A Protest Moment I’ll Never Forget

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In late May and early June last year, when hundreds of thousands nationwide amassed on the streets to vent their anger over the death of George Floyd and thunder for racial equality, more than 30 Times reporters bore witness.

Covering cities from Seattle to Atlanta to New York to Minneapolis, where the protests began after Floyd was killed by police, they followed the marches, heard the cries, saw the clashes with authorities and, at times, felt the fear when unrest descended into chaos. Some scenes resembled a war zone. Others, a street fair. Wherever they were, our journalists experienced firsthand a developing movement.

Asked to reflect on what they saw, 10 reporters shared a protest moment that remains indelible for them. Given what changed — and didn’t — in the subsequent months, the memories also underscore what grew out of the movement they witnessed: continuing resolve, but also more frustration and anguish.

Risking it all


Hours after arriving in Minneapolis, I parked on a residential street and hopped out of my car to report on a nearby protest. I had barely walked a block when a white sedan pulled up next to me and the driver lowered the window. Out stuck a hand with a rock. “You’re going to need this,” said the driver, who identified himself as Prince Isaac, then 29. I politely declined. But Isaac asked to walk with me. Over the next 30 minutes, he talked passionately, at times nearly moved to tears, about suffering police harassment, a criminal justice system that he believed unfairly targeted Black people, and how life as a Black man in America had left him depressed and sometimes on the verge of suicide.

Isaac grew up in France and is of West African heritage, but he had lived in Minnesota for a decade. What happened to George Floyd was his fight. “I’m ready to die today,” he said on his way to protest. “We have had enough. They have no mercy against Black men. We have to stop all this.” So went my first interaction on the ground, and it made clear the depth of pain that Mr. Floyd’s death had caused for Black people, regardless of their nationality or background. This would be a shared struggle. — John Eligon

A quiet power


One of the striking things in Seattle was the persistence of the protests — and how each gathering felt unique. Two weeks after the protests began, Black Lives Matter activists organized a silent march through the city. It was one of those late-spring Seattle days that brings gray skies and a constant drizzle of rain, leaving you wondering when the sunny season might finally arrive. But the crowd that turned out that day was massive, thousands upon thousands — so many that nobody could see the beginning and end at the same time. In a city that had seen days of clashes and tear gas, chanting and singing, this crowd brought a scene of reflection: a gathering that could fill a sports stadium moved through the city in silence, with only the sound of footsteps on streets and raindrops on jackets. — Mike Baker

Young leaders


Toddlers and kindergartners held signs as big as they were, waddling alongside their parents, at Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon. Their “Black Lives Matter” signs were drawn in colorful markers as if they were part of a school project, not a protest.

But here they were, tiny tots joining a movement as we grappled with anti-Blackness and racism in a way I had never seen in my lifetime. I immediately searched for an adult, someone who could tell me about this protest that had drawn 300 people.

Beverly Tillery pointed to her daughter and her friends, Stella Tillery-Lee, Melany Linton and Theo Schimmel, all 14 at the time. They had organized the event. They weren’t even in high school yet.

It hit me that teenagers and 20-somethings were leading the way. When we look at the civil rights movement, grainy black-and-white photos of activists make them appear older in our imaginations. But many human rights leaders were so young.

“I never thought that I could do something that big to help out my community because I was like, ‘I’m just a kid,’” Melany told me later. “A kid never thinks they can be able to put 300 people in a space and talk to them about the issues going on in our country, but we did do that. I was very proud of myself for being able to do that.” — Nikita Stewart

A list to remember


I was talking to a mother who had turned up to protest in front of Cup Foods, where George Floyd was pinned to the ground by the knee of a white police officer. I spotted a young boy in the car she was leaning on. The window was cracked so I asked him why he came out with his mother. “George Floyd,” he said in his squeaky, 11-year-old voice. “Trayvon Martin. Breonna Taylor,” he continued, listing more than a dozen names he had memorized of Black Americans who have died, many from police actions. “It’s just hurtful.” — Dionne Searcey

Getting an audience

Los Angeles

For more than two years, starting long before George Floyd became a household name, the families of men and women killed by the police in Los Angeles got together each week outside the district attorney’s office to demand justice.

A couple times, I joined them when I needed quotes for a story I was working on. There was never more than a couple dozen people in attendance.

And then suddenly, as protests convulsed cities across America, many thousands of people came to downtown Los Angeles on a Wednesday afternoon. The mothers and fathers and siblings finally had an audience whose size seemed to match the magnitude of their pain.

The moment, for me, demonstrated the coming together of long years of local activism that I had witnessed with a global movement. The voices were louder, clearer.

