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George Floyd's Death Helps White People, Immigrants Find Voices In The Black Lives Matter Movement

Steve Harrison
Helen Redwine shows support for marchers on June 1 as protesters marched through Myers Park.

For more than three weeks following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer May 25, protests broke out in almost every major city across the nation. From Los Angeles and Seattle to Brooklyn and Philadelphia, millions took to the streets to demand change.

In North Carolina, thousands gathered for marches in Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Chapel Hill, Fayetteville and Greensboro, a city known for its historical significance in the Civil Rights Movement.

Protected under the First Amendment, protest has been a feature of every major social movement in America, including women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights and immigrant’s rights, as well as specific policies, such as the recent protests in Michigan, California, and Georgia against stay-at-home orders imposed by governors in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are living through the golden age of protest,” LA Kauffman, a grassroots organizer, told the Berkeley Economic Review last year.

The demonstrations following the death of George Floyd have been remarkable in size, scope, and timing, as they come in the middle of a global pandemic. But there’s something else that feels different from the others: The demographics of the crowds.

Approximately 61% of the participants in these protests nationwide were white, according to data compiled by Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, and Michael Heaney, a research professor at University of Michigan. That percentage represents a seemingly cosmic shift in public opinion on the once vilified Black Lives Matter movement.

“Personally, I have supported Black Lives Matter by talking with friends, educating myself about racism, donating when I could, and calling my elected officials,” said Pearl Sullivan, a Georgia resident and rising senior at Elon University. “But this year was the first time I attended a BLM protest.”

Sullivan says that it was also the first time her mother, whom she describes as an “upper class white woman,” has been to a BLM protest. The data shows that they are just two of many first time BLM demonstrators who are helping to diversify the movement and drive up crowd numbers.

The question is, why now?

“I felt that direct action was the best way that I could help raise the voices of Black people who have long been the victims of police brutality and the systemic racism that it's born from,” said Joshua Hancock, a white Beaufort native currently working as an auditor in Raleigh.

Hancock has attended several marches in recent weeks, including one in Raleigh on June 2, one in Chapel Hill on June 6, and another in Raleigh June 7.

“I think it was hearing about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in a very short period of time and then seeing the violence with which cops responded to protestors that pushed me to go protest in addition to taking other actions,” Sullivan said.

Tyler Placeres, 17, a Residence Life Director at Elon University from Florida, who attended a June 7 rally in Greensboro, said access to information is one reason more people are becoming engaged in a significant way.

“I think it comes down to the fact that access to information is at an all-time high,” said Placeres, who is Hispanic and white. “Almost every major cell phone company offers unlimited data, so you can just say, ‘Hey, Alexa, tell me what’s on the news’ and it will just spew out information. The days of saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know’ are over.”

It is not just white folks in metro areas who are speaking up against racial injustice for the first time. Ben Wilkins, a labor organizer based in Durham, recently wrote a story for Facing South about a protest in Siler City.

“The first thing I noticed was that it was a really young crowd,” Wilkins said. “There were probably 60 to 70 high school students and there were also a lot of immigrants. The racial breakdown of the crowd was probably about 50% Latinos, 30% Black, and 20% white.”

Not only were many of these demonstrators protesting for Black Lives Matter for the first time, but many of them were there to protest against any type of discrimination, including that against immigrants.

“There definitely were a lot of first-time protesters and many were making a connection between the racism that many undocumented immigrants are facing every day with the threats and brutality they face from ICE agents, and connecting that to police violence against Black people,” Wilkins said. “There were a lot of signs that expressed that unity.” 

As a labor organizer, and a member of the steering committee of the Poor People’s Campaign, Wilkins is no stranger to these types of demonstrations.

“As someone who has been in this work, and I have a lot of friends who were at the first Black Lives Matter protest in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, I know there are always protests that erupt,” Wilkins said, “but never anything on this scale.”

Many have attributed the increased crowd numbers and inclusion of voices who may have resisted speaking up before, to the magnitude of the moment. The image of an officer’s knee pinned down on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes, ultimately causing his death, became seared into the minds and hearts of many.

“Watching that video -- and I mean after just a minute in -- I was just numb,” Placeres said. “My eyes were glared at the screen, and at some point, I wasn’t even hearing Floyd’s voice anymore, I was just watching what was happening to him. And all you can think about, especially by the end, is: Can you please, please get off of him?”

“I couldn’t watch the video,” Wilkins said. “I saw the still footage, but it seems like we have been getting inundated with footage of killings ever since Ferguson. My reaction is always the same -- horror and disgust.”

He points to the economic crisis that many families are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic as an underlying reason for the increased crowds and participation in the movement.

“I think unemployment, and not having access to food, is really driving some of the anger,” Wilkins said. “And when you put police violence on top of all this economic crisis, and this deadly virus that is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities, I think it just creates this combustible environment.”

As Mohawk Kuzma, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Seattle put it, perhaps the most important takeaway from this moment that white people all across this country are finally waking up to covert segregation, racial injustice and racism.

“Hopefully it is no longer just a news story or a hashtag,” Sullivan said. “I’m hopeful that white people, especially white people who maybe generally wouldn’t pay attention, will continue to be engaged once news coverage slows, and work and school begins.”

NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.