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As summer protests cool off, racial justice activists consider ‘how to fight differently’

For activist Lindsay Minter, Sept. 24 “was a hard day.”

Kentucky’s attorney general had announced the day before that Louisville police officers would not be charged directly for the death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.

In March, the officers fatally shot Taylor multiple times after they entered her home during a drug investigation. Minter had followed Taylor’s case closely while she was organizing protests in her own hometown of Aurora, Colorado, following the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, a Black man, in police custody. Although Minter lives more than a thousand miles away, she and other women in her circle felt dismayed by the Taylor decision, she said, and “devalued” by the justice system.

Throughout the U.S., deaths like that of Taylor, McClain and George Floyd, and the subsequent calls for justice in their names, helped spur thousands of protests against systemic racism amid a pandemic that has also disproportionately affected Black and Latino people. But the outcome of the grand jury investigation into Taylor’s death has not given Minter — or many others around the country — hope for the future.

“Once again, we were shown how our Black lives don’t matter, and how a woman sleeping in her bed can be killed with no justice,” Minter said of the Sept. 23 decision.

“I feel hurt, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Kaitlyn Braswell of Capitol Heights, Maryland. “It’s a sign that an overhaul of our justice system needs to happen.”

Grand jury recordings released on Friday revealed confusion surrounding the circumstances of Taylor’s death, including conflicting accounts of whether or not the police officers announced themselves before they broke into the young woman’s apartment. Those recordings contained no mention of potential criminal charges because Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron had determined before the trial that the police officers were acting in self defense.

Braswell said Taylor’s death reminded her family of activist and Black Panther figure Fred Hampton, who was killed during a 1969 FBI raid on his apartment and became a martyr for the racial justice movement. Beneath the surface of today’s protests is an awareness that change comes in fits and starts, and that many of the issues that affect communities of color in 2020 are not different from the problems that civil rights activists of previous generations were working to solve.

As a summer of unrest comes to a close, and other matters — like the presidential election — dominate the national dialogue, the activists who continue to protest say they also feel disheartened by negative political narratives that have cast the demonstrations as lawless or violent.

Now, rather than relying on national leadership to effect change, they say they are focusing on their own communities, in hopes that they can get closer to realizing the goals of previous generations of activists who fought before them.

Why these protesters mobilized, and what they saw on the ground

Many Americans who participated in this summer’s protests felt a personal connection to the cause.

Jahmai Cherry began bringing his 11-year-old son to protests in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minnesota on May 25. Floyd, a Black man, was killed after a Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The incident, which occurred after a store owner reported that Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill, was filmed by a bystander and shocked viewers around the world.

Jahmai Cherry with his 11-year-old son, Kai, at a June protest in Hillsboro, Oregon. Photo via Jahmai Cherry.

To Cherry, having his son see that “there are allies and that there are people that do think that racial discrimination and injustice are bad” was important. Cherry said he’s been heartened to see conversations about racial justice taking place in parts of majority-white Oregon, which for years during its early history enforced a series of Black exclusion laws to keep people of color from settling in the state.

“Now, when I hear and see people sharing [that] there was a Black Lives Matter march or a protest … in these areas that traditionally I would never stop, even for gas, just just for fear of what the environment might bring, that’s something that is different to me,” Cherry said.

Alana Carmickle of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was similarly moved by Floyd’s death and decided to join protests in her city, where months later the police shooting of Jacob Blake would cause tensions to boil over. “I have brothers who are also African American, and it made me think of my family,” Carmickle, who is Black, told the NewsHour.

Floyd, Taylor and McClain aren’t the only Black Americans whose deaths helped fuel outrage. On social media and in the streets, activists have intoned the names of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells and Riah Milton, both Black transgender women killed within 24 hours of each other in June, and more recently 41-year-old Daniel Prude, who in March died by asphyxiation after police officers in Rochester handcuffed and put a spit hood on him.

While McClain died in August 2019 — after Aurora police officers put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with Ketamine — his death did not draw national attention until this summer.

“George Floyd galvanized thousands of people who weren’t coming out for Elijah in the first place,” Minter said. While she said it was frustrating that it took the death of another Black man to motivate more protesters, Minter said she made a point of saying McClain’s name at the demonstrations organized in the wake of Floyd’s death, too.

She said the fact that so many incidents of violence toward Black Americans now play out on camera has helped motivate protesters, as well.

“This is a visceral, honest reaction to people’s frustration with interactions that minorities have with police officers every day,” said Stephen Zendejas, who currently lives in Tracy, California, and participated in protests in the San Joaquin Valley this summer. Zendejas, who is not Black, but identifies as Asian and Hispanic, said that he’s had his own negative experiences with police growing up and was “exasperated by the blind deference that people tend to have…of the police in general, and the mischaracterization of the response to that” at the demonstrations against racial injustice.

