Protests across the nation are calling for justice against racism and police brutality. Students describe first-hand experiences.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - 6:09pm

Protesters carrying signs marching through Detroit.

Protesters carrying signs marching through Detroit. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social life has come to a stall, cities across the United States are drawing passionate crowds demanding justice, peace and an end to police brutality against Black people. 

George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 after a white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Three other officers participated in the killing. A private autopsy confirmed the death was a homicide and a result of not only choking, but also pressure on Floyd’s back from the other officers who pinned him down.

While on a jog, Ahmaud Arbery was shot outside of Brunswick, Ga., after being chased by an armed white father and son, who believed he was a burglar, on Feb. 23. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the two assailants have been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. GBI also arrested William Bryan Jr., the person who filmed the viral video of Arbery’s killing. 

In Washtenaw County, Sha’Teina Grady El was punched in the head multiple times by a police officer while her husband, Dan Grady El, was tased when both resisted being physically removed from the scene of a potential shooting.  

These are only some of the recent crimes of racism and police brutality.

Robert Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan, released a statement addressing recent events against the Black community titled “I Am So Tired.” In his address, Sellers detailed his sentiments of being African American in light of recent events and reflected on his parents’ guidance as a kid. 

“What my recollections of my parents’ example did do was provide me with a perspective, a lens through which I can view and understand all that is happening now,” Sellers wrote. “This lens reminds me that this struggle is not new, nor is it likely to be won in my life time. Sadly, it is likely that more Black people will die before we become the country that remotely resembles the one described in our constitution. This lens also reminds me that this country is MY country. My ancestors sacrificed their lives in building this country.”

The Daily spoke to students at the University of Michigan who have participated in these protests. In their own words, they shared moments of their experiences. Some quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

LSA junior Noah Streng in Detroit, Mich., multiple days.

“The whole protest has always been peaceful on the side of the protesters. They’re pretty much every day and I’ve never seen a protester instigate anything. It has always been peaceful, however, the police have been trying extremely hard to instigate things and start violence. 

The first day that we were protesting, we were just marching. It was before our curfew was even put into place, we were just exercising our rights to freely speak and march, and there was a point where the Detroit Police Department had bottlenecked us into an intersection (by) putting police cars on all sides of the intersection … and then they started driving their police cars into the crowd of people. They weren’t doing it very fast — we were able to move out of the way — but they were trying to get us really close together, right next to them, so someone would start a fight which would give them the excuse to tear gas us, to beat us, to run us out of town.”

***

The first day that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan implemented an 8 p.m. curfew.

“We decided to stay with the other protesters and occupy the space, peacefully protesting. It got to a point where the police came in with their riot gear, their shield(s), and they had formed a line around us, circling about half of our protest line. We kept peacefully protesting. We were saying, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ and we were telling them, we were chanting ‘Kneel with us.’

Eventually, myself and the other white protesters formed a human chain, a line in front of all of the other protesters of color to use our privilege to defend them. We stood in front of the police officers and we were still peacefully protesting. But then, one by one, as the night went on, we saw the police officers put on gas masks, getting ready. None of them responded to our calls for justice or for kneeling in solidarity. The captain of the police officers was there, and they were just repeating and telling us that the curfew has expired and that we need to leave. We stayed there.

Many of the police officers ... used the blue lives matter scarves. Many of them had punisher skulls (and) logos on their helmets or on their face masks indicating they were very much ready to use violence against us and were proud to do so. Many of the police officers, I had personally seen, had taken black tape and had put it over their name tags to disguise their identity that would give them the excuse to beat or kill a protester and they would suffer no repercussions ... They had prepared for this. They knew what they were going to do to us and they didn’t care.

Eventually, unprovoked, without warning, some people at the other side of the line had thrown tear gas. They had tear gassed us … All of a sudden, someone in the crowd had thrown a firework which had blown up right by my feet and it sounded like there had been a gun that went off ... Everybody had proceeded to run away. As we were running, we got about 15 meters away and the police threw a flashbang and flashbanged the unarmed protesters who were fleeing the scene. They continued to throw tear gas and chase after us. They charged at us with their riot shields, trying to arrest us.”

