When one of Bloomington, Indiana’s most prominent Black activists filmed a harrowing encounter by men who allegedly threatened to hang him, locals held a protest in his defense. But that same Monday night, the protest was met with a car plowing through demonstrators.
Bloomington, like many American cities, is undergoing a public reckoning over racism. One Bloomington incident made national news this week, after activist Vauhxx Booker shared videos of a group of white men attacking him in the woods on July 4 and pinning him to a tree. Booker claimed the men had accused him and his friends of trespassing, and threatened to “get a noose.” On Monday, Bloomington activists held a rally condemning the attack. Near the end of the protest, however, two people in a red car drove toward the demonstrators and, after a verbal confrontation, accelerated, hitting multiple people and driving away with a woman on the hood.
Even before the attack on Booker, Bloomington was grappling with racial justice. The city of approximately 85,000 is home to Indiana University Bloomington, but is overwhelmingly white. Some of the city’s racial politics came to the fore last year with the revelation that a member of a white supremacist group operated a regular stall in the city’s farmer’s market.
The racial justice protests that swept the country after the death of George Floyd in May also gave rise to new scrutiny on racist incidents in Bloomington. At least three incidents made headlines in early July, the group Black Lives Matter Bloomington noted in a statement. The group pointed to a July 1 boating incident in which a group of Black college students accused another group (which was flying a Trump flag on their boat) of racial profiling. On July 3, a local basketball star accused an off-duty Bloomington Police officer of racial profiling for stopping him and asking for ID while the Black man walked in his own neighborhood.
Abby Ang, an activist whose group No Space for Hate previously organized in the farmer’s market fallout, said a new wave of Bloomington protests has mobilized many community members. A June protest organized by Black students at the city’s Indiana University Bloomington drew an estimated 7,000 people, Ang said.
“That large protest was very well-received, and managed to go on despite lots of rumors in the area about antifa being bussed in,” she told The Daily Beast.
That said, some tension has lingered. “Smaller protests, however, have met some more resistance,” she said, noting a protest against police brutality outside the city courthouse, which was broken up by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
Booker’s disturbing July 4 videos appear to highlight just how much work remains for Black Lives Matter activists. The clips, uploaded in multiple parts to Facebook, showed a group of white men pinning Booker, who is Black, to a tree in the woods. The men accused Booker and his friends, who are white, of trespassing. In the video, one man makes a racist comment about Booker, calling him “nappy-headed,” and referred to Booker and his friends as “stupid fucking liberal fucks.” Booker also claimed one man wore a hat with a Confederate flag, that one threatened to “get a noose,” and that the group made “white power” comments, although those comments do not appear in the video.
The videos, which went viral, inspired a Monday night protest in Booker’s defense. Nate Rosenbloom, who attended the rally, said the atmosphere was largely relaxed.
“There were a number of Black Lives Matter speakers and people from the community speaking,” Rosenbloom told The Daily Beast. “There was a little tension because we thought there might be some counterprotesters, but nobody showed up. Everyone was relieved. It seemed like we weren’t going to need the medics or the security people who were there to protect us.”
Rodney Root, another attendee, said the protest was peaceful “up until the car incident happened.”
Root captured some of that on video that showed a red Toyota accelerating away from the protest with a woman on the hood and a man clinging to the mirror.
In a statement, Bloomington Police appeared to place the blame on protesters, saying “an electric scooter had been left in the roadway in the eastern-most lane of travel. A red Toyota passenger car had approached the scooter and a male passenger of the car had gotten out and thrown the scooter out of the lane of travel. A 29 year-old woman then approached the vehicle and stood in front of it with her hands on the hood of the car. The vehicle then began to accelerate, causing the woman to go up onto the hood of the car. Another individual then grabbed the car and clung to the side of it as it accelerated rapidly northbound on Walnut Street.”
Root and other witnesses gave more details. Savannah Pearlman had been working on her apartment balcony which overlooks the street where protesters were gathered. As the crowd began to disperse at the conclusion of the event, some blocked off the road with bikes and scooters, apparently to make room for people to exit, she said. Activists directed traffic onto neighboring streets, and drivers complied, sometimes grumpily, she said.
Then the red Toyota approached, “refusing to go left or right, directly into the protesters,” Pearlman said. It became “basically a game of chicken. The protesters were standing their ground.”
Root said the driver was a woman in her 50s or 60s, accompanied by a man of the same age. “The car approached one of the volunteers on an electric scooter and edged up close enough to bump it,” he said. “The man left the scooter in front of the car and got out of the way.”
The couple exited the car, moved the scooter, and yelled at protesters, Pearlman said. “Then the driver got back in, revved the engine into them a little bit to try and get them out of the way, then just floored it,” she said. She said the car hit at least four people, including the pair who remained on the car as it accelerated away. The woman who landed on the hood was carried two blocks before the car made a sharp turn, shaking her off and driving away.
“In no way was the car surrounded, threatened or intimidated,” Root said.
Pearlman and Rosenbloom said the attack clearly was not accidental. “It would’ve been impossible to get out of the car, confront the people, get back in the car, rev the engine and accelerate toward them” accidentally, said Rosenbloom.
Police on Tuesday said they were looking for the car and its occupants.
“The 35 year-old man that had clung to the side of the vehicle suffered abrasions to his arms as a result of falling from the vehicle,” the department said in a statement. “The 29 year-old woman that had been on the hood was said to have been knocked unconscious and suffered a laceration to her head. She was transported to the hospital by ambulance for treatment of her injuries.”
Ang, the No Space for Hate organizer, said some community members had rallied around the car attack victims, helping with their hospital bills. But, she noted, some comments on local news reports “show that there are a LOT of people who think nothing about making threats of driving through protesters and running them over.”
The incident, and the conflicts that inspired it, “prove that Monroe County is no utopia,” she noted. “A lot of white folks are becoming aware of this fact very quickly. No one thought that a Charlottesville could happen in our town, but I think we need to remember that we're not any more special than other towns just because we're Bloomington.”