It has been weeks since protests first erupted around the world in response to the killing of George Floyd and police brutality. They stand out as notably larger and more widespread than other protests against racist killings in recent years as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained visibility. Over the past month, marches have taken place in more than 40 countries and 2,000 American cities, compared with 100 US cities in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Black teen Trayvon Martin.
Perhaps most striking is that this time, in the middle of a pandemic, there were more white participants than in previous Black Lives Matter protests. “It felt like I needed to do more than just try to make change through my teaching,” Tim, a 27-year-old white teacher in Seattle, told Vox. (Names have been changed throughout to protect the anonymity of the protesters.)
There is no simple answer as to why this moment has tipped the scales of activism and anti-racist action. But as Vox’s Sean Collins pointed out, the US has also hit an “exasperation point” in the pandemic: “The realities of illness, unemployment, polluted air and water, unequal access to education, and mass incarceration — compounded with the fear of being killed by one of your fellow Americans or by a mysterious and still unchecked disease — has life feeling particularly fragile and the world particularly dire,” Collins wrote.
It’s hard to say how long this surge in activism will last, or what it will look like going forward. But it feels like a new sense of responsibility among white allies and non-Black people of color has risen to the surface, at least for the time being. For some, this has translated to reading books about anti-racism. For others, it means attending protests for the first time in their lives. And yet systemic racism has been ingrained in the fabric of America since its founding, police violence against Black Americans dates back to when slavery was legal, and the Black Lives Matter movement has existed since 2013. Why did they choose to get involved now? And will their activism sustain past the current moment?
We spoke to five first-time protesters on what brought them out onto the streets and how they intend to sustain their activism.
“I’m actually part of a community of people who are trying to do something”
Vidya, 24, Stony Brook, New York
Vidya’s father was the first in her family to decide it was time to attend a protest. After viewing multiple videos that depicted instances of police brutality, he was inspired to get involved.
“I don’t know if he’s felt very strongly about social issues in the past, but something, like, really clicked for him this time, and he thought it was just disgusting and said we need to go out and let them know it’s not okay,” Vidya said.
Vidya also realized that being a passive supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement was simply not enough. Her younger sister found a protest in their neighborhood on Instagram that a lot of people were sharing, and her family prepared at the last minute to go. They brought personal protective equipment (PPE), made signs with Sharpies and cardboard, and drove five minutes from their home to the protest.
Initially, Vidya said she felt out of place among a crowd of young people who seemed to know each other. But that changed quickly as she took in the energy of the crowd and grew excited.
“I’m actually part of a community of people who are trying to do something,” she said.
Vidya, who is Indian, said her neighborhood lacks racial diversity — Stony Brook is 81.8 percent white — and that she did not expect people to care so much: “I was really, really surprised by the amount of people who turned out and how diverse the crowd was,” she said, noting that it was inspiring to see a lot of middle-aged people support the cause.
Years ago, Vidya said, she felt that the Black Lives Matter movement was “kind of polarizing.” She remembers in high school that people were not politically attuned, describing her town as “removed from reality.” Even before she attended the Black Lives Matter protest, Vidya feared that protesting would feel “useless” or like she didn’t belong, which is part of why she did not attend major events like the Women’s March in 2017. Now she feels more inclined to participate, and perhaps get involved with a register to vote effort.
“The really big thing was it’s just not enough to just feel like I support the cause,” she said. “You need to donate, you need to show up for it, you need to speak up in your personal sphere for it also because it is uncomfortable.”
“This time feels so different and like such a tipping point in our nation”
Stephen, 29, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Stephen, who’s white, grew up in Jackson, Alabama, a town with a population of around 5,000. It was a “very sheltered white environment,” he said. It also wasn’t uncommon to hear older people in town say the n-word. His family attended a Southern Baptist church every Sunday and Wednesday, and at one point, his mother worked there.
Stephen said is family would be surprised to know that he participated in the Black Lives Matter protests. “I know they do not agree at all with my views, so they would probably be pretty disappointed to know that I’m trying to be out there and supportive,” he said.
While Stephen said he has tried to stay educated in recent years on how to be an anti-racist, he felt like he needed to get involved by showing up at a protest this time. Initially he was concerned about protesting — his wife is a nurse, and they’re trying to limit their exposure to the coronavirus — but they ultimately decided that they needed to show their support.
