It was supposed to be a beautiful moment.
On Sunday evening, under a bright blue sky, a sea of peaceful protesters filled Minneapolis’s Interstate 35W bridge. They were about four miles from where George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, had died almost a week before, when a white police officer pinned his neck to the ground.
Sumaya Keynan knelt down in a moment of collective silence. The 26-year-old has lived in Minneapolis her whole life, and had never experienced anything quite like this: thousands coming together to protest police violence, and to honor the memory of a black man.
The next thing Keynan knew, there was scrambling, shouting. A semi-truck had driven past the bridge’s barricades and into the crowd. Keynan, spurred by adrenaline, ran to the side of the bridge, out of the way of the barreling truck.
Keynan, who works as a model and business consultant, had been taking to the streets in Minneapolis since Tuesday, the first day of protests since Floyd’s death. She had marched the whole week; she had witnessed protesters’ violent skirmishes with police, the tear gas, the vandalism. She would learn later that no known protesters were harmed on Sunday and that the truck driver was arrested, but this particular incident left her in “shock.”
Over the weekend, protests spread to cities throughout the world — from Detroit to Memphis to Berlin. Many weren’t just seeking justice for Floyd, but also for other recent incidents of racial violence, including the March death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her Louisville home, and the February murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white men. More than 4,000 protesters in two dozen cities had been arrested over the weekend, according to a tally by the Associated Press, and at least several protesters have died. Journalists have been subjected to violence, too: Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, says she is blind in her left eye after being shot at by police in Minneapolis.
The protests have continued as the nation contends with the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more than 100,000 U.S. lives — and disproportionately killed people of color. Keynan says reminders of the pandemic were all around: Most people wore masks, and organizers doled out hand sanitizer. She knew it was a risk to be in such proximity to others.
Still, she says, “We have another virus to fight, and it’s more important.”
On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer caught on video pinning Floyd to the pavement for eight minutes and 46 seconds, was charged with murder. The three officers who had been present at the scene have been fired. Thousands-strong protests have continued every day in Minneapolis, encountering dangerous confrontations with police late into the night.
The city has also in recent days been wracked with looting, most of which has been perpetuated by people from outside the city, according to officials. As the Guardian reports, black community leaders have said that white supremacists and anarchists are to blame. Keynan says she and her family have been taking shifts staying up at night to watch over the strip mall her father owns.
Terrion Williamson, a professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, says the protests “do not emerge out of a vacuum.” Minneapolis is 19.4 percent black, slightly higher than the national average, and has a strong immigrant community. “The death of George Floyd might have been the precipitating event, but there has been a whole legacy of inequality and dispossession and plunder of black people and black communities,” Williamson says, pointing to Minneapolis’s history of segregation and more recent murders of black men, including Philando Castile, Jamar Clark and David Smith.
Williamson says there are also myriad examples of how black women are stepping up to lead the movement — from Jael Kerandi, the University of Minnesota student who asked the school to cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, to Leslie Redmond, president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
Lena Alubaidi, a 20-year-old student who grew up in Minneapolis, has been protesting in the city every day. During the week, she stayed out on the streets from about 5 p.m. to midnight, she says; on Saturday and Sunday, she “spent all day out there.”
It was on Wednesday, the second day of protests, when Alubaidi encountered one of her darkest moments. She was on Lake Street, in front of the police department’s 3rd Precinct, trying to get a photograph of police spraying protesters with tear gas.
“Next thing you know, there was a tear-gas canister shot right to my face,” Alubaidi says. “All I remember is being on the floor, unable to breathe.”
She couldn’t see anything, but heard a man’s voice offer to pour milk in her eyes to help stop the burning. He also told her to take off her camera equipment. When she finally recovered, she says, she realized the equipment was gone.
Later that night, when Alubaidi returned home, she couldn’t speak to anyone. “I just got into bed and curled up and cried,” she says.
Alubaidi says she has continued protesting because, as “a white-passing person of color,” she holds privileges that black Americans don’t. It was important for her to be on the front lines, she says, both in groups of friends and alone, standing up as an ally.
“It’s not like we’re out there looting, rioting, we’re just speaking our minds,” Alubaidi says. “But at the end of the day, we’re getting tear-gassed, arrested, getting rifles pointed at us.”
On Thursday, the first night Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) activated the National Guard, Zacaria Moeller took to the streets with her roommate. The 24-year-old has lived in Minneapolis her whole life and now works in video production.
As a mixed race woman, Moeller felt like she “needed to speak up”: “I have family who don’t have the privilege of being lighter skinned like I do, and I fear for their lives,” she says. “So it’s worth it to me to go out there and fight for their rights and for everyone else.”
Moeller, who was also on the I-35W bridge when the truck drove toward the crowd, says that the protests have otherwise been “truly peaceful.” She’s witnessed many acts of kindness, she says: organizers handing out snacks and water, as well as milk and baking soda for those who are hit with tear gas.
“I feel like the past few days, I forget that a pandemic is even happening,” she says. “It’s a really weird feeling, you’re in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re standing like a foot away from thousands of people all yelling for the same cause. It feels really good.”
She says she is “scared” of getting covid-19, but the risk won’t deter her. “This is hundreds of years of oppression and brutality against black people,” Moeller says. “At this point, we can’t stand for it anymore.”
Williamson, the professor, points out that there are many other ways people in Minneapolis, and beyond, can get involved. “When I think about what it means to be on the ground, it doesn’t mean necessarily attending a specific rally,” she says, citing the massive food drives that have cropped up in the city, as well as online funds. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit organization bailing out jailed protesters, has already raised more than $20 million.
Despite the dangers associated with protesting in-person, Alubaidi says she’s partaking because, as “a young person,” she wants to change things for future generations.
On one of the first days of the protest, she saw a little girl standing with her mom, protesting in the middle of the street and blocking traffic. She heard the mother say, “Don’t move, baby. If they do anything to you, I will be here. Stand up for what you believe in.”
And it’s those words that ring in Alubaidi’s ears now, as she gears up for another evening of protesting in Minneapolis.