NAPLES, Florida – The blur of red and blue lights cast the night purple.
A barricade of deputies and armored vehicles blocked protesters from returning to Fifth Avenue South in the affluent beachside city of Naples.
“Start walking south so we don’t have to make any arrests,” a voice boomed on a bullhorn.
Earlier, when the sun was still out, the protest had spilled, unplanned, onto U.S. Highway 41, shutting down a major thoroughfare. The group swelled to a few hundred before converging on Fifth Avenue, where a Wagyu steak sells for more than $100 and palm trees with white lights make every evening feel holiday-like.
Not this night at the start of June, the first day of protests against racial injustice in Collier County.
People emerged from fancy shops with worried faces. An older man in a polo shirt taunted protesters. There was no violence or looting, though there was anger as some protesters lobbed insults at deputies.
Police stood stone-faced before young men carrying only posters and the T-shirts they had peeled off because it was so hot.
Friends Lisa Martinez, 28, and Cherry Estelomme, 26, joined the march after Fifth Avenue South, as a voice on a bullhorn urged protesters to keep walking south.
The throng didn’t budge. Lisa and Cherry used the time to talk to the police.
Why aren't more like Officer Linda?
Lisa and Cherry met at Lely High School in east Naples and share the experience of growing up Black in a county that is 90% white. In Naples proper, it’s 94%.
As teenagers, they felt uncomfortable even venturing to Fifth. Cherry noticed how people crossed the street when they saw her. They pulled their purses to the other side. She tried to win strangers over by smiling as if to say, “I’m nice. I promise.”
This was the first protest either had attended, ever. Lisa is a nursing student. Cherry sells furniture.
Lisa has a Black son. He’s 10. Like other mothers, she had heard George Floyd’s call for Mama as the white officer knelt on his neck.
Cherry is tired of unwarranted traffic stops and the need to coach her brothers on how to survive them. Call me. Hit record. Put the phone down so they don’t think it’s a weapon. One brother grew so weary of being pulled over in Naples that he moved away.
Yet she knew good cops too. There was Officer Linda, whom she’d known since middle school. They still hugged when they crossed paths at the 7-Eleven.
“Why aren’t there more cops like that? What are they afraid of? And if they’re that afraid, why are they a cop?”
As the protest lingered at the intersection, Lisa held up her phone, tapped Facebook Live and began interviewing law enforcement guarding the road back to Fifth Avenue.
“What’s your take on what’s going on, sir?”
“It’s a group of individuals that are peacefully protesting,” said one deputy.
“Thank you! Who else? I want to talk. Can I talk to y’all? Because it’s peaceful.”
“I thought that how they killed that guy was awful,” said another deputy.
Her next interview, a highway patrolman, said: “I don’t have an opinion.”
Cherry approached some deputies, thanking them when they agreed that Floyd’s killing was wrong. “How can we change this?” she asked some. “What can you guys do to help our community? To make us to feel whole?”
Naples, she thought, was the perfect place for protesters and police to walk together.
A white deputy in his late 20s, without riot gear, took several steps forward, moving near the protesters. His name was Cpl. Dan McCoy.
Earlier, Cherry had seen him filming himself on his phone in selfie mode, amid protesters chanting, “Walk with us! Walk with us!”
It was as if he were rooting for them, she thought. It made her trust him.
Lisa saw how he talked with people. And listened.
The voice on the bullhorn returned. “Ladies and gentlemen, he wants to walk with you.”
The announcement set off a ripple of voices. A handful of protesters, voices raised, questioned his motives in a heated exchange.
“Why don’t you take off your vest?” one asked.
Cherry and Lisa drew closer to McCoy. Lisa didn’t like the angle at which some were coming at him. She wasn’t there to be a hypocrite, to say forget all police. What she wanted was to weed out the racist ones.
McCoy turned toward her. “If you guys make sure I don’t get jumped, I’ll walk with you.”
The two women did not hesitate. They moved to either side of McCoy.
“Let’s go,” Cherry said. “Let’s go walk. Let’s go walk, man, let’s go walk.”
She repeated the refrain as they linked arms and led McCoy from the crowd to the clear road.
“As long as I don’t get jumped.”
“You’re not going to get jumped,” Cherry said. “We got you.”
“Thank you for protecting. I appreciate that.”
“We’re protectors here the same way you should protect us, the same way.”
The protesters fell behind the trio as they talked and walked for blocks. The women felt a shift in the crowd. Tension eased. Hope opened.
It’s hard to know what McCoy was thinking. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office said he could not be interviewed. But to the women at his side, his steps felt genuine.
Cherry’s heart exploded with happiness.
It had long been dark, but to Lisa it felt as if “we were walking into the sunset.”
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: George Floyd protest: Two women escort deputy worried about protesters