group planning to counter-protest”. 

There was no mention of any history of or potential for violence from counter protesters.

Blazakis said there’s a three-part preparation process for events like this: Identify the people involved and the nature of the threat, analyze the threat, and then sort out the potential consequences.

“It sounds like perhaps Kalamazoo focused on the [law enforcement] vulnerabilities” but not the realistic threat that the Proud Boys event could lead to violence – which includes assuming past events elsewhere could be replicated in Kalamazoo, he said. “If you don’t have good information regarding the Proud Boys, what could the consequences look like? … Then strategize how to affect events: preventative measures to avoid conflict in the beginning. Then you go to mitigate and threat reduction.”

In what was Chamberlain’s final pre-rally message to police leadership, an email the morning of Aug. 15 to then-Chief Thomas: “Also, looks like a large trailer, possibly the Bikers for Trump, as Trump is plastered all over it, is on their way here. I’ve seen other posts where the proud boys state they’re on their way to Michigan as well.”

A birds-eye view of a group of people fighting, many of them holding U.S. flags
Aerial view of a fight that broke out between racist rally attendees and protesters Aug. 15, 2020.

Police put ‘at significant risk’

“When police officers who are on the front lines being deployed to the streets are provided faulty analysis, it puts them at significant risk,” Blazakis said about the Proud Boys rally in Kalamazoo. “One parallel is the events of Jan. 6.”

At least six Proud Boys members have been charged with crimes related to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol – where, as in Kalamazoo, law enforcement had limited physical presence and appeared to be unprepared for what was to come that day.

On Aug. 15, there was violence within minutes of the Proud Boys marching from a parking garage to the Arcadia Festival Place. While no injuries resulted, there were numerous fistfights between the Proud Boys and counter protesters. People on both sides carried weapons of some sort. Police said counter-protesters were armed with sticks, pipes and rocks, and Proud Boys used pepper spray. 

That violence could have been mitigated had police taken a different approach, the OIR Group report said. 

In particular, the report criticized police officials for not keeping physical separation between the protesters and counter protesters, as it did in the 2007 KKK rally, and not speaking with leaders of the protesters and counterprotesters at the beginning of the days’ events to establish police expectations. The report also said that public safety officers took actions, such as allowing the Proud Boys to march in the street but threatening arrest of counter protesters in the street, that led to perceptions that public safety was siding with the Proud Boys.

“While we understand KDPS’s concerns about the possibility of their presence being misconstrued as alliance with the Proud Boys, their mismanagement of the event ended up creating the very impression they sought to avoid in ways that also should have been predictable,” the report said. “Many on both sides were spoiling for a fight and given all the circumstances – including the Proud Boys’ penchant for provoking outrage amidst a community still hurting from the murder of George Floyd and struggling with an awakened sense of the impact of systemic racism – the violence between the two adversaries was in many ways a foregone conclusion.”

Who did what first remains in dispute, but both sides were clearly prepared for there to be violence. Fighting as well as verbal altercations continued after police showed up, as the Proud Boys turned back along downtown’s busiest roads toward Bronson Park, where speakers said their piece, and as they attempted to leave the nearby parking garage.

Almost immediately, city and public safety officials faced public criticism for their handling of their situation.

In the days and weeks that followed, the city initiated a multi-pronged process aimed at understanding what might have gone wrong – not only that day but across the summer of local protests against nationwide police assaults on Black people. 

City leaders also suggested local media needed to be better trained and have government-issued credentials. (In light of those claims by the city, NowKalamazoo co-organized trainings on journalist safety and First Amendment rights, which city officials were invited to attend and remain free to watch. The credentialing idea was fraught with legal risk and ultimately dropped.)

The city hired Bridges, the public information officer, to streamline messaging to the public and field questions from the media. The city commission initiated a review and approved a First Amendment Assemblies report that too focused on communication, including providing guidance to event organizers, legal observers, and media. 

