Angela Thurber walked to Pullen Park in Raleigh with her two teenage sons, all wearing hoodies that were zipped up tight. She was joined by her friend Jeannette Borne, whose blonde hair stood out among this predominantly Black crowd.
They knew the event had been gaining steam in the days leading up to the protest, but Borne and Thurber were blown away when more than a thousand demonstrators came out with their signs and marching shoes to peacefully speak out against racial injustices occurring across the nation.
Borne began crying.
“This is love,” she said. “This is what the world should look like."
Thurber and Borne’s protest in March 2012 took on a life of its own as North Carolinians came out to protest the justice system’s response to the death of Trayvon Martin, which became part of the series of events that led to the formation of Black Lives Matter. The movement continued to evolve and grow in the years leading up to the massive worldwide protests that occurred after the death of George Floyd earlier this year.
One of the largest protests in Raleigh during the summer was led by Greear Webb, a sophomore at UNC and co-founder of Young Americans Protest.
Webb decided he had to do something in May after seeing the video of the events that led to Floyd’s death.
Webb said it only took a few days for YAP and other coalition groups throughout the Triangle to arrange a demonstration with about 4,000 participants who marched through downtown Raleigh on May 30. He said the Raleigh Demands Justice coalition worked to bring out young people to say that what happened to Floyd and other Black men and women in the United States is wrong.
The march was a surreal experience for Webb.
The marketing of the protest and march was done by young people, but the participants were of all ages and races. To Webb, it seemed like everybody was there, and the people were expressing themselves however they knew how with posters, t-shirts, chants and slogans.
Borne said the diversity she saw with the 2020 protests was inspiring for her because it was so different from the initial protests in 2012.
“When this first happened, a lot of Caucasian people kept quiet because they didn’t know what to say, or what to do, or how to react," she said.
William Sturkey, an associate professor at UNC who specializes in the history of race in the American South, said the key issue that has historically motivated people to join and support civil rights demonstrations has been witnessing violence against Black people. Sturkey said the Civil Rights Movement, without violent images like the bodies of people murdered or the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, would not have been successful.
“With George Floyd, you saw it,” Sturkey said. “You saw the guy kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. Without that, people might dismiss these claims from African Americans.”
The Raleigh Demands Justice protest pushed a cohesive message with a concise list of demands ranging from limiting the number of police stations to more accountability and transparency in the Raleigh Police Department. This is a stark difference from the 2012 demonstration led by Borne and Thurber.
The two women said when they had the idea and organized the protest, they had no specific demands. They wanted to go out and show support for the Martin family and to reconcile with the fact that Martin could have been a child in their own family and community.
“It was nothing for my sons to leave out the house with their hoodie on and walk across the street to the Family Dollar store or just to their friend’s house,” Thurber said.
Both protests from 2012 and 2020 emphasized that they would be non-violent events, and the duration of the events were largely peaceful. However, one of the storylines that followed the Black Lives Matter protests this year was the looting and rioting that occurred after the peaceful protests were wrapping up.
Webb said it is important to understand that demonstrators are talking about people’s lives, and they are rightfully angry and should use their constitutional right to express their frustration in a positive way. He said it doesn’t help when a group of people may destroy a business, but it is important to understand that no window is worth a life.
“Protesting is not designed to be peaceful, but it works best when it’s non-violent,” Webb said. “It’s supposed to be disruptive. It’s supposed to be discomforting for people.”
Speaking about the Floyd protests, Thurber said on one hand it was amazing to see so many people understand what they were talking about eight years ago with Martin's death, but the scenes of violence were upsetting for her. She said the few people who were violent took away from the important message being sent.
After analyzing over 7,750 demonstrations linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project found that more than 93 percent were peaceful protests. Sturkey said criticism of violence during civil rights protests was not uncommon throughout history. He pointed to opponents of the Civil Rights Movement labeling the famous March on Washington an “intimidation march."
Webb said now that the hype of the summer protests has died down, the movement is focused on applying political pressure to create policy changes. He said there are three steps to creating change: education, protesting and policy changes. He said they are seeking candidates to run for office who would represent its interests, in addition to preparing policies they would be able to present to leaders in the community.
“We understand that it could be tomorrow when another police shooting of an unarmed Black person in America takes place,” Webb said. “So we want folks that are with us, and were with us over the summer, to be with us again.”
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