Say his name: George Floyd!
Say his name: George Floyd!
The marchers’ chants echoed down Grand Rapids’ streets on Saturday afternoon, their rhythmic call and response amplifying the sound of their united voices.
They had already walked past the kneeling, uniformed firefighters, some with fists upraised in support.
Already passed the expressionless policemen and the barricade of green and yellow trucks blocking access to the city’s police station that had been vandalized the previous week.
Already gathered at Rosa Parks Circle, the communal gathering point named for the fabled Detroit activist who, like 15-year-old Claudette Colvin before her, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama.
Already taken to the streets, armed with their fierce determination and gut-level conviction that the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among far too many unarmed black people at the hands of police, cried out for immediate, systemic change.
The protesters walking under the clear blue sky were of all ages, but had a heavy concentration of young people. Many wore masks, dressed in black t-shirts and shorts, and carried hand-written signs expressing their outrage.
“if you AREN’T ANGRY, you aren’t PAYING ATTENTION,” one sign declared.
“I UNDERSTAND I
WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER
I STAND,” read another.
HOW MANY MORE? Asked a third sign in red, the outline of a dead body traced next to the words.
The protesters kept marching, toting their signs and chanting. Their words ricocheted and merged and flowed into each other as they floated into the air.
No Justice, No Peace! No Justice, No Peace!
Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor! Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor!
Hands up, don’t Shoot! Hands up, don’t Shoot!
A protest the previous Saturday had begun at the same spot before migrating down the block to the police station. A combination of peaceful rallying and violent destruction ensued until the early hours of Sunday morning.
On Wednesday, a planned one-hour demonstration where Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne joined protesters in taking a knee led to a meandering march through Grand Rapids and into neighboring East Grand Rapids, a wealthy community and former sundown town.
A 75-year-old white woman wearing a cross around her neck stood in the middle of Wealthy Street brandishing a black bat to deter the marchers from entering. One marcher took the bat from the woman, while another put his arms around her and ushered her to the sidewalk.
“I’m gonna protect my property,” she exclaimed. “You have no right to riot.”
The peaceful event continued for more than four hours before ending back in downtown Grand Rapids. The remaining protesters dispersed only after the policemen there joined them in kneeling.
On Saturday the march again lasted for hours.
With each step they took, the young people aligned themselves more closely with people of all ages taking similar stands in the march, around the country and across our planet.
And with their demand that our country acknowledge its brokenness and be true to its lofty creed of equal justice for all, they also etched themselves more deeply into the long line of young Americans who have used their precious time, energy and commitment to push for change.
The students from Parkland, Florida who demanded the passage of gun violence legislation following the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The students in the 70s and 80s who built shantytowns and took over officials’ offices while calling for their universities to divest in companies that did business in South Africa.
The young people who marched against the Vietnam War in the 60s.
The fearless black students who endured all manner of abuse while sitting in at lunch counters throughout the segregated South in the beginning of the same decade.
It is not clear how long the protests will last or what degree of change they will eventually spark.
But it is abundantly clear that through their courage, tenacity and grit, the young marchers in Grands Rapids, Michigan and our entire country are pressing all of us to repair and remake our beautiful, wounded and blood-soaked land.
By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
The author is an investigative journalist, author and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Chair of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University.