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What Do We Want?: The Teen Perspective on George Floyd Protests

Tigerlily Theo Hopson

July 1st, 2020


It is 2:00 pm on Monday, June 8th. The sun pounds down on a ragtag group of teenagers, as jumbled chants rise over the city. What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. If we don’t get it? Shut it down.

We block off streets, cars are beeping their horns, fists of all colors stick out the windows in solidarity, as drivers wait patiently. Our feet patter over the familiar asphalt on the way to the steps of the Brooklyn Supreme Court. Everyone takes a knee. A Black teenager stands on the top of the steps, fist in the air, silent. We follow his lead, understanding rippling through the crowd.

Silence. A mass of sweaty teenagers kneel for the length of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of the innocent Black man whose name now echoes through the streets. What do we want? Justice. Justice for George Floyd.

Teenagers all over America have taken to the streets, yet our voices are not as prevalent in the media. We are the ones getting arrested, getting hurt, and putting our bodies on the line. We are marching until our feet are sore and adding our screams to the swarm of chants enveloping the United States. Many of us have marched, often lucky to steer clear of violence, while others have witnessed police brutality head on. Those who cannot march keep busy signing petitions, phone banking, facilitating discussions, and registering to vote. We are shaping the protests, and the protests are shaping us.

For many teenagers, the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations were their first protests. Juliette, a sixteen-year-old student in Manhattan, always wanted to join a protest, but was intimidated by the boisterous crowds yelling, chanting, and full of energy. “I [didn’t] know if I had it in me to yell,” she said with a laugh.

But when she and a friend took a walk around New York City’s SoHo district, she ran into a swarm of chanting protesters, and felt she had little choice but to join in. The march wound its way across the Brooklyn Bridge and well into Brooklyn. Juliette enjoyed the protest in the end. “It was a moment of reflection,” she said. “You just think about how you want change so badly. Not only for you, but for other people, and for the sake of other lives.” And, as it turned out, “it was hard not to want to yell.”

The protest Juliette marched in was peaceful, which was the case for the majority of protests the teens I interviewed attended. Juliette said she was grateful that the police never got physical, but, “they made their presence very very seen and heard.” Most observed police officers as nonviolent, sometimes handing out masks to protesters or filming the action on their own phones, but many also described officers’ presence as somewhat foreboding, standing stock still, staring, in what Juliette called their “intimidating stance.”

Other students, such as Nicole, a rising senior, have seen police physically harassing or using uncalled-for force with protesters. On May 30th in Manhattan, Nicole stood in the middle of a screaming crowd. A line of cops who wore riot protection helmets and gripped batons backed into the mass of young people, screaming, “Move! Move!” The protesters complied, backing up slowly. Yet one white male cop began to beat a young Black female with his baton, and violently shoved her and her friend with excessive force. Screams erupted through the night. Nicole pointed her filming iPhone to the scene, scared.

The cop stopped—it looked like his body cam had fallen off, distracting him from the girl—but seconds later he started ramming into protesters with his baton once more. “He was deliberately going out of his way to shove people while a woman in the back repeatedly screams in a painful voice; ‘HANDS UP! HANDS UP!’ to show we weren't violent. He didn't care,” Nicole said.

For many teenagers, anger at the police is most prevalent. James, a graduating senior who has attended protests, said, “regardless of race, the crowd and I shouted George Floyd's name along with Black Lives Matter. The police are supposed to protect, but they've been one of the biggest enemies in this world.”

Annabel, a seventeen-year-old who protests daily, explained that the protests that became violent were escalated by the police who were “blatantly militant.” At the first protests, where people were most angry, police followed the protesters in formation while dressed in full riot gear. She described police conduct as hostile, apathetic, angry, mocking, and sometimes seemingly fueled by fear of the protestors.

In the diverse city of New York more than half of NYPD officers are people of color. On June 17, The New York Times published an article titled “How Black N.Y.P.D. Officers Really Feel About the Floyd Protesters,” describing the conflicted feelings of many officers of color who have faced racism themselves, and support protesters’ motives. Some teens expressed that unless cops of color “march with us” nothing sets them apart from white police officers. Others, however, feel it isn’t this simple. Annabel said the question of if protesters should yell at officers of color is something she thinks a lot about, and does not have an answer for. “Honestly, I don’t know. I need to educate myself more on that,” she said.

As for violence by protesters, Jyoti, seventeen, whose grandparents are from India, says she would not loot herself, especially as a non-Black person, but, “The entire purpose of a protest is to cause disruption, and sometimes violence is that disruption. Taking items from a material store is not going to live up to what it means to take a life.”

Halley, a sixteen-year-old, feels protests are often more effective when violent, because they catch the attention of government officials and people in power. “Fuck the police!” she exclaimed. However, she said, white people are many times the ones inciting the violence, which makes the movement look bad and results in innocent people of color getting blamed and thrown in jail.

