‘I Knew That I Couldn’t Stay Quiet’
Millions of Americans took part in street demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A year later, first-time protesters reflect on what happened — and what is next.,
Credit…Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Last summer, millions of Americans took to the streets after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, taking part in what would become the largest protest movement in U.S. history. Many participated in marches and demonstrations for the first time in their lives. From eight first-time protesters, here are reflections on what they did last summer, how this has affected them in the year since and what lies ahead. Their interviews have been edited and condensed.
Oluwatoyin Keji Akinmoladun, 23
Last May, Ms. Akinmoladun, who had never attended a protest, decided to organize one. By the end of that weekend, she had led a demonstration of hundreds, shielded herself from pepper spray and been held for several hours in a jail cell.
I understood later on, this does take a toll on you. Like, this isn’t something you can achieve in one day. And you don’t know when the outcome is going to be.
Because if you’re just being angry all the time, like I was, it is completely draining.
I look back on it and just think: We were really united at that time. Like, everyone, all different states, everywhere, we were really united. I still have strong feelings about it, even get anxiety about it. Any protest I plan, I still have anxiety about it. I don’t know, a part of me just wants it to be over with, the protests. I want the protests to be over with, I want our demands to be met. Like, I just want everything to be over with so I don’t have this heavy, heavy feeling.
I have changed my mind on protesting. Now I’m thinking, protesting is not enough. What more can we do? What other steps can we take? Because protesting has been around for so many years? And if it hasn’t changed since Martin Luther King, what can we do now? You know, do we have to — I don’t want to say, destroy the city, but is that what it’s come to?
Berkeley Springs, W.VA.
Brian D. Tucker, 53
Mr. Tucker is one of the few Black people in his small town, a place he has come to love since moving there seven years ago. In September, he was among several dozen people to attend a Black Lives Matter rally there. Hundreds showed up to counterprotest.
Everything that I thought was going to happen didn’t happen. And the things that I didn’t even think of happening happened. They had such a large turnout of people who were for Trump, it almost seemed like it was a Trump rally. And they basically drowned out every speaker we had.
I’ve been told that I’m trying to push an agenda. I don’t do that because I’m not trying to suffocate people. But if you have a different view, we ought to be able to talk about the views and see how it makes it better for everybody.
I can go into a certain establishment and I get the two stares. The stares of, you know, “I don’t like this person,” and then there’s the other stare of like, “What the hell is that?” You know, like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a Black person. I still speak just as openly with anybody who wants to approach me. Of course, I don’t have Black Lives Matter on my vehicle, I don’t have it tattooed on my arm or put on my clothing. I just don’t want to have to put the cross hairs on my back like that.
I’m here in America. There is no shooting of Black people here in this town. But it’s all around me. The chances of it happening, well, when you only have four Black people, let’s hope it doesn’t happen. But if it does, I don’t think there’s going to be a rally. I don’t think there’ll be a riot. Because this is a small town, it’s going to be swept underneath the rug. It won’t even make the news.
Dawn Dailey, 45
In the early months of the pandemic, Ms. Dailey was working out of a mutual aid tent, packing bags of snacks, water and hand sanitizer to give to homeless people in Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park. But that park became a battleground in early June, as protesters tried to set up an occupied zone and law enforcement cracked down.
I was out there and I wasn’t even protesting. I was just trying to help. There were protests there. And I was Maced in the face. And I feel like that was like one of the turning points for me to make the actionable decisions to be not just, you know, support.
I’m realizing that I can’t just be supportive, but I can help protect the protesters. Because I’m older, because I’m in my 40s. And I’m a mother.
It is not something I would have expected to have happened to me. I mean, I was a Sunday school teacher. I was an Army wife.
We had a protest as a Wall of Moms, with the overall Black Lives Matter protests. They were Macing us. And they were tear-gassing us directly in the face. I had been given a mask for my protection, and a hard hat. My hard hat was knocked off my head because a federal police officer threw a blast ball explosive so hard at my head that it knocked my hard hat off my head. But I still kept on and I was just protesting, locked in arms with other moms, wearing yellow. I was in yoga pants and yellow, for goodness sakes, that’s all I had on.