***

“It has been incredibly inspiring being a part of protests and seeing a remarkable amount of solidarity, mutual aid and love going on between the protesters. Wherever you are in the protest line, there are people there who are passing out free food, free snacks, free water, free medical supplies, free masks, free gloves, people who have backpacks and they give us free stuff. If one of us is being arrested, the others will try to defend that person. If someone is being tear-gassed, someone will come up to them and pour water over their eyes and help them.”

LSA sophomore Brittany Hull-Dennis in Chicago, Ill., May 30.

Image of a garbage bin on fire in Chicago

Image of a garbage bin on fire in Chicago Buy this photo
Courtesy of Brittany Hull-Dennis

“If you don’t grow up feeling the same fear of cops and police brutality, and you don’t grow up hearing the same tales and learning that society is going to treat you differently just cause the way your skin looks, you might be able to see it from the outside and think, ‘Oh that’s bad.’ But you don’t truly feel the anger and rage that Black people are feeling at this time.

I know not everyone is able to (protest), so I can’t judge people for not going out there. There’s a danger behind it. Not everybody can deal with the trauma that comes from having to run away from police as they tear-gas you and shoot you with rubber bullets … I’m able to do it, and I’m willing to do it … I need to do something, I can’t keep feeling powerless.”

***

On the way to Trump Tower.

“(The police) had Trump Tower surrounded. Nobody was going to be able to even look in the window and see anything, nobody could even throw a rock … Of course they were tense. People were like ‘Screw cops,’ stuff like that. But you can’t arrest somebody because they were like ‘Fuck cops.’ That’s not breaking the law, that’s their freedom of speech. 

When we were trying to get towards Trump Tower, they were trying to push us back because they don’t want to give us access to this. That's when things start to get violent because some protesters are fighting back … They had an audio playing, something like, ‘You need to leave the premises. If you don’t, we have the right to use force.’

It was a terrifying experience because you see these cops ready to go. They’re holding their batons ready to beat somebody.

It was heartbreaking to see how some of the cops didn’t even care, they didn’t show any kind of sympathy. There was this one white cop … he literally (was) laughing … We’re literally crying for justice and for you to stop killing people who look like us — you’re laughing in our faces and not taking us seriously.

Somehow I end up behind the police line (protecting Trump Tower). It was me and my friend and these other two girls … we were the only civilians behind that line … I was definitely not feeling safe.

I don't know, it was just my luck some white lady with a baby came through and they let her through. It was really frustrating to me too, because you’re telling (people) you’re here to keep people from entering Trump Tower or getting access... so why is this white lady just able to get through? Because she doesn’t look threatening with her baby? But hey, her privilege allowed me to walk through … I was just thinking, ‘Wow, if this lady wasn’t here, would they have let us back through? Or would they just have held us here for no reason.’”

*** 

“(Later on in the night) there was another police line that was trying to close in on us. Their goal was to separate us … It was so chaotic, I don’t know where stuff went wrong but (the police) started running our way … I couldn’t really see what some of these people were doing. It seemed like (the police) were aimlessly targeting people to try to detain (them). What I got to witness was a woman — I don’t know if she was a person of color or not, all I know is that she was detained by cops and they were beating her up with a baton — and two bicyclists who appear to be white (are) standing up for her when a cop takes one of their bikes and then starts grabbing at (the bicyclists).”

***

“We thought things had calmed down. We walked back out, and there was a whole dumpster on fire. They set cop cars on fire and stuff too. What I observed was that it was white people who started the fires. They’re sitting here taking pictures by the fire, posing in them. Which kind of irritates me because that shifts the image. 

What the media sees is ‘Oh Black people are looting. Black people are stealing from these stores, they’re setting these fires,’ when really, a lot of white people are starting these fires from what I’ve seen … This is not a protest for you to get a quirky picture in front of a fire.”

Business freshman Nicholas Rea in Newark, N.J., May 30

“When I got there, I was pleased to see there were several thousand people gathered outside the courthouse … It was a safe environment. 