Many other teens echoed this same sentiment: white people can protest, but should not engage in violence or looting in any manner. Annabel, who lives in lower Manhattan, sees looters of the high-end, white-led stores in her neighborhood, like LuLuLemon, Chanel, and Jimmy Choo, as separate from the protesters. “These are people that are angry, and want to destroy a capitalist system,” she commented. However, as a white person, she does not think white people should be looting: “That’s not my place.”

Others, though, felt violence of any kind was hurting the movement rather than helping. A graduating senior said she believes, “Protests are effective because we can be heard and seen without being violent… Through nonviolence we can promote peace, which is what you want to teach or instill in others, like a ripple effect.”

Every teenager interviewed said they did not approve of the looting of small businesses, especially those that are Black-owned or may have trouble recovering because of the COVID-19 crisis. Matilda, a rising 12th grader, had to help her parents board up their restaurants, in fear that a protest would come by and smash the windows. “It was a big deal for my parents especially because if they [protesters] did hurt the restaurant, we would have nothing.”

For many teens, the current unrest hits them hard and feels personal. Promise, a rising senior who is Puerto Rican and Black, says growing up she had to explain to her mom, who is Puerto Rican, what it’s like to have darker skin. “Even when a cop looks my direction, I’m scared. I’m scared for my life,” she said. Her female identity, combined with her Black and Hispanic background, exacerbates her experience. “No person could understand [what it's like in] my shoes,” she voiced.

Milani, sixteen, said, “Even though I am not Black, per se, I am Hispanic, I am mixed, and I am a minority, and some of my family members are darker toned than me.” For example, her sister, although from the same parents, has a darker complexion. “Sometimes I get more respect than she does in a restaurant or by staff. That needs to change,” she expressed.

Chelsea, who is fourteen years old, says that in the past she has had intellectual conversations with white people, but when she tells them she is Dominican they express their surprise. “They were surprised because of how I could hold a conversation and how I didn’t really fit into the stereotypes they assumed,” she explained. “You can’t generalize people into one group because you haven’t met every person… It’s cruel.”

The Asian community has faced a whirlwind of hate, fear, and discrimination in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Andy, whose parents are from China, acknowledged, “I may not be Black and [this] may not be personal to me physically and/or mentally, but I am Asian.” He elaborated that he has had “my fair share of racism and stereotypes pointed right at me. Especially when this pandemic started, there was much hate against Asians [...] Everywhere I walk with a mask on, there was a chance of being attacked.”

Many teenagers, because of the pandemic, have had to stay home because of their own autoimmune diseases, or because of fear that they could bring COVID-19 back to older parents or loved ones. However, they have found time to engage in activism from their homes.

A leader of her school’s Asian Students Association has been unable to protest because of the pandemic. Instead, she has led and participated in discussions around African American and Asian American solidarity. As a South Asian she is very familiar with colorism, she said, and has tried to have more serious conversations about race with her family.

Lavon, seventeen, has to stay home every day to babysit his younger siblings because both of his parents are essential workers. From home he has shared petitions, signed petitions, and emailed representatives. It’s important for protesters to “take their awareness, and the knowledge they can get from protests, and transfer that into some other medium of change. Like voting,” he said.

Aiden, seventeen, has been unable to protest because of COVID-19, but sees the importance of using one's voice and the power of civil disobedience. When he was asked what actions, if any, he has taken, he answered simply, “I’ve registered to vote.” He explained it as an incredibly simple process. “I highly recommend for anyone who can register to do it.”

Some parents of color have also blocked their children from protesting because they fear their children are more susceptible to violence or getting arrested. Promise wants to protest, but her mom will not allow her to “because of the color of my skin.” Her mom especially fears her protesting as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, because she fears people with darker skin will be more of a target in police brutality or arrests.

Felicity, a rising senior, attended a few protests before her parents said she could no longer go because they felt her safety was being compromised. She felt useless sitting at home though so, “I convinced my parents to let me pass out ‘care packages’ to the protesters that consisted of snacks, water, band aids, and a number to call if you get arrested.”

Juliette has taken part in a protest, but her mom announced that if she attended any more she would have to be tested for COVID-19 before and after she attends the protest. Annabel, who protests regularly, has had to quarantine away from her family, which has been a challenge.

Despite these hardships and barriers, many teens, especially those with more privilege, feel it is their responsibility to protest. “As a young person, a healthy person, a probably immune person, and a non-Black person, it is really important for me to take part in the protests because I know that I am not of a group that’s going to be targeted,” Jyoti said.

We as teenagers have joined together, over social media and in the streets, making one thing clear: What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. If we don’t get it? Shut. It. Down.

Photo taken by Tigerlily Hopson at June 6th protest in Brooklyn, New York.

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