I totally felt my relationship with government change. I totally felt abused by the system that was there to protect us, and they were abusing us. And I had been part of the system, right?
Tameka Stigers, 40
After Michael Brown was killed in 2014, Ms. Stigers wanted to join the protests in Ferguson, Mo., just a few miles away. But understanding how that might have presented difficulties at work for her husband, a white police officer, she reluctantly stayed away.
Last May, we’re driving back from our little corona-break getaway and hear it on the radio. Then of course, we’re going to the phones and seeing the video like: Are you serious? This is what happened? I knew that I couldn’t stay quiet. I had to get out there and protest. And I told my husband: “You know what? I love you. I respect you. But I can’t sit still.” And he understood.
I had a spark of optimism. “Maybe we’re going to be on the verge of some spread of mass civil disobedience, and we’re going to get to a point where there will be some change.”
My husband came, with my daughter, my sister, we all went and we marched. And it wasn’t until after marching that I’m like, “What change did I effect? What did I really show up to do? What did it mean marching down the street? What did that do?” I can’t say that it did much.
We still have police murders. I don’t know, I’m very conflicted. Part of me, I don’t want people to stop showing up. But I don’t know what it changes. I mean, there are times when people go down to the St. Louis County Jail, and they march. And then they just, just go home. They go home.
I feel like things, they’re getting worse. To truly get some change, I feel like there’s going to be another Civil War.
What are we really doing? What is it that we really want? The things we really want and desire and need, it seems like it’s damn near impossible to have happen. So you just have to figure out how to gain some sort of leverage in your own small little world where you are, and try to effect change there.
Boca Raton, Fla.
Quinton Desamours, 19
A day after attending his first protest last summer, Mr. Desamours took a marker and wrote “BLM” on the face mask he planned to wear to work at a Publix grocery store. A store manager, citing corporate policy against messages on clothing, sent him home. Mr. Desamours tweeted about it and immediately became a national news story.
I was racking my brain all hours of the day trying to figure out, like, “What do I do next?” I thought that if I didn’t do anything, you know, people were going to look at me as some kind of fraud or something. But my mom just continuously told me, “You don’t have to feel this pressure to carry the world on your shoulders.” She was like, “Sometimes you just make a statement, do what you need to do, and sometimes that’s the end of it.” She said, “Throughout history, you know, people build on what others have done.”
Going through something like that, there’s a piece of innocence that gets taken away from you that you can’t ever really get back.
You learn what’s right, and what’s wrong, as a child. But all of a sudden, now, when you get older, it’s like, “Aah, you know, politics. Business.” You’re not allowed to say this, you’re not allowed to do this, you’re not allowed to stand up for this, you’re not allowed to say what you feel, because you’re in this specific setting.
I think that that’s really the moment that I realized, you know, how to play that game in the real world.
You’re never going to beat it playing by your own rules. You have to get in there and get crafty. Not sacrificing your morals or anything like that, of course. But, you know, you just have to know how to play it.
Taylor Huestis, 28
Mr. Huestis, a banker in Nashville, had already begun rethinking parts of the white conservative worldview that had surrounded him in his childhood. But his political conversion accelerated last June after he attended a massive march in Nashville, which was organized by six teenage girls.
I looked around, and I saw people that I recognized, people from high school and college, but then there were a lot of faces that were new to me. But listening to them speak — either in the speeches that they gave or just overhearing conversations in passing — I can tell that they are people who I had a much more extensive foundational agreement with than the people who would have been their counterpart at a Trump rally.
I actually went to the Trump rally when he came and spoke at Municipal Auditorium in, I think, 2015. He was this cartoonish figure, and he was saying these crazy things. But I wanted to see what the turnout would look like.
I definitely knew the people. These are the people I grew up with. These are my neighbors. These are my cousins. These are people I work with, people I went to school with.
