It was Thursday afternoon when rising junior Phoebe Cook and her dad joined protesters near the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. They were angered by the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis last week when a former officer pressed his knee against his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I was a person. I couldn’t breathe. I begged you for my life. You ignored my cries. You killed me,” read the sign she carried with her through Downtown.
It was the same sign she carried Friday as she protested alone along the intersection of Fifth and Olive streets in a crowd of hundreds who had trickled onto part of the 110 Freeway, later forced to disperse at the sight of rubber bullets. She was hit in the shoulder as she retreated.
It was the same sign she carried Saturday alongside two friends as they walked 10 miles from Pan Pacific Park to Rodeo Drive with the thousands of protesters who joined the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter in organized protest. The demonstrations remained peaceful until protesters were met by police who had blocked off the area after those marching had returned to their cars. Officers threw tear gas and shot rubber bullets into the crowd.
Cook is one of dozens of USC students who have joined demonstrations across L.A. and the country in outrage over police brutality following Floyd’s death. Since May 27, the days have been marked by millions who have rallied, marched and protested. Civil unrest has broken out as people looting and vandalizing have interrupted peaceful protests and police officers have used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up demonstrations.
But the importance of the message stands above the unrest, Cook said.
“There’s so many names that I have remembered, so many names that I don’t, of Black people who’ve been killed by police brutality,” said Cook, who is majoring in urban studies and planning. “It just feels exhausting.”
Floyd’s death came two months after Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by police inside her Louisville, Ky. home when they entered late at night with a warrant and three months after Ahmaud Arbery was shot while jogging around his Georgia neighborhood by two white men, including one former police officer.
It could be anyone, said Jayden Smith, a rising junior majoring in political science who attended a protest in Decatur, Ill. Monday. He said it’s what pushed him to march with hundreds from his own community.
“George Floyd could have been my grandfather; George Floyd could have been my sister; George Floyd could have been me if I was born darker; George Floyd could be my children, depending on the color of their skin when they’re born,” said Smith, who is Black and Korean.
In L.A., students joined protests across Downtown, the Fairfax district and Long Beach, carrying signs that read messages such as “Demilitarize the police” and “Prosecute killer cops.”
Frustration reached a new height as demonstrations turned into turmoil Friday, causing L.A. County to implement countywide curfews and Mayor Eric Garcetti to call in the National Guard Saturday to patrol the streets of the city. Many protesters have called out the Los Angeles Police Department for its response to protests, saying that officers have provoked the unrest. In a briefing Monday, Garcetti encouraged individuals to continue to exercise their right to protest peacefully but said action would be taken to prevent looting, vandalism and violence.
Despite the chaos, 2020 graduate Aria Cataño said the protests have been impactful. She saw protesters in the Fairfax district put their own safety in danger to help others amid waves of tear gas and rubber bullets and said she was happy to see some individuals lugging backpacks of water, masks and goggles to hand out to others.
“The protests were honestly some of the most beautiful moments of humanity that I’ve seen in blatant contrast with some of the most brutal moments of humanity that I’ve seen,” Cataño said. “I think it’s that juxtaposition that has really resulted in this general sentiment of confusion and hope but fear, and that’s something that I think will stick with me for a lifetime.”
Though Cataño said some groups in Long Beach Sunday parted ways from the main rally to loot and vandalize businesses, she said it remained relatively calm and allowed for protesters to put forth their message without disruption. Students said the demonstration remained mostly peaceful as speakers took the podium to speak in support of Black lives and against police brutality.
“One of the most moving parts of the protests was just seeing Black people cry and thank white people and non-Black people by saying, ‘I’ve been out here at Black Lives Matter rallies for years, and it was all Black people. It was new; it wasn’t this big. Nobody had supported us like this. This is the most mobilization we’ve ever had,’” said rising senior Alia Atkins, who attended the Long Beach protest.
Tata Vivas, who also attended the Long Beach protest, emphasized the importance of non-Black activism. She said it was important to her to go out and protest and spread awareness in her own community at USC among the Latinx community.
“I think this is the first time that I’ve recognized and realized that it’s not about just believing in something and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I agree that all Black lives matter,’” said Vivas, a rising senior majoring in theatre and narrative studies. “It’s about actually using your voice to try and bring the narrative to the Black community and to the Black voice and to listen and empathize. We’re all learning how to be the best ally.”
By attending demonstrations throughout the week, Cook said, in addition to demanding change, she aimed to document what was going on around her to educate those she knew, especially since misinformation had been rampant due to the influx of information circulating on social media and other outlets.
“It’s just really tiring to only be able to sit behind a screen and state my support,” Cook said. “I wanted to go out there, and I wanted to show everybody this is what’s really happening.”
Across the country
In Chicago, rising junior Enrique Delgado formed his own protest with his twin brother Eder Saturday and chose to walk around his neighborhood with a sign that read “Black lives matter” on one side and “Fuck 12” on the other. They had decided to refrain from creating a large protest since the neighborhood was home to many undocumented residents.
“I think we saw that our community wasn’t responding the way that we wanted it to respond to this because there’s a lot of talk in the Latinx community about anti-colorism, but I feel like there’s not enough action. Personally, a lot of people want to talk about change, but nobody really acts on it. And if no one’s going to act on it and somebody has to.”
Delgado and his brother were arrested as they were walking back home at 8:30 p.m. and held overnight, he said.
“We looked at each other in the grass and we were like, ‘Damn, this is actually happening,’” he said. “I just told [Eder], ‘Don’t do anything, like it’s about to be OK.’”
In Washington D.C., rising junior Calvin Carmichael joined peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House Sunday. He chanted and took a knee of silence alongside other protesters, but tensions grew following altercations between some of the crowd and police as protesters were hit by tear gas, Carmichael said.
“I want to experience this firsthand, and I want to be a part of the change,“ said Carmichael, who is majoring in the business of cinematic arts and is a co-director of USC’s Black Student Assembly. “I just wanted to go out there and reiterate what the true message of this is because I feel like with a lot of things going on people are focusing on the looting and how the protests are getting violent, but do not understand that our presence is for equality.”
When Smith took to the streets to march with his neighbors in Decatur, he was overwhelmed by the amount of support he saw among his predominantly white city. Hundreds walked through downtown, including the city’s mayor Julie Moore Wolfe.
“I kind of assumed that a lot of the people I know they wouldn’t speak out, but I’ve been astonished by the amount of white people, people of color, conservatives, liberals, just everybody is speaking out about the injustices,” Smith said. “They want action to be taken. And I think that’s wonderful.”