Voices of protest, crying for change, ring across US

Claire Galofaro

UNITED STATES (AP) – They are nurses and doctors, artists, students, construction workers, government employees; black, brown and white; young and old.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in big cities and tiny towns in every United States (US) state – and even around the world – to protest the killing of George Floyd, who died after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he pleaded for air.

They said they are protesting police brutality, but also the systematic racism non-white Americans have experienced since the country’s birth. Many said they marched so that one day, when their children asked what they did at this historic moment, they will be able to said they stood up for justice despite all risks.

Most said they do not support the violence, fires and burglaries that consumed some of the demonstrations, but some understand it: these are desperate acts by desperate people who have been screaming for change for generations into a world unwilling to hear them.

Yet suddenly, for a moment at least, everyone seems to be paying attention.

About half of American adults now said police violence against the public is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, up from about a third as recently as September last year, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Only about three in 10 said the same in July 2015, just a few months after Freddie Gray, a black man, died in police custody in Baltimore.

Some demonstrators describe losing friends and family to police bullets, and what it feels like to fear the very people sworn to protect you. Their white counterparts said they could no longer let their black neighbours carry this burden alone.

Some describe institutional racism as a pandemic as cruel and deadly as the coronavirus. One white nurse from Oregon who travelled to New York City to work in a COVID-19 unit saw up close how minorities are dying disproportionately from the disease because of underlying health conditions wrought by generational poverty and lack of healthcare. So after four days working in the ICU, she spent her day off with protesters in the streets of Brooklyn.

The stories of these protesters, several of them told here, are thundering across the country, forcing a reckoning with racism.

Nedu Anigbogu rides a horse with demonstrators in a rally in San Francisco’s Mission District. PHOTOS: AP
Assistant Chief Jeff Maddrey takes a knee during a solidarity rally in New York

THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO PROTEST

Even at 36, Jahmal Cole recites the pledge from his pre-school graduation: “We the class of 1988, determined to be our best at whatever we said or do, will share a smile and lend a hand to our neighbour …”

“It really became the mission statement of my life,” saids Cole, the founder of a Chicago organisation called My Block, My Hood, My City. He has started a relief fund for small business in low-income neighbourhoods damaged in protests. Youth in his organisation’s mentoring program are helping with the clean-up, sweeping up glass and erasing graffiti.
He’ll march. He’ll shout and express his anger. But he draws the line at destruction.

“We got residents who got to go 20 minutes away to get some milk right now,” he told a crowd assembled for a peace rally and food give-away in Chicago’s largely African American Chatham neighbourhood. Its commercial district was hard hit by looting.

Members of the multiracial crowd nod and clap. Many of them know this man. They’ve heard his constant push for neighbours to work together to make change.

“Ain’t no structure in the gangs, and that’s why there’s all this shooting. Ain’t no structure to the protests, and that’s why there’s all this looting,” he wrote in a column published recently in the Chicago Tribune. And he wants to build on the momentum. “I want to make sure we’re protesting by calling our local officials … by going to the school board,” he told the crowd. “There are other ways to protest.”

YOUTH ARE IMPATIENT NOW

Growing up as a black Muslim in the racially and religiously homogeneous state of Utah, Daud Mumin always knew he was treated differently.

He vividly remembers his 15th birthday, when his mother, an immigrant from Somalia, was pulled over for speeding — a routine traffic stop that turned into an hour-long interrogation, spoiling his special dinner.

And he recalls the question that none of his white classmates were asked on the first day of AP French in his junior year, “Are you in the right class?”

The Black Lives Matter movement gave Mumin a place where he felt at home, and the protests around the world since Floyd’s death give him hope that change is coming.

“It’s beautiful to see such large and consistent outcomes and turnouts in these protests,” said Mumin, a 19-year-old college sophomore double majoring in Justice Studies and Communication. “When I was 14 years old, I never thought a world like this would exist.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s not angry and impatient. He wants to see the movement lead to defunding of police departments. His Twitter handle, “Daud hates cops,” shows his resentment.

He said protesters shouldn’t go into demonstrations intentionally trying to cause violence, but also can’t sit back and wait for the government to make things better.

