In the nearly two weeks since the world first watched video footage of George Floyd pressed under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, gasping for breath and begging for his life, protesters have sought to make sure he did not die in vain.
Here and around the country, people have filled streets and parks, assembled outside police stations and marched miles in the rain. From afar they are vast swarms, thousands strong, united behind a mission to end racism and brutality in policing and build a more just society.
But these masses are not monoliths. Every crowd is made up of people for whom Floyd’s death was the latest last straw; who bring different personal histories and perspectives and hopes to a cause that is at once unified and wide-ranging.
“If I don’t fight today, then the generation behind me has no future tomorrow,” said one protester, Khloe Mitchell, who was among a handful who, in interviews this week, spoke to the particular power of this moment against the backdrop of decades of Black civil rights and liberation struggles.
A fundraiser. A university instructor. A nurse technician. A father. A son. This is why they march.
“I’m going to continue to breathe and fight for the rights of our people until I’m dead and gone”
James Mackey did not set out to take his 8-year-old to a protest. On Monday evening, he and his son left home on a different mission: Buying an early birthday present for dad, who was turning 34.
All week, Mackey had been thinking about George Floyd and other Black men who have died in police custody. He was also thinking about himself, about the fact that he’d lived through another year — an important year that had seen the birth of his daughter.
“I made it to 34. I felt good,” he said. But he had another thought: “That idea that it could possibly be my life one day that could be lost.”
So Mackey set out to buy something for himself that would capture all he was feeling on the eve of a fraught, special day.
He found just the thing in a Black-owned shop in Grove Hall, a t-shirt that read, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today”— a Malcolm X quote. It felt right.
“I’m an organizer, I’m a rebel, I’m a revolutionist … I fight for the rights of Black lives, Black people. That’s what I do.”
That fight has led Mackey, who lives in Hyde Park with his family, to work as a community organizer, mentor youth, and give speeches across the country, including at the Ford Foundation. He said he thinks constantly about how to prepare himself and his children to fight for the future he wants for them.
So when Mackey and his son left the store and saw a group of demonstrators kneeling on a traffic island on Blue Hill Avenue, he explained why they were protesting.
“People may look at you when you get older, unfortunately, as an issue or a problem,” he told him. “And you can’t believe what they say. You have to be proud of yourself.”
Father and son stood for a moment, both wearing red face masks, fists raised to the sky.
That night, Mackey cried. He kept thinking about George Floyd calling for his mother. “I’m a mama’s boy. That hurt me.”
“That could be me. That could be my son in 10 years," he said.
But Mackey woke on his birthday to one of his reasons for pressing on: his 5-month-old daughter.
“She woke up before me, eyes wide open, smile from ear to ear, looking at me. That moment, it made me feel okay. It healed me.”
“My whole life’s been a protest”
When Khloe Mitchell first marched against police violence, she was seventeen. In February of 2009, her 73-year-old uncle was shot to death by a police officer at his home in Homer, Louisiana.
The Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally in Homer that spring. Mitchell said she remembers the civil rights legend telling her, “You have a powerful voice.”
Eleven years later, the anguish and rage gripping the country feel all too familiar. “The last two weeks is what I’ve been feeling my whole life as an African American,” she said.
Mitchell, now 28, is a nurse technician on the front lines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. But she insists that no matter how tired she is, no matter how far she has to drive, she will show up to as many protests, rallies, and vigils decrying police brutality as she possibly can.
“Being an activist has always been part of my life. It’s just who I am.”
Mitchell was raised by her grandmother in Louisiana but moved to Massachusetts four years ago. She said that as a Black transgender woman, she had no choice but to leave her home state. She moved to Provincetown, where another native Louisianan, Kristen Becker, had started a program called Summer of Sass to act as a safe harbor for young LGBT people.
But despite the distance, Mitchell carried her grandmother’s love — of her family, of their history, of helping others, and of the Bible — with her. Mitchell said it was that upbringing that inspired her to be a nurse. It’s what makes her carry one and five dollar bills with her to give away to people in need.
“We take care of each other, we take care of people,” she said of her family. “I was raised to, if you see another man falling, you help them.”
That upbringing also leads her to protest.
“There’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to speak. I come from a legacy of people who’ve been standing up and speaking out. And that’s the blood that pumps through my veins.”
“I will not let these protests die out,” Mitchell said, and she urged her neighbors to continue standing with her.
“We’re not only marching for George Floyd,” she said. “We’re marching for every African American who’s ever shed blood because of this unjust, racial, systematic system.”
While protesting in Boston on Tuesday, Mitchell said she remembered a promise she made to her grandmother: “I will not die on my knees.”
“A lot of people right now feel like they can’t breathe”
Kaija Langley and Lanita Foley are no strangers to protest. The couple said they have attended at least a half-dozen marches, rallies, and vigils since 2016, demonstrating for issues ranging from women’s rights to immigration reform.
Still, they insist, this feels different.
“While police violence against Black bodies isn’t new,” Langley said, “It feels like there’s a real shift happening … It really does feel like we’ve reached a threshold.”
“The country is in need of a ventilator, and we’re all trying to build it,” said Foley.
Langley, 49, and Foley, 44, described themselves as university employees, proud aunties and godmothers, and Black women who take care of themselves and one another by seeking out joy and levity wherever they can find it.
“Laughter is powerful,” Langley said.
Their North Cambridge home is stocked with a reserve of piñatas, ready to be broken open as needed. They garden, take walks, and try to remain rooted in the present — even as the past and future tug at them.
Foley was a Black teenager in Los Angeles when her city erupted following the police beating of Rodney King. Her parents had fled Alabama for California in search of somewhere she would be safe.
“We’re not longing for the past. We’re not nostalgic for that,” Foley said. “We want to be a little more creative and imagine a future where people can eat, where people can walk the streets in peace.”
So on Tuesday evening, the couple donned their masks and headed for Franklin Park. They were moved by the number of non-Black people who were present, calling for the future they had always dared to imagine.
"This is a wonderful time to show up, to be seen, to ask the hard questions, to begin the hard conversations,” Langley said. “And to trust, to trust maybe just a little bit that if we reach out, there are other people out there who will reach back.”
If people keep coming together to demand change, Langley said she is hopeful that “the next generation will have a little less trauma and a little more joy.”