I feel like the anger at the Trump rally was very, you know, “white replacement,” “the immigrants are going to come and take our jobs,” “they’re going to change all of the Christian values that you grew up with,” “everything that you know and love in America is going to change and be different.” And at the Black Lives Matter march, it wasn’t so much in anger, but like a righteous fury. Here we are again, virtually nothing’s changed. There’s still disproportionate policing in minority communities, the level of force against minorities is drastically higher.
I think the anger and the vitriol that is there at Trump rallies is just going to get overwhelmed by the youth movement that is coursing through America at the moment. The youth of the country, like these girls who organized this protest, gave me some pretty foundational hope for the future of this country.
Eleaqia McCrae, 20
One evening last May, Ms. McCrae and her sister decided to join a rally in downtown Salem. Two and a half hours after they arrived, the police tried to disperse the crowd, using tear gas and other munitions. Ms. McCrae was hit in the chest and the eye by what she said were rubber bullets, leaving her with lasting vision damage. (In court documents, the city has denied injuring her.)
It was just the worst pain I could ever experience. Despite the emergency room giving me medicine to try to stop the pain. It was unbelievably painful.
I have an appointment on Thursday, so I’m still doing this. It’s a lot of days, a lot of time. The doctor would take pictures of my eye every time and kind of hope that it was going to get better. I had this hole, from the damage and everything. And we’d watched in the picture: the hole, it looks OK, it’s staying the same. And then one week, he saw it getting worse. And then he says, “I don’t want to tell you this, but we are going to have to get surgery.” And I just look at this picture. It’s like this huge rip, a huge hole, everything looks just so out of place.
I literally was empty-handed standing there. And there’s no way to twist it to make it seem like I was a real threat. If that can happen while I’m trying to be there to just witness change then like, what else is there? If something so innocent can be met with such violence, I don’t know what there is to do.
Someone actually said something very beautiful to me. They said, “It’s good that you went because you took someone’s pain that night.” At first I was like, I don’t really know what to say to that. This whole time, I haven’t felt like what happened to me was empowering. I haven’t felt like I made a change. I haven’t felt that way at all. But when he said that, that I took someone’s pain that night, it just was like an eye opener. That was going to happen to someone. It wasn’t anything I did. It wasn’t anything I could have controlled. I was there. I was Black. It was the police.
Suud Olat, 31
A native of Somalia who spent the first 20 years of his life in a Kenyan refugee camp, Mr. Olat came to America in 2012. Three years ago, he became a U.S. citizen. Last year he made an unsuccessful run for Minneapolis City Council. He was in the middle of his campaign when George Floyd was killed.
Huge debate, huge debate in most of the Somali community, especially the elders. They’ve been saying, like: “You never know what will happen. You don’t have to protest. These police are deadly. So do not go to protest.” My mom, my dad, my family members, friends will tell you: “These police use grenades, they have all kinds of equipment that they have when they see the protesters. So do not go.” But I follow my guts and say, “You know, Suud, you can’t run for City Council for Minneapolis and watch videos of people protesting your city. No, no, no, you can’t do that.” Then I go.
I think I went to protests for the entire summer from May, June, July, I think all the way. Going to the governor’s mansion, going to the mayor.
We have our own, you know, problems with the police, too. Many still believe until something significant, something fundamental changes, this thing will continue. That’s what happened in May, this year, when Derek Chauvin was found guilty. That changed some perceptions. Because they think: “OK, this is the first. Maybe it will continue and the police will stop doing these things.”
Some people think, “These people are bringing more harm than good to Minneapolis, instigators are coming from outside Minnesota who are burning and looting those places.” But I believe I was doing the right thing, because protesting is a fundamental right. In some other countries, you cannot even protest. So those are some things that I do not take for granted.
There’s a system if you protest, and if you get arrested, you know, there’s a system that is a judiciary, an independent judiciary. But in other countries, executive, judiciary and legislators — they’re all the same. And you may get jail if you protest. In America, it’s been two years that I’ve been a citizen, and I’m running for office at the same time protesting day and night. And still I’m free.