MICHIGAN — Danah gets pretty emotional whenever she reflects on last year’s march, civil unrest and the death of George Floyd, which sparked both events to happen.
“That day wasn’t just about George Floyd. It was about the years of trauma. The years of our lives, Black lives, being disregarded,” recalled Danah, a community activist. “I was really stressed out. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was having a very visceral physical reaction to that day.”
So, Danah took to the streets to let out the pain she was feeling, she said. Danah was one of thousands of people who protested and marched through downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020, five days after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“We have faced a reckoning,” Danah said during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “America is being brought to its knees and being forced to see itself. I’m not sure if that is a change of heart, but we are at a point where we are being forced to see ourselves for what we really are.”
In the days following Floyd’s death, protests broke out in major cities like Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Detroit, and even overseas in Paris, France and London, U.K.
“I think it’s pretty certain that the social movements and everything happening in Minneapolis and other places kind of changed collective consciousness a little bit in a way that I think that’s important and might be seen as a turning point,” said Matthew Diemer, a professor at the School of Education at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project group, or ACLED, there were 10,600 demonstration events during summer 2020, and 95 percent of them were peaceful. The number of protests and protesters were higher than the ones in the 1960s.
“There were moments in the ‘80s and the ‘90s that the economy was really going so well that people may not have felt the need to [protest],” said Rogerio Pinto, professor of social work at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. “But there was a lot of demonstrations about gay marriage, for example. I mean, there was like one after another.”
However, the ones in 2020 were "record-breaking," Diemer said.
And only 5 percent, according to ACLED, were violent. Diemer added that most of the violence was caused by groups of people not affiliated with the protesters or the movement for racial and social justice.
“I think some events just kind of became a sense of rage or something’s that’s unbottled that spilled out into the streets. I think that’s kind of a genuine sense of voices being unheard, and I think that’s kind of rage,” Diemer said. “But, I think sometimes there’s people who want to create mischief, create havoc, and come to protest just for that purpose.”
The professors believe all the protests from 2020 helped put Derek Chauvin behind bars. On April 21, Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“I think that he was convicted because protests last year were extremely effective in creating public opinion that clearly classify what happened last year as murder. So, that person is convicted because I fully believe that’s the case,” said Pinto, who's been teaching about activism and advocacy for 20 years. “Protests are also effective in the sense of changing people’s hearts, not just their opinions but changing how they feel about groups in the population.”
The professors said all the activism brought attention and awareness to other injustices in the Black community. Last year, people not only marched for Floyd but also carried signs and chanted for Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed in Georgia; Elijah McClain, who allegedly died after being in a chokehold by police in Colorado; and Breonna Taylor. Taylor, who's from Grand Rapids, was shot and killed in her home in Louisville by police during a botched raid in March 2020.
Danah participated in a few protests in Taylor's honor.
She also participated in a number of protests across the country and in Grand Rapids, from calling into city meetings to sit-ins to caravans. The organization she's with, Defund the GRPD, have also done community work, passing out books on reform and activism in area neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, she predicts more protests will come.
“I say all the time: the fight continues. This isn’t the last that you’ve seen us,” Danah said. “We still have this deeply racist system and deeply flawed systems of oppression at every turn. So, the fight continues until we reach liberation.”