One particular point, reiterated in the report as well as by city police leaders immediately after the Proud Boys incident, was the request of organizers to tell police about the size and logistics of an event. It’s not required, but extremely helpful to police planning,

“If you’re planning for an event, a law enforcement agency, the willingness and cooperation of those who are participating in the event absolutely has to be factored into your analysis based on the risk and threat posed by the actors who are there,” said Blazakis. “If the leadership have been reached out to and are not responding to law enforcement entreaties to know more about what they plan to accomplish, their path to walk, that to me is a red flag that cannot be ignored. That’s quite problematic.”

Taking this information, and applying it to the standard set in the First Amendment Assembly Report, police and city leadership should have taken a different approach in how they planned for and framed the threat to public safety, experts say.

When asked at a press conference two weeks after the rally if there were any lessons to be learned from Kalamazoo police’s planning for, monitoring, and dealing with the Proud Boys, Coakley, now the Public Safety chief, focused on the need for communication. 

“Many times we don’t get that communication, they tend to not communicate with law enforcement what their intentions are,” Coakley said. “So we can only use our best information from the intel that we gather from those groups.”

He did not, however, explain why police emphasized the alleged threat posed by the group that was most communicative and had the least history of violence, and all but ignored the threat from a hate group with a history of violence that refused to provide any useful information about its plans. 

The OIR report identified a number of contradictions and concerns, offering 40 recommendations.

“Elements of the KDPS operation remain puzzling to this day,” the OIR Group report said. Among its findings was that Kalamazoo police leadership were too defensive when presented with critique or suggestions, which in turn inhibits change.

“We found ourselves surprised by the consistency and vigor with which KDPS defended its actions, and by the seeming absence of robust self-assessment in the aftermath of such high profile events,” the report said. That was a main takeaway from the private and town hall sessions OIR Group held with members in the community as well: “a certain insularity, unease with transparency, and reluctance to acknowledge even the possibility of fault.” 

Police also defended the arrest of the MLive reporter, seemingly reneging on then-chief Thomas’ public apology in the days after the rally, the OIR Group report said.

The report also said that while there was no evidence that Kalamazoo police sided with the Proud Boys, it “noted seemingly biased language” when providing information to OIR Group, such as “calling the Proud Boys’ march “First Amendment rights” and the actions of the counter-protesters “civil disobedience,” and commenting on the restraint and coordination of the Proud Boys as they marched in military formation in direct contrast to the “aggression” of the counter-protesters.”

A police report issued in the days after the rally, as well as comments by City Commissioner Erin Knott, blamed counter-protesters – and specifically Dannison – for helping create the conditions for violence that day. 

“I think that only gave the Proud Boys the intention and the fuel they so desire. We know from researching the Proud Boys, they don’t start the fight, they finish the fight,” Knott said at the time.

Dannison continues to defend his actions.

“It’s unfortunate that this was one of the things that closed out my ministry. We had to pay attention to this stuff,” Dannison said, referring to the increasing role of far-right groups in the country. “They were trying to kidnap the governor. They were instructed by the president to ‘stand back and stand by’. And we saw the horror on Jan. 6. My commitment to resisting the creep of fascism in America is the same.”

Dannison said he and his family were targeted on social media and harassed for weeks after by Proud Boys supporters as well. None of that contributed to his leaving First Congregational Church earlier this year, he said. Rather, it was time for the family to prioritize his wife’s career after a decade of projects and initiatives he led at the church.

Public complaints about how police handled the summer of protests continued to mount, however. 

Thomas, who spent nearly three decades with KDPS, had her contract as chief terminated by the end of September 2020. City leadership, specifically City Manager Jim Ritsema, initially misled the community into believing Thomas resigned. 

Activists said they helped push out the chief, but any changes in how the city and police operate are pending the OIR Group report, more than a year after demands for policing reform were first taken to the streets.

A year later, questions about what took place that day and why remain unanswered.

“There didn’t seem to be a plan,” said Lesniak, the former head of the condominium building that overlooks the Arcadia park who reached out to police and city leaders ahead of the rally. “My reaction was that the Proud Boys were smart and know how to agitate. And we were not prepared for that.”

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