By Sarina Deb
Students across the country are engaging in protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Monday after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a white police officer.
Bystanders captured video footage of the responding officer, Derek Chauvin, using his knee to pin Floyd by the neck for approximately nine minutes while Floyd is heard saying “I can’t breathe” and “Please don’t kill me.” Officers were pursuing Floyd after a deli employee alleged he had used a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in the store. Chauvin and three other other officers who participated in the arrest were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department on Tuesday, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on Friday.
Footage of the incident was circulated widely on Tuesday, giving rise to protests that started in Minneapolis and spread rapidly throughout the country. By Saturday, tens of thousands of people swarmed streets of numerous American cities to express outrage over Floyd’s death and solidarity with the Black community. While many are protesting peacefully, cities have reported shootings, destruction of buildings and fires due to violent protesters, law enforcement and malicious third parties. So far, at least five people have been killed in violence connected to the protests.
Ophelia Washington ’23, a Black student who protested in Minneapolis where the incident occurred, said she joined the hundreds of people gathering in her city to ensure that the public was paying attention to the issue of police brutality.
“I’ve lived in Minneapolis my whole life,” Washington said. “And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of how ingrained systemic racism in our city. It often gets swept under the rug or remains under the surface here, but this was a catalytic moment, and there was no way that I wasn’t going to be a part of it.”
Washington said the protests she attended were mostly non-violent, with protesters chanting “Say his name, George Floyd,” or repeating “I can’t breathe” to echo Floyd’s words. She described the range of signs that protesters held up as “creative” and “exciting.”
“It was nice to see our community come together,” Washington added.
However, she said excitement turned into fear when she watched a truck barrel toward a group of protesters on a freeway bridge. Protesters ran away quickly, and the truck did not appear to hit anyone.
“I happened to be on the side where a truck came directly at protesters,” Washington said. “Everybody is okay physically, but it’s just the emotions of fear and anger that are left.”
Micayla Bozeman ’23, a Black student who attended protests in Merced, California, said she was “devastated” after seeing pictures and videos of Floyd’s death, and decided to join others in her city who were taking to the streets. She recalled chanting at a white police officer that was circling through the crowd, repeating Floyd’s words.
“I just remember just screaming at the officer, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and in that moment I cried,” Bozeman said. “I cried because I haven’t been in George Floyd’s shoes, I only know the racism that I’ve experienced. I wasn’t choked, begging for my life in the same way he was. It broke my heart because in that literal moment, I could breathe, but to know that when George Floyd was saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ he really couldn’t. Even though I was protesting, there is nothing I can do to save George Floyd.”
Though participants were directly responding to Floyd’s death, Bozeman said, they were also protesting in solidarity with “all Black lives who were lost at the hands of law enforcement.”
“George Floyd is not the first person this week who has been affected,” Bozeman told The Daily. “He is just the one that became famous.”
Gabrielle Mesa ’23, a Black student who protested in Kansas City, Missouri, said that demonstrators at the protests she attended were not only expressing outrage over Floyd’s death, but also seeking justice for other victims of police brutality. She said that many protesters held up signs with the names of Black people who were killed by law enforcement in recent years.
“Some signs were just completely filled with names of victims of police brutality,” Mesa said. “There shouldn’t be enough names to fill a poster board. Really, there shouldn’t be any.”
Mesa echoed Bozeman, explaining that she chose to protest because Floyd’s death is not an isolated incident.
“The police have brutalized Black people across the country for generations without consequences,” Mesa told The Daily. “I’m protesting because something has got to change. I’m protesting because I shouldn’t have to fear for my brother’s life when he goes out for a jog or a drive. I shouldn’t have to fear for my own life, or my mom’s life or my cousins’ lives, or my uncle’s life. Black people are entitled to a sense of safety and security in our own country, but as things stand now, we don’t have that.”
According to Mesa, protesters in Kansas City stormed the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain at the Country Club Plaza, kneeled in front of the line of police officers as a silent demonstration, and then chanted phrases such as “Say his name, George Floyd,” “Black lives matter” and “Who do you call when the police murder.”
“There were a variety of people there in terms of race and ethnicity,” Mesa said. “It was a better reflection of the demographics of the city than I was expecting to see.”
Sophia Manolis ’23, a white student who has written for The Daily and attended protests at the state capital in St. Paul and third precinct in Minneapolis agreed with Mesa, saying that she was excited to see so many people in Minneapolis stand in solidarity with Floyd.
“Floyd was killed a few miles away from my home,” Manolis told the Daily. “The media reported that there were hundreds of people but I can tell you there were thousands in the streets. It was a beautiful thing to experience.”
“There was anger in the crowd, rightfully so,” Manolis said, “and that made the police scared, so they start spraying tear gas and shooting pepper spray and rubber bullets on people who were yelling, which led to people throwing stuff back at the police officers.”
On Thursday night, Manolis witnessed protesters burn down the third police precinct in Minneapolis.
“It was very chaotic,” Manolis said. “People were running around and smashing things, the third precinct building was up in flames, and there was a fireworks show. People were celebrating and spray painting the streets with messages. It was as if people were liberated in a way that I have never seen before.”
Yusuf Zahurullah ’23, a South Asian student who protested in Rockford, Illinois, described the Rockford protests as “diverse” and “mostfully peaceful.”