Stephen said that as he protested, his “chest was tight” and his “eyes were burning with tears.” “Honestly, I’ve never really experienced anything like that,” he said. “I didn’t expect just, like, the surge of emotion and adrenaline and anger.”
Since the protests began, he has become more aware of city budgets and limited resources for Black and brown communities in Chattanooga. He said he has also been making an effort to read more work by Black authors and journalists. A friend of his started a Zoom book club, and they’re reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.
“This time feels so different and like such a tipping point in our nation,” Stephen said. “I know that the Black and brown communities across our country are not new to this, and this is not a new struggle for them or a new awareness for them, but I think this time is different because of the more involvement from the white communities.”
“Staying at home was just not an option”
Paco, 30, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Originally from Honduras, Paco attended a protest for the first time in the US after the video of George Floyd’s murder surfaced online.
“The video was a call to action that was very profound,” he said. “Staying at home was just not an option.”
Paco lives near a heavily trafficked street in Minneapolis, where a lot of damage occurred after some of the initial demonstrations. He could hear protesters from his home and saw people boarding up their windows, which made it easy for him to figure out where the protests were happening.
Being at the protests filled him with mixed emotions: He was pleased by the diversity of the protesters but filled with anger at the situation. “It was also very upsetting just that people had to be out there because the Minneapolis police killed this man,” he said.
Since protesting, Paco has started volunteering as a Spanish translator for food pantry customers; after supermarkets were destroyed in the protests, some neighborhoods have become food deserts.
Paco wants to attend a protest again. The civil unrest in the US right now reminds Paco of what he described as a “non-learning cycle” in Latin America, where he said there is a broken system because people keep voting for the same kinds of corrupt politicians.
“They keep making the same mistakes because they don’t look back at their history,” he said. “I hope that we don’t forget about this and go back to normal life.”
“It felt like I needed to do more than just try to make change through my teaching”
Tim, 27, Seattle, Washington
Tim said he has always cared about racial justice issues. As a middle-school teacher, he tries to integrate racism into his classroom discussions. But following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, he recognized that as a white person, that was not enough.
“It felt like I needed to do more than just try to make change through my teaching,” he said.
At a faculty meeting, the principal of Tim’s school, a Black woman, urged faculty to do something to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There was a protest later that day that some of my friends were going to, and I just felt that I had to physically show up at that point,” he said.
During the Seattle protest Tim attended, around 10,000 protesters marched down to City Hall, where a local organizer sat down with the mayor for a livestreamed conversation. The scale of the protest was surprising to him. Because of the pandemic, the protest was the first time he had been around a large group of people in months, and it felt empowering for this cause to be the reason.
Since this first protest, Tim has spent time trying to learn about the best places to donate money locally, as well as educating himself on police budgets and what defunding really looks like. In the past, he had been hesitant to attend protests because he did not know what impact he would have. But supporting a local organizer and seeing the crowd try to hold the mayor accountable changed his mind.
“It felt like, really, we were directly there backing policy change,” Tim said, “which felt cool to me.”
“It’s not enough just to be not racist”
Gina, 43, Sunnyvale, California
Gina and her husband, who are both white, felt that they needed to educate their kids — 8 and 12 — on what’s going on right now. Her older son saw the murder of George Floyd on the news, which sparked a family conversation about police brutality and systemic racism. That’s when they decided to attend a protest as a family.
“With everything happening, we felt that it was important to help them understand the importance of speaking up for others and to model what peaceful action looks like,” Gina said.
Gina and her husband coordinated with other families who have children around the same age and decided to participate in a peaceful protest organized by students from their local high school: “After we told them what happened, we discussed how we felt that it’s important to speak up for people who don’t have a voice or don’t feel like they’re being heard,” she said. They first found out about the protest through a flyer that was circulated on a neighborhood forum.
“It was surreal. It was emotional for me to hear stories of others, to have my children participate in something that is a moment in history, to teach them what it means to have a voice, and to hear others who haven’t been heard for so long,” Gina said.
But learning doesn’t begin and end with one protest. Gina has been trying to stay educated by reading recommended books and learning about racial injustice in America. “Basically, realizing it’s not enough just to be not racist, to find ways to be anti-racist, and to educate myself on some of these other issues moving forward,” she said.