In a lot of cities, there’s been negative police encounters or local officials that aren’t supportive. From what I understand, the mayor of Newark was one of the people marching in the protest. From what I saw, the police were never confrontational, and people weren’t confrontational towards the police either. It was generally a peaceful gathering between all parties involved.

I’m white and I come from a predominantly white community, so I would never pretend to understand what it's like in a different community. Just to be among a lot of other people who suffer from the struggles they were protesting, and hearing them talk about it, was really special to me because a lot of what people are making a point of right now is actually going out and listening to communities that we (have ignored) for far too long.

At this moment in time, it’s a movement that we can’t ignore, that we can’t just wait until the next killing happens.”

Nursing junior Reanna Marschel in Minneapolis, Minn., multiple days

Protesters gather in Minneapolis

Protesters gather in Minneapolis Buy this photo
Courtesy of Reanna Marschel

“My friends and I left early because of freeway closures … but one of our friends who lives in the city stayed at the march. She texted us about 45 minutes after we left and said a semi-truck driver plowed through the crowd … she said she was in the lane that the 18-wheeler came flying down, and she had to pull her two friends out of the way… Everyone was safe at the end of the day.

We went out again (the next day) ... We went to the governor's house to protest … At one point, Gov. (Tim) Waltz came outside with the intent to speak, but first, the (protest) speaker said ‘We want you to listen first because how can you speak and respond if you don’t know what we have to say.’ For 30 minutes, he listened, and at one point, turned back around and went back inside his house.”

***

“I was really surprised at the sense of community and passion in Minneapolis, and not just at the protest, but you could see it everywhere you go. People have signs hanging from their windows to their porches, ‘Black Lives Matter’ spray painted on boarded-up businesses, small businesses are posting things and putting up ‘Black Lives Matter’ art, George Floyd art. 

I was really surprised at that because that’s not what the media is portraying. You don’t get that sense unless you have first-hand reports because the media is just talking about the looting and the riots. It’s just not representative of everything that’s happening at Minneapolis right now, by a long shot.”

LSA senior Melanie Hawkins in Detroit, Mich., June 1

“Every protest has a group of organizers just so things can stay peaceful. When a bunch of random people take over, things tend to get out of hand and that’s what you see on the news. While we are angry, it is not that a bunch of Black people are going outside and throwing things, which is what they like to show on the news. From what I saw, we are very organized, we do take the time to make sure it isn’t going to start any issues with the police department.

The most troubling thing I saw was when we got back downtown … Immediately you could see the police were waiting for us. They had trucks, and they had police officers on horses, and they had a line of police officers waiting with the big guns … There were police blocking off just about every main street downtown, so when we were approaching, people were forming a human chain around us. We got on our knees and said that we were peaceful. We put our hands up so they could see most of us … had no weapons.

They asked us to disperse. They said ‘You are in violation … of the curfew.’

Once we moved to the left (out of their way), the police department was starting to move towards us … They were standing at first, completely still. Once we all moved over, they started to march closer in increments … I feel like this was one of the protests where protesters were given a fair chance and a fair warning to disperse before any trouble erupted.

The same people that were trying to cause a bit of uproar earlier in the protest, they were the ones who were walking off, which is what I found most disturbing. Because the same people that were shouting ‘F the police,’ as we got close to the police, ‘Don’t walk off,’ and all this other stuff — they were dispersing. It made me concerned because there was an incident between a white male and the police, and the white male had walked off and let two Black kids get hurt by the police … people would start trouble and we’d be left to suffer for it.”

***

“The protests aren't violents acts of angry people going crazy and breaking things. There’s a few bad apples, and just like with any group, there’s also a few people you could clearly tell are being influenced by the police … (We were) demonstrating peacefully and people thinking it’s unfair that there’s a curfew on a peaceful protest when, just a few weeks ago, white people were protesting their right to go to barber shops. Those protests seem to have no curfew, I didn't get any emergency alerts that I had to stay inside.

I just want to know, after my experience, what qualifies our protest as an ‘emergency’ or as ‘threatening’ to my life? Because I went, and I walked with a large group of people who are all unified with the same cause, peacefully protesting the state of police violence. Somehow we’re threatening, and we need to be beaten, tear-gassed and locked up.”

Summer Managing News Editor Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu