Young protesters take center stage in demonstrations against police killings of Black people

Kate Murphy
Producer

In response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, young protesters have taken to the streets of American cities and towns to demand justice and reforms. 

On June 3, former President Barack Obama praised the younger generation and acknowledged its efforts. “Part of what’s made me so hopeful is the fact that so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized,” Obama said. “Because historically, so much of the progress that we’ve made in our society has been because of young people.”

Yahoo News spoke to a few young protesters from around the country who range in age from 5 to 29 to document their perspectives on the movement to change how policing is done in America. 

“Are you gonna shoot us?” 5-year-old Simone Bartee asked a Houston police officer during a peaceful protest in Texas on June 2 led by George Floyd’s family. The officer, who was suited up in riot gear, knelt down beside her in the middle of the crowd and put his arm around her. Simone’s father, Simeon Bartee, filmed the officer’s response, which later went viral on social media. 

“We’re here to protect you. We’re not here to hurt you at all,” the officer told the girl. “You can protest, you can party, you can do whatever you want.” 

Bartee said one of the reasons he and his wife brought young Simone to the march is that they have a personal experience with police brutality. Bartee’s brother was beaten into a coma in Harris County jail in 2016. The next year, five Harris County jail detention officers were indicted in the incident.

Bartee recognizes that he has a unique perspective in experiencing law enforcement’s actions from both sides. “I don’t ever want her to think all police officers are bad,” Bartee said of his 5-year-old daughter. “Being on the other side where we can see the perspective of officers and they have regular lives like we do and not all of them are racist and not all of them are out here trying to hurt us.” 

Just a few days earlier in Charleston, S.C., 23-year-old Gee Jordan made his own emotional plea to officers that went viral. “All of you are my family. I love each and every one of you,” Jordan told the police at Marion Square as others filmed the encounter, which took place moments before he was arrested.

After a night of looting, violence and destruction in the area, Jordan went to the park after he helped clean up local businesses that were looted. He was also inspired to lead a kneel-in that day, the message of which focused on peace and communication. “I knew if I can get maybe just one, one officer to kneel down and hold my arm and look me in my eyes and say we changed the world together, that’s powerful.” 

As a tense exchange unfolded between police and protesters, he found himself in the middle. “People just gravitated towards my energy because I was the only one that was calm,” Jordan told Yahoo News. He encouraged other protesters to stay peaceful, he said, “because in my head their way wasn’t working because it would only lead to more violence.”

He told Yahoo News he was ultimately arrested for “disobeying a lawful order” because the officers told them to move. Jordan said many people have asked him why he was singled out at that moment. He said if he had to guess it’s because he was labeled as the “leader,” and law enforcement’s strategy was to take the leader out.

Yalakesen Baaheth, 25, and her friend decided the time was right to demonstrate in Vidor, Texas, a former “sundown town” where for decades, Black people were not welcome after dark. Vidor’s reputation as “Texas’s most hate-filled town,” as Texas Monthly once called it, stems from a history of racial intolerance and Ku Klux Klan activity. 

“Many of my people, we don’t stop in Vidor. As a matter of fact when I was younger, the only time we would stop in Vidor was to go straight to our friend’s house, and we wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Baaheth told Yahoo News, adding, “Sometimes whenever people are given a stereotype, others, they don’t give them the chance to correct it.” 

That’s why Baaheth and her friend organized a Black Lives Matter march in the town on June 6. On the day of the protest, the young activists weren’t sure what to expect. “We knew that we could stand by our decision, and if we would have died that day, we would have been OK with it,” Baaheth said. Instead, over 200 protesters showed up and “what we felt was just pure love and support.”

In a Saturday, June 6, 2020 photo, people walk in Gould Park in Vidor, Texas. Several hundred people came out to the park on Saturday afternoon for a protest and peace march in honor of George Floyd who died while being detained by Minneapolis police. (Fran Ruchalski/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP)

“It was Texas, so everybody – they were open carrying, they were concealed carrying, and it didn’t matter because they were there for the right cause,” Baaheth told Yahoo News. She said that a few trucks did rev their engines as they passed the protest, but nobody got out of their vehicles. 

Baaheth credits the Vidor Police Department for making sure everything ran smoothly. “I can never tell you how amazing they are, and that goes to show how far that they’ve come and how far we can go.” 

The interactions between young protesters and police have not always been so amicable, however. 

“I am not moved by police kneeling with protesters, I’m not moved by police marching with protesters, I’m not moved with police hugging protesters,” Deon Jones, 28, told Yahoo News. The former Obama White House staffer continued: “Police kneeling with me and police hugging me doesn’t negate the fact of a police officer busting my face open.”

On May 30 in Los Angeles, Jones says he was hit with a billy club and was shot with a rubber bullet on the right side of his face. He suffered two broken bones, but according to his doctor, he was lucky that the bullet didn’t blind or kill him. 

“What I need is to see that city budgets show that we are de-investing in the police and reinvesting in communities that really need them in terms of health care, education, parks and recreation and social services,” Jones told Yahoo News.

“My feelings towards law enforcement have gotten a little stronger, especially after that night,” 22-year-old Meka, who joined a protest in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News. Meka, who did not want to provide his last name for this article, said he and hundreds of protesters found themselves boxed in by police in a residential neighborhood on Swann Street the night of June 1. Despite repeatedly asking police where they should go, Meka said, they got no response. “After about 30 minutes they started moving in, started macing people, hitting people, pushing people,” Meka said. 

That’s when Rahul Dubey, a complete stranger, opened his door to about 70 protesters, Meka being one of them. “All night he was just amazing, so supportive and just making sure everyone was OK,” Meka recalled.

The police kept trying different tactics to try to get into the building, Meka said. Ultimately the protesters hiding inside decided that they could use the media coverage to their advantage. “We figured as long as we could get enough press to the door, we would be covered and they wouldn’t harass us on national TV,” Meka said. After several hours, they got out safe, leaving the apartment after 6 a.m., when the curfew ended.

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