As Valerie Rivera, whose son Eric was killed by the police in 2017, shouted to the crowd, “We have been waiting for these days to come, for these people to stream into these streets.” — Tim Arango

Recalling 1968

Washington, D.C.

I keep coming back to an interview I had with April Cole, who was 60 at the time and grew up in Washington, D.C. The area’s largest march by far since the police killing of George Floyd had just left the Lincoln Memorial to hit the streets of the city. The front of the march was dominated by young adults and teenagers. But there was Ms. Cole, joining them at the front of this demonstration of thousands, hoisting a sign stating, “I am a Mother. Please Don’t Kill My Kids.”

When we started talking, she brought me back in time to 1968, when she stood in this same city, squeezing her brother’s hand as combat troops rolled through Washington after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She reminded me that she had been here before many times — this pain transcended generations.

But she was also rejuvenated.

“It was the will of these young people,” she said, nodding to a group of young organizers who led the thousands in chants of “No justice, no peace!” — Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Same city, different march


I was climbing on my bike to leave a protest I had covered on Chicago’s North Side when I stopped to talk to a Black woman in her 60s who was standing alone. The crowd around her was happy and loud, urging passing motorists to honk as a gesture of support. She was watching with a faraway look and a faint smile. “Can you believe this?” she asked me, gesturing around. “Look at all these kids.” There were children, dozens of them, hoisted on the shoulders of their parents, riding in little red wagons, holding “Black Lives Matter” signs in their hands. It was that sight that had brought back a vivid memory for her: In 1968, as riots and protests tore through Chicago after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when her own mother ushered her away from the windows of their rowhouse in Cabrini-Green to keep her safe. “I live right here,” she said, gesturing to an apartment building facing the protest. “I just wanted to see.” She had heard the noise and walked outside out of curiosity, joining the throng. — Julie Bosman

New conversations


One Monday morning last year in Atlanta, I met Bernice Gregory, an African American demonstrator in her 50s who was marching with hundreds of like-minded souls toward the Georgia Capitol. Ms. Gregory said she was fed up by police violence against Black people. She was also encouraged by the young people fueling the new movement.

“I’m inspired by them to take this on,” she said.

This remarkable and almost revolutionary moment in American history, which began to crest last year with the killing of George Floyd, exposed all kinds of generational fault lines — an inevitability given the eternal clash of youthful impatience and the caution that comes with age and experience. But I also saw how young people were inspiring a lot of older people with their example.

This conversation between young and old, particularly in communities of color, will be important to watch as the movement seeks to channel the energy on the streets into the effort to enact transformative public policy. — Richard Fausset

A frightening sound


It was a Sunday night and a roiling march through Denver had surged up to the gates outside Police Headquarters. A line of officers on one side of the fence. Hundreds of chanting people on the other. Some people in the crowd threw something, and that was when the police started shooting toward them — and me.

I was watching this scene at a remove with two other journalists, all of us wearing credentials, but as the police swept toward the crowd, there was no distinction between press and protesters. One of the reporters I was with shouted “Press!” to no avail. As we ran for cover, I heard several shots burst around me. A few rounds had hit one of my colleagues, peppering him with welts. I keep thinking about that sound, and of the total sickening fear of trying to cover a story and realizing it’s surged around you and toppled you like a wave. — Jack Healy

Not your typical honk


A year ago, I was covering a group of protesters on a Sunday when they began walking across the Manhattan Bridge. I was with a smaller group that split off and walked on the opposite side of the bridge, walking against traffic. They began tentatively, and it felt reckless and brave and unpredictable. The honks started, and I remember thinking, “Man, someone could get hurt here.” I first thought they were the “get out of the street” honks, but when I saw people hanging out of their windows, I realized that they were all in support, from the start.

The horns kept going. And going. And so did that little group. Suspended over the East River at sunset, the cars, trucks and vans in the city that never stops, did. People parked their cars in the middle of the bridge, and whooped and clapped. I remember that sound, the chorus of this incredible moment of release and levity after those brutal, early days of the pandemic in New York City.

A year later, standing near that bridge, covering a vigil to commemorate George Floyd’s death, I thought about that moment, and it felt darker, uncomfortable, even. To think of all the death we’ve covered since — at the hands of the police, at the hands of a barely contained virus, at the hands of each other — is overwhelming. It took until recently, looking at my photography from that night, to realize it was the same night that things devolved into chaos in Manhattan — storefronts smashed, a shooting, fires, police violence and mass arrests. That moment on the bridge was something. But whatever it was, it was fleeting. — Ali Watkins

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