Wednesday, June 10, 2020

How America's Protests are Changing

Sujata Massey

This was supposed to be America’s summer of isolation. Actions by the Minneapolis police, who asphyxiated George Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 in a store, changed that. People were suddenly gathering more than 9 to a group. As protests spread from Minneapolis to hundreds of towns across the country, a collective voice arose naming other Black people killed by police in situations that appear to be homicide. Most commonly, citizens began demanding fair investigations into the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in March, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta a few days ago.

I used to live in Minneapolis, and most of my family members are still there, two of them living in ground zero, where they smelled fires every night, even through closed windows. They’ve lost their bank and post office and many more community businesses to destruction and arson, some of which has been linked to enemies of the Black Lives Matter movement. And Minneapolis citizens are suffering all kinds of abuse from the local police and Minnesota Safety Patrol. Law enforcement slashed tires cars parked in a K-Mart lot near a peaceful protest, and also some cars parked near Little Earth, an urban Indian reservation.

I feel the nearness of the protests in Washington, another hot spot that's about 35 miles away. Here the police and national guard and other forces have used chemical weapons and rubber-coated bullets to disperse the crowds. Police and the National Guard and Trump's  President Trump approved the teargassing of peaceful protestors gathered near the White House, in order for him to pose with a Bible outside a nearby church. Protestors are being hit with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber 

In Baltimore, we’ve had damaging protests in past years; but so far, the city’s political reaction has been mostly peaceful. It is much more muted than the reaction in 2016 when Freddie Gray was killed by our own city's police officers; how they did it was unclear, because they'd driven off in the van with him still alive.

My neighborhood in North Baltimore, Roland Park, is majority—but not entirely—white. The street I live on is probably the city’s most diverse in terms of race, age, and income. Six excellent public and private schools in the area mean a lot of families are here, and when an activist in the education community announced there would be a student-led demonstration in Roland Park, the plan drew conflicting reactions in the online neighbors’ forum known as Next Door. What does it mean to be a white person, protesting violence against blacks in a neighborhood that up through the 1960s enforced covenants prohibiting anyone but WASPS the right of residence? And after having witnessed the wide damage done during Freddie Gray's death, was it an act of social responsibility to be in a protest? And how about gathering in public with continuing COVID-19 risks?

Many in the neighborhood were eager to join in the action, pledging to make signs and wear masks. But more doubts arose. Some wrote that Roland Park didn’t have a right to protest because it was a white neighborhood. Another person I spoke to said that he mourned George Floyd’s death, but he feared an organized protest would bring looting and violence to the neighborhood. Anything could happen; we’d seen that on CNN.

I walked to the protest by myself, on a warm Tuesday afternoon, dressed in black, as many of the protesters had also chosen. We were supposed to make signs and I didn’t have a sign board, so I went without anything to hold overhead. However, I saw many people made signs out of flattened delivery boxes, which are so plentiful because of the corona virus quarantine.

The signs said things like:

I understand I can’t understand, but I’m with you

White Silence=Violence

Class of 2020, Please Vote!

and of course:

Black Lives Matter

As I walked toward the heart of our neighborhood—the intersection of Roland Avenue with Northern Parkway, where the posh boys’ school, Gilman, faces St. Mary’s Seminary—I became part of a fast-flowing stream of people who seemed eager to see old classmates and neighbors after months apart. Masks stayed on, but distances moved a great deal closer than the suggested six feet. But that was the only rule I saw being broken, unless you count the people moving together to block off car access to Roland right at 5:15, when we dropped to one knee and remained silent for nine and a half minutes, the time that it took to kill George Floyd.

The exciting thing about a protest at evening rush hour, when a thousand people have changed the face of a normally quiet intersection. Cars honked, and we waved at them as they raised fists out of windows. A man called from his truck, "Viva la revolution!" Surely the young children in strollers could not understand what it was all about—nor should their parents have told them too much. Our reality is far too frightening for a child to absorb. Three police cars were present, but I didn’t see the officers ever get out. There was a sense of jubilation running through much of the crowd; a sense of relief at seeing so many others who wanted social change.

Then, I brought my gaze in closer. I watched a young African American woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty passionately cry out, “No Justice” through her mask. She was leading a call-and-response that took off successfully for a few minutes. As she finished, I realized that she was weeping. An older woman recognized her and embraced her.

So much for social distancing. Love was needed more than anything.

1 comment:

  1. It must be very difficult for you as you watched the chaos erupt near your Minneapolis family. The violence of the protests was so far greater than anyone could have predicted.