“When we reached the police district building, which is on top of a hill, I turned around and saw an incredible mass of people,” Zahurullah said. “Black youth organizers were leading, followed by white people and non-Black people of color.”
According to Zahurullah, protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice No Peace, No Racist Police” and held up signs with the names of Black people who had been killed by police.
Black organizers urged attendees to remain non-violent, Zahurullah said, adding that people began to throw rocks and water bottles at windows toward the end of the day.
“About 15-20 minutes later, a militarized police vehicle arrived with around a dozen rubber bullet armed guards,” Zahurullah told The Daily. “Through the rest of the night there were instances of looting and violent confrontations with police. Videos surfaced of officers brutally beating protestors in the streets.”
Toli Tate, ’23, an indigenous student who attended protests in Portland, Oregon, said police officers were not the only resistance that participants outraged over Floyd’s death had to face.
“There were members of white supremacists groups armed with rifles,” Tate said. “When I heard that, I was a lot more worried for my safety than I had been before. We even saw the police guarding a mall where a white supremacist group member were stationed, and realized that the police were protecting and defending the white supremacists, which I know is also happenning in other places in the country.”
Protesting amid COVID-19
As thousands of people left their homes this week to protest Floyd’s death last week, the coronavirus pandemic continued to plague the country, leaving many with an important decision to make: Is protesting worth the potential COVID-19 risks, especially among large groups where social distancing is unlikely?
Political leaders and public health officials are raising fears of a surge in cases arising from protests as the incidence rate for the virus hovers around 1.8 million.
“I’m concerned that we had mass gatherings on our streets when we just lifted a stay-at-home order and what that could mean for spikes in coronavirus cases later,” said Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser in a Sunday press conference on Sunday.
Students said that, while following COVID-19 safety protocols was difficult, protesters did what they could to stay safe.
“There was definitely apprehension given the pandemic happening, but thankfully a majority of people were masked up,” Zahurullah said. “Obviously people need to be together to show unity, so the people in the march were pretty close together. My friends and I tried to keep social distancing. Protesting and showing support right now is incredibly important, and if people can do it safely then they need to be.”
“Everyone was wearing a face mask,” Tate said. “And although there were tons of people really close together, there was never a place where I was bumping into people.”
Washington said she saw the decision to protest as “sacrificing one cause for another.”
“I don’t suppose I regret it, but I make sure to wear a mask every time and take other precautions,” she told The Daily.
“It’s pretty difficult to have a socially distant protest just because of what a protest is by nature,” Mesa added. “Yes, I was apprehensive because of COVID-19, but the way Black people are treated in the United States has to be addressed with urgency, and the officers involved in the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor need to be held accountable. Something needs to change because this is a matter of life and death.”
Bozeman said she also considered the risks of attending protests.
“I’m living with my sister, my nephews and my brother-in-law,” Bozeman told The Daily. “My brother-in-law and one of my nephews have asthma, so we made sure to take precautions.”
“I think that it is selfish of me to stay home because I am afraid of a virus that can cause me to die of not breathing, when someone actually did die of not being able to breathe because of the police,” she continued. “I had to go.”
Tate said she chose to protest because the response to Floyd’s death would be a pivotal moment in history.
“I have seen people saying they aren’t protesting because of COVID-19, but I don’t know when there is going to be a national uprising like this again, so I want to take advantage of it when I can now,” Tate said.
Manolis pointed out that the Black community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
“The Black community has been hit the hardest by coronavirus, but also see these protests as a fight for their lives,” Manolis said.
Non-Black student protesters said they attended protests to show solidarity with the Black community, and ultimately hoped to help amplify Black voices.
“As a Muslim South Asian, I have experienced racism and bigotry in my lifetime, but the hundreds of years of oppression of Black people in this country is unparalleled,” Zahurullah said. “My grandparents were able to move to this country thanks to the action undertaken by Black people throughout this country’s history. Every non-Black person of color is indebted to the Black community.”
Zahurullah said he protested for “Black brothers and sisters who have been victims of institutionalized racism, oppression, and modern colonialism for centuries.”
“I have the privilege of being physically able to show my support and stand up to justice,” Zahurullah said.
Tate agreed that white people and non-Black people of color had an important role to play by “showing up” and even standing in between police and Black protesters.
“Having bodies there strategically makes it a lot more difficult for police to attack,” Tate said. “I encourage non-Black people of color and white people to protest if they are able to, to help send the message that the police must be held accountable.”
Manolis echoed Tate, saying “I was trying to grapple with the fact that my body is so much more privileged than the Black and brown people out here. I’m least likely to be hurt by the police, so I can save lives by putting my body between these communities and the police.”
Student protesters said they were heartened by the willingness of protesters to help one another.
Washington said that people were passing around hand sanitizer to minimize the potential spreading of COVID-19 and helping one another stay safe from pushing crowds and cars on the road.
“People were giving each other masks, water and snacks,” Tate added. “They were also passing out milk for people who were sprayed with tear gas by the police.”
“My friends had metal shields and were trying to go in front of people to defend them from the police and make sure that they weren’t hurt,” Manolis said. She added that citizens of Minneapolis were creating collections of food and other supplies for people who were spending their days in the streets.
“It’s powerful to see the community coming together and I have complete faith that we are going to rebuild everything,” Manolis said. “Not just the buildings, but the trust between communities and the equity and solidarity between people in our society. I think that a lot of people are waking up.”
The headline of this article has been changed to reflect that Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder, not convicted of murder. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.