“What is it going to take for us to finally crumble these oppressive systems? If peace is not the answer, then violence has to be,” Mumin said. “America has finally had enough of waiting for action to be taken. The youth are not tired. The youth are impatient now. I think we’re done waiting around and sitting around for justice to come about.”

I FEEL RAGE

Becca Cooper travelled from Oregon to New York in early April, taking leave from her job as a critical care flight nurse to help combat the coronavirus pandemic seizing the city.

She walked into an unfair fight – one afflicting certain communities more than others. “In the last seven weeks, I’ve had three white patients,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that New York isn’t less than one per cent white.”

“We all read in the newspaper that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting communities of colour. It is so in your face in the ICU.”

The experience has highlighted for Cooper frustrations with the healthcare system – “I see it every day, and it’s devastating.” It also fuelled her disgust when she watched video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.

That anger is what brought this white nurse into the streets of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood last week, where she marched with hundreds of protesters in her light blue medical scrubs.

“I feel rage,” she said. “I feel sadness. I feel frustration. I feel disbelief. I became a nurse to save as many lives as possible. I would like to believe that someone who chose to be a law officer, a police officer, would have the same feeling.

“I feel so frustrated. I’m not out here working every day to save as many lives as possible so that police officers can choose to take those lives.”

I KNEEL WITH Y’ALL

The Brooklyn intersection was crammed with thousands of demonstrators, a massive rally to protest police brutality just days after George Floyd died. Police were mixed in with the crowd.

“We implore you! Please!” a protester said with a bullhorn, talking directly to the officers.

“Take a knee in solidarity with us.”

Assistant Chief Jeff Maddrey did, and so did a line of officers with him. The crowd lit up in a chorus of cheers as he spoke into the bullhorn. “Real talk,” he said to the crowd. “I respect your right to protest. All I’m asking is for you to do it with peace. I kneel with y’all because I don’t agree with what happened. Listen, y’all are my brothers and sisters.”

Maddrey, who is black, is a veteran officer now in charge of the NYPD’s Brooklyn North division, which encompasses a large, diverse swath of the borough. It has seen widespread unrest in the weeks since Floyd’s death; the Brooklyn native blames generations of inequality and tension within law enforcement and the community.

“The reason I took a knee was to start bringing about peace and unity and healing between members of the police department and members of the community,” he said.

Maddrey said he thinks the NYPD should use this as an opportunity to meet with black community leaders and improve relations.

“I think we just need to increase our positive contacts where, you know, young men, young black men, people of, you know, of all communities to feel safe with their police department,” he said.

He stopped short, however, of suggesting specific changes in police training and policy. “There are things, a lot of things, that the police department can push over to other agencies and should push over to other agencies. And if they take away certain responsibilities that we don’t have to do anymore and they’re going to fund another agency to do that, then me, personally, I’m not against it,” he said.

BLACK POWER … EXISTS EVERYWHERE

Nedu Anigbogu’s parents wanted more for their children, and so they immigrated from Nigeria in the 1990s. They raised Nedu and his two older brothers in the San Francisco suburb of El Cerrito.

Today his father is a lawyer and his mother is preparing to take the bar exam.

Nedu, now 20, is majoring in cognitive science and plans to work in artificial intelligence (AI).

He recalls his mother taking him and his brothers aside after Trayvon Martin, an African American teen, was fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012. She warned them that people will treat them differently, because of their race.

“At first I felt the confusion,” he said. “Then there was sad acceptance.”

Anigbogu wants convictions for the police who killed Floyd, as well as Breonna Taylor, an African American emergency medical technician who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police while asleep in her own home.

He wants better police training. He wants to end the legal doctrine of qualified immunity that shields police officers from lawsuits.

The incoming senior at the University of California, Berkeley had signed petitions and donated money to the family of George Floyd, but he felt a duty to protest in person. So on June 3, he joined what would become a 10,000-person march through San Francisco’s Mission District.

Someone gave him a horse to ride, so he did.

“To see a black queen on a horse, a black king on a horse, that you’re showing you are rising above it all and that black power exists, and it exists everywhere,” Anigbogu said.