“Do you want to go to a protest?”
I instantly said yes, despite my guttural reaction being no.
An inner voice was yelling, “You idiot! We are in the middle of a pandemic, and you want to be in a mob of 1,000s of people?!?!”
I know myself, and I know this voice was just masking the churning sea of “what ifs.” What if a riot broke out? What if I got tear gassed, or even arrested? I have very sensitive eyes and certainly would not fare well in jail.
I acknowledged those fears, and it hit me, this is the whole point.
I freely go out and about every day, and the idea of getting pinned to the ground, arrested, or even shot never crosses my mind. Yet, there are people who feel like that as soon as they walk out the door. The systematic racism imbedded deep in the United States justice system has instilled this fear into people of color because, well, they do need to be afraid.
- Nearly 13% of the population is Black, yet they account for 38% of total inmates.
- Black people are 2 ½ times more likely to be killed by the police than white.
- Black people are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites.
I’d love to dive into the racial disparity in the prison system, but I’d recommend watching 13th instead of reading my attempt of condensing thousands of pages into a couple paragraphs.
Being afraid to go to a protest is a result of a white privilege I didn’t know I had, so I strapped on my fanny pack, tied up my sneakers and headed out.
My pod of friends joined a few thousand fellow protestors at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn for a special memorial for George Floyd, led by his brother Terrence. There were infants, senior citizens, a whole color palette of ethnicities, and even three Franciscan priests who seemed to be constantly posing for photos, all waiving signs, standing side by side in a peaceful unison. Call and response chants would breakout. “No Justice….. No Peace!” “What’s his name?…… George Floyd!” “What’s her name?…. Breonna Taylor!” “What do we want?……. Justice! When do we want it?….. Now!” “Black lives matter (clap, clap… clap clap clap)”
Sometimes I would be in between two different chants, and saying something different than my neighbor stressed me out. Or, two groups would be saying the same thing, but at slightly different times. As a dancer, rhythm and unison has been ingrained into my muscle fibers, and coping with the mismatched tempos and words flustered me more than I care to admit.
People were walking around with hand sanitizer and masks- we are in the midst of a pandemic after all. It was comforting that nearly everyone had a mask on apart from an odd man who chose to sport it on his forehead. I’d like to think it was an act of protest to symbolize keeping his mind from getting sick, but he was more likely just crazy.
Silence consumed the crowd as Terrence stood at the podium, and we all stood in silence for two minutes. From the back of the crowd, a slow clap began. Everyone added on as the whole park slowly clapped up to an eruption of applause followed by chanting “you are not alone”. It sent chills up my spine and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional.
Various speakers took the stage with calls to action and words of hope including State Attorney General Letita James, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Borough President Eric Adams. They all more or less said the same thing with “vote for me!” filling the silence between the words, but hearing eloquent speeches by well-spoken leaders was inspiring and instilled hope that maybe change IS possible.
When Bill de Blasio was up, he faced resounding boos as people yelled “QUIT YOUR JOB” and turned their backs to him despite Rev. Kevin McCall (the moderator) asking for open ears. One of the final speakers, an old white man who’s name I can’t remember, accidentally forgot George’s name, which I found shocking given the fact “GEORGE FLOYD” was written out for him on a sea of cardboard signs.
Then the march began as the crowd, now 5,000 deep, headed to the Brooklyn Bridge.
There was a police hold up that brought the crowd to a halt, and the chanting changed tone. ““Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go!” “No justice, no peace, fuck these racist ass police.” “How do you spell murder?…. NYPD” “NYPD suck my dick!” “I don’t see no riot here, so why are you in riot gear?” Eventually we were let through as everybody put their hands up chanting “Hands up… Don’t shoot.”
That particular chant struck a chord with me. Putting my hands up, yelling “don’t shoot” was wildly sobering as the whole reason for being there slapped me in the face. I can’t begin to fathom the feeling of if a gun was actually pointed at me, and if that was something I had to worry about every day.
We flooded across the Brooklyn bridge waving our signs and chanting with an electric energy that felt surreal. There was a woman dressed in a bright, traditional dress waiving around incense with a smile and an enthusiastic father with his equally enthusiastic 5 year old chanting along who I found endearing. If I ever have kids, I hope to be cool enough to take them to a protest. People were handing out water and snacks to combat the brutal, humid heat, and I felt a sense of unity and togetherness that is rare to find. In that moment I wasn’t an individual, but rather an itty bitty paint stroke of the massive overall picture.
A line of police met us at the other end, silently watching us pass by as anti-NYPD chants erupted once more. I didn’t see the slightest hint of physical confrontation, and the peaceful crowd marched in a united strength.
5:30pm hit, and we ducked out to head back home.
Upon reflection, I grapple as to whether or not my participation was simply an act of self-indulgence to say I was a part of the movement. I am just one person who’s only platform is a silly food blog with a handful of readers, and I don’t have the power to change the system.
I can hear your thoughts now.
“But it starts with the individual!” “If everyone thought that there would never be any change!” “Everyone’s voice matter!”
I feel jaded for being 27, and wish I still had the romanticized belief I can make a difference. Truth be told, I’m irrelevant and don’t really matter. That’s not a cry for help or a dig for compliments, and while it sounds depressing, it’s actually empowering. What I do and what I think won’t impact the world, which gives me unchained freedom. I am free to say, think, and do anything (as long as it’s law abiding) without the fear of leading anyone down the wrong path or sparking chaos and discourse. My words won’t guide a nation towards economic turmoil and my actions won’t lead to another’s demise, so I can march in protest, I can take a stand, and I can start challenging conversations because I have nothing to lose.
While protesting may have been self-indulgent, that isn’t a bad thing. Putting myself in new situations and taking the time to listen and absorb fresh information is the best weapon against ignorance, and a step towards personal growth.
I learned something about the world, I learned things about myself, I supported the fight against racism which I firmly stand by, and I feel hopeful that the future will be better than the past.
What will happen next? Only time will tell.