There are five of us. After over a week of protests, we know we are safest if we go in numbers.
In large, shiny, silver letters, Chad has the letters F, U, C, and K floating from his backpack. I am carrying the numbers 1 and 2. Standing close together with the rest of our group – Barbara, Nathan, and Shiraz, hanging off loosely to the side. “FUCK 12” is our message for today.
I’m angry. Of course, I’m angry. I’m a Black woman living in America. There’s so much to be angry about. I’m also happy. I am alive during a pinnacle moment in history. A moment when I can witness the world rallying behind my community.
This is our time!
So Chad has brought balloons to celebrate. People cluster around Union Park – hipster bikes, mostly black attire, a sea of eyes, faces covered by masks. Signs in every shape and color are waving about like proud trophies on display. Our balloons definitely stand out as people flock around us.
“Can I take a picture?”
“Sure,” I mutter under a cloth mask, uncomfortable with the idea.
“Can I stand next to you for a picture?”
“Sure,” same reply, same feeling.
“Can you hold the 2 a little higher?”
“Okay, that’s enough,” I finally state, stepping away from the direction of the camera. I pull my 1 and 2 balloons with me.
“I’m not going to stand here and be a photo op.” I turn back to address Chad. He nods and pulls his F, U, C, and K balloons along, giving everyone a “sorry” shrug. Yes, our balloons are meant to be fun and I wanted folks to have a reason to laugh and smile, but this isn’t Coachella.
Folks continue to snap pictures of us. I keep my shades on and direct my attention to the speakers instead. We are pretty far back, so all I can hear is the crowd’s chants: “Defund, disarm, dismantle!” Even though I can’t see how large the crowd was, I can hear them all and it sounds massive.
Movement. The march is starting. I glance back at Chad, at the other people in our little group. We’re all still together.
“Want to tie these up on that fence so we don’t have to walk with them?” Chad asks.
The balloons are cute but trying to keep them from knocking into other protesters is not what I wanted to focus on right now. We walk over to the chain-linked fence and tie them up, ensuring the message was still clear. We are barely away before folks start taking advantage of the photo op. Whatever, we are here to march.
Chanting, clapping, shouting, drums, pots banging, bike bells chiming, these are the sounds that make up a protest and they are beautiful. My ears start to ring with the music of the movement. I can feel the energy pulsing through me like warmth.
I try to keep everyone in our group within my view. Stay together. As the chanting changes, I raise my hands and scream with everyone else, “Don’t shoot!”
Water, first-aid, and snacks are offered by dozens of people as we march. You can’t be thirsty here without someone offering you a water bottle. Other people are sharing information.
“Did you hear they are delivering meals to families?”
“If you need someone to talk to, these therapists are offering free sessions.”
“I heard they are organizing people to do wellness checks on the elderly.”
“She’s offering to watch people’s kids for free. ”
People are supporting one another. They are feeding others and offering shelter. We are protecting ourselves.
After almost two hours of marching, we sit and kneel as a collective body in the middle of the street. Broken chants ring out in small pockets of the massive force. I can see the flashing of police lights behind the protesters along with city buses following slowly behind them. Is that for us?
Hands raise up in the air and start waving for silence.
The chanting slows, as the arms move through the crowd like a wave informing people in the back that it is time for silence and reflection. We kneel for nine minutes to remember George Floyd.
I start to twist my fingers. It’s almost curfew. I can hear my heart beating as I shift my eyes over to the cops forming a line around us on all sides. Are they going to start beating us?
The nine minutes are up. It’s past curfew. The cops start to shuffle, tightening their grips on the batons. We are too large a group for them to hurt us. Not yet.
“Bikes on the cops!” The call comes out from the front and ripples through the crowd, everyone passing on the message. People with bikes start to get up and head to the outskirts. They form a bike barrier between the police and the thousands of us who have remained seated. They are protecting us.
The pace of my heart starts to pick up.
“If you need an Uber home, stand up now!” The next call passes through the crowd as a few people stand up and head to the front. My eyes are wide, watching all the movement. There’s so much to watch.
“Do you two need an escort?” I turn my head to glance at two white men sitting in front of Barbara and me. We’re both Black.
“No, we’re with them,” I say pointing behind me to where Chad and the third man in our group are sitting closely behind us. They will protect us.
“If you’re Black or brown and need white allies to protect you, stand up now!” Some people do not hear the call and mutter around me in confusion.
“If you’re Black or brown and need white allies to protect you, stand up now!” I shout the message. A few people get up and head to the front looking for escorts.
“Stand up. Stay strong! Stay together!”
The final command from the front is repeated by everyone in the crowd. “Stand up! Stay Strong! Stay together!” We chant, rising to our feet.
The crowd starts to shift and split and small groups break off and head out. I reach out and grab Barbara’s hand. I don’t want us to get separated. I want us to stay in this massive group of people forever. We are safe like this, but I know that can’t last.
“We need to head that way,” Chad says, pointing in a direction through the crowd.
“Lead the way,” I answer, stepping back to allow him a path.
With Chad in front, we weave through the crowd. My hand grips Barbara’s. Nathan and Shiraz follow closely behind, covering our backs. Rides are offered by some folks raising their hands, showing how many seats they have available with their fingers.
The bike barrier splits to allow us to pass, quickly re-closing the gap once we are past.
“Do you girls need a ride?” Someone asks.
“No thanks,” I call back, keeping my eyes on Chad’s back. We have our group. We are together. We would be safe.