Protesters in some cities were arrested for throwing projectiles such as rocks and explosives at law enforcement. At the height of the protests, storefront windows were smashed and buildings in cities across the country were spray-painted with graffiti.

Braswell said the protests she attended later in the summer were less confrontational and she didn’t agree that damaged buildings could be compared with lives lost to police brutality.

“People [are] equating property damage to life. It’s not the same,” she said. “I don’t condone whatsoever any looting that happened, I think that’s wrong. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to stand against groups whose ultimate goal is equity and justice.”

There were also documented instances of use of force by police, as they employed tactics such as spraying tear gas, firing rubber bullets, and “kettling” protesters into enclosed spaces. Armed far-right militias that organize primarily on social media have shown up to intimidate protesters under the guise of helping law enforcement. Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two protesters at demonstrations surrounding the Jacob Blake incident in Kenosha, claimed to be a member of one such militia.

But activists also said they saw a dissonance between the largely peaceful demonstrations and the message most protesters wanted to send and the way some media, politicians and law enforcement officers have characterized them.

The protests drew the ire of the Trump administration, which sent federal law enforcement into several major cities. Trump blamed liberal governors for not controlling the property damage or violence that occurred at the demonstrations and dismissed protesters as rioters, looters and thugs.

Graphic by Megan McGrew

The president’s rhetoric may have influenced the public. Support for Black Lives Matter, the social justice movement at the forefront of many current calls for police reform, has waned in the last few months, according to polls. In June, as demonstrations multiplied, a poll by PBS NewsHour, Marist and NPR found that 62 percent of Americans believed the protests were legitimate, while just 28 percent of Americans believed they were mostly people acting unlawfully. But public support for the protests dropped significantly in September, when just 48 percent of Americans believed they were mostly legitimate. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement dropped over the summer as well, from 57 percent in August to 54 percent in September.

How activists are pivoting to keep up the fight

Beyond polls, there’s a sense among some activists that national concern for systemic racism is waning, as a deluge of events — from the toll of the coronavirus pandemic to the catastrophic wildfires out West to the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just weeks before the presidential election — dominate headlines and capture the public’s attention.

“I have a fear that all of the events that have taken place in 2020 really have the potential of overshadowing some of the thoughtful and potentially cornerstone work that has happened around race this year,” Cherry said.

“I think, personally, while activists of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s would be somewhat encouraged by the some of the progress that has been made, they would be largely disappointed,” said Braswell, who noted that many of the areas in which civil rights leaders fought for greater racial equality — such as voting rights and fair housing — have been threatened over the years by policies such as voter suppression laws and redlining.

“All those things they fought for are in jeopardy,” Minter echoed.

At the national level, lawmakers have taken some steps to address the disproportionate mistreatment of people of color by police. House Democrats passed a sweeping police reform bill in June that seeks to increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct, enhance transparency and data collection, and eliminate discriminatory policing practices. Those reform efforts are now stalled in the Republican-led Senate. The same month, Trump signed an executive order that aims to incentivize police departments through grant money — rather than mandate — that officers be better trained and share information about excessive force complaints with the federal government. While the president called this executive order “a big step,” it fell short of the measures many activists were calling for, such as banning police chokeholds. Of the training reforms outlined in the order, University of California-Irvine criminology professor Emily Owens told Vox there was “not an evidence base to say this training program is going to change officer behavior in the field.”

With the fate of national legislation uncertain, many activists have been focusing their efforts on local reform. Minter said recent events have shown how policy changes that civil rights activists of previous generations lobbied for have fallen short, particularly in the realm of criminal justice. “I’m always saying to my mom, you guys already fought for this stuff, so how do we do it differently so we fix it this time?”

She is helping lead a citizen task force on policing oversight in Aurora, in the hopes of recommending reforms like training officers to have more “common sense” interactions with citizens that de-escalate, rather than amplify, dangerous situations. Braswell has taken on a side project supporting small businesses, with the goal of building “economic and social prosperity within the Black community.” And Cherry is working with his son’s school district in Hillsboro to start a parental advisory committee for supporting Black youth. Some said that simply the recognition by a wider swath of Americans that systemic racism exists in the U.S. would be an improvement.

This summer’s protests brought wider recognition to movements such as efforts to “defund the police,” a framework that advocates for divesting money from police departments and reinvesting it in other underfunded areas, like mental health services and education. It’s an idea that both Braswell and Minter said they support, and could be seen as having more teeth despite the challenges that come with enacting such policy changes.

“We have to fight differently,” Minter said. “The things that we’re fighting for, [are] like the nit-picky specifics of laws that already exist. Where before [civil rights activists] were fighting for the big words, now we’re fighting for the fine print.”