Sometimes you have to do something regardless of reasons not to. Or at least I do. When this happens, I say that I have been called, meaning I am compelled to act regardless of the consequences. I have “been called” only four times in my life. I was called to register southern black voters in 1965 accepting the violence that I might experience. I was called, in 2005, to write a book about registering those voters. I was called again, in 2018, to be part of “We’ll Meet Again,” a PBS documentary on registering those voters. And, for the fourth time in my life, I was called to go the George Floyd protest in Sacramento on June 6, 2020.
I have not been to a lot of protests. The first one I was in Charleston, SC in 1965. I have a picture of it on the cover of my book, You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You: Registering Black Voters One Soul at a Time, 1965. This is hard to believe since I was a student at Berkeley in the 60’s. I was in a protest in 2016 against Congressman Tom McClintock. Those are the only protests I remember being in. I have read about them and watched them on television. Outside of writing letters, I had to find a way to make myself heard.
Of course, my friends insisted I must not go. I am 73. Someone taking advantage of the nonviolent protests earlier in the week had broken windows and damaged property. I walked through the glass and saw the plywood boarded windows of the store fronts as I approached the demonstration. I was warned that the National Guard had been called in because of that violence and that the National Guard could brutally attack demonstrators. (Remember Kent State in 1970 or UCLA in the 1960s) I knew about the National Guard. I went to Berkeley in the 1960s. But I was also shot at and people I was with were beaten in 1965 because they thought black Americans should not have the right to vote. I have watched police across the country kill black people who, if they had committed crimes, had not committed crimes worthy of the death penalty. (Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Justin Howell, Sean Monterrosa, Keith Childress, Bettie Jones, Kevin Matthews, Michael Noel, Roy Nelson, Miguel Espinal, Cornelius Brown, Jamar Clark, Michael Lee Marshall, Alonzo Smith, Dominic Hutchinson, Stephon Clark, India Kager…)
For me, as for many others, the day was also about the state of the country and the fear that fascism is raising its ugly head under this administration. I can no longer do nothing as a line of regular Army vehicles drive through the streets of DC, a National Guard helicopter flies overhead and nonviolent protesters are tear gassed because they are in the way of the president who wanted to walked to a church to hold up a Bible (upside down) for a political photo op. (Evangelicals rejoice! Even Pat Roberts said no, not to mention the pastor of the church and the Catholic Archbishop. The church and the Bible were being using in a way that was hardly sanctified.) I also wondered about uniformed and armed officers who arrived to “protect” DC. Who were they? No insignia. No names. No way to hold them responsible. If they had been wearing brown shirts, they were straight out of Hitler’s play book. Later we learned that they were from the federal Bureau of Prisons “which are highly trained tactical units capable of responding to prison disturbances, and providing assistance to other law enforcement agencies during emergencies.” Officers from the Bureau’s Disturbance Control Teams, which “specialize in crowd control scenarios,” have also been deployed.” But, no insignia. No names. No way to hold them responsible.
So, I was delighted that the weather was cool after several days of temperatures above 100 and that there was a breeze. People were upbeat anticipating making a difference in the atmosphere of this country. I’d forgotten that not every place offered a bathroom for protesters especially if they were closed (we were near the capitol and many were government buildings and it was Saturday – not to mention the virus!). In a Subway which was having its windows replaced I found a bathroom for customers. I ordered a wrap I didn’t want but found out – when it was half made – that their bathroom was not in service, but was full of repair equipment. The young man had said he had been there 11 hours. I asked what he did. He said that he “held it.” Right, but he let me cancel the wrap and I eventually found a porta potty.
This was one of the similarities to the few protests I’d been to in the past. Another was the presence of the police. I should have expected them, but the first time I saw the circling lights I took a deep breath. They were there to close off the streets to drivers, but I didn’t know that. In the South, the presence of the police was terrifying even if I wasn’t protesting. They were also there if there was a “need” for them. I was interested to find 5 CHP cars guarding the on-ramp to Highway 5 after the demonstration. Why, I wonder.
Some differences from other marches:
- I got a reservation for a parking lot. With thousands of folks showing up, I thought I needed to secure a parking place. I was wrong and I eventually parked on the street.
- There were no freedom songs, though some of the chants had freedom song words.
- People wore masks. These folks were smarter than the beach partiers in Florida and the Lake of the Ozarks, AR. The CHP estimated 20,000 marchers. Of course, I didn’t see them all, but I did count 32 people mask free out of the hundreds or more that I did see.
- The organizers were very clear about lining people up for social distancing. Eventually as the mass of folks pushed in the lines broke down. But people were aware of getting too close. I found a woman pulling a kid in a wagon. She did not move quickly and I moved slowly along with her keeping people from getting close on my left. Her speed kept people from being too close in front of us, so I really only had to worry about my right.
- Free water, snacks and masks were readily available.
At one time I was nervous because an electric transit bus forced us all to one side. Since the transit system wasn’t operating where we were, I was nervous. But the police were using it to block a street.
A drone flew overhead until someone grabbed it. I suspect it was a photographer using it.
I suspect the reason for people being there was clear in their chants:
Control the police –
- What do we want? When do we want it? Now. (We said freedom)
- George Floyd
- Hands up. Don’t shoot.
- Breonna Taylor
- Say “their” names (those people killed by police)
These sentiments were on shirts and signage as well, but the fact that the country is going the wrong way was clear –
- Stand with black women
- If you think your mask makes it hard to breath, imagine being black in America.
- Black rights matter
- Black rights are more important than white feelings
- Military vs citizens = dictatorship
- Hey America, are we great yet?
- Rednecks for ending racism
- Silence = acceptance
- Indigenous people for black lives
- Racism is a pandemic, too.
- There’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck. Malcolm X
- Witches against racism
I think there were two signs that gives me hope for the future.
- You can’t stop the revolution
- Ya’all fucking with the wrong generation
- The revolution is being televised
And this may be the most important part of the entire day. These folks were YOUNG. Their organization showed that the day wasn’t just thrown together but carefully planned and executed. They were media savvy. Most importantly, though, they saw themselves as a generation of people who are demanding change and they make it clear how to let America know their intent. Wow, I remember another generation who felt the same way.
The crowd: black, white, Latino, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, LGBT and even witches moved together with care and concern for one another until they arrived at Cesar Chavez park at the end where a band played and several people spoke including Deon Taylor a filmmaker, Bobby Jackson of the Kings, Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive, Mayor Steinberg (who announced that the curfew was ended), Police Chief Daniel Hahn, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (who said the movement doesn’t need allies but coconspirators), Stephon Clark’s brother and a woman from his family. It takes a long time to move 20,000 people through the streets of Sacramento and it was exciting to listen to the activity on the stage, but also to hear the people who hadn’t arrived yet. I sat down in the park at 10:45 and could hear the chanting of people from far away coming closer and closer, louder and louder, until they arrived.
The message that got my attention: VOTE!!! As President Obama has said, protest to get attention. Then get out the vote so that there is no need to protest. Protests are difficult, but getting out the vote is the hardest part. The President and the GOP have made it very clear that they will do everything they can do legally and illegally to keep Americans from voting – if they won’t vote Republican. I felt like the people at the protest are conscious of that and they are ready to do the hard work ahead.
And as for me, I cried. I’d come to be counted, to let people know that this “movement” to make America live up to the principles it is based on has arrived. I must admit I’d hoped to feel some of the old tingle and rush from the past. Too bad, I didn’t. I felt a bit of awe, but mostly I felt a sense that there is a generation of folks and others of other generations who are not satisfied with what America has become (and has been since its beginning). I am so concerned that the election will not be allowed to happen or that it will be allowed to happen but the results will be disregarded. I am concerned that racism will continue and that with so many armed militaries on the streets those who complain will be silenced.
So, I am so glad I was called to go to this protest. It gave me an opportunity to believe again that we are a democracy where people make a difference and people acting together can make history. I know that, but I had forgotten. Remember to VOTE!