Skip to content
Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Policing and Criminal Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Black Activists Wonder: Is Protesting Just Trendy for White People?

Cherish Patton recalled springing into action when a friend sent her a message that a New York City police officer had grabbed a petite protester by her hood and had flung her to the pavement.

Ms. Patton, who has organized several Black Lives Matter protests, posted a plea on social media for help identifying the officer. She also called her friend for details on the protester, who had been whisked to the emergency room. “Oh, it’s Michelle,” her friend told her.

“Wait, white Michelle who I argued with for three years? White Michelle?” asked an astonished, and confused, Ms. Patton, who is black. The hurt protester was a former classmate, Michelle Moran, 18, whose conservative commentary on politics and social issues had made Ms. Patton, 18, cringe in high school in Manhattan.

George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis pushed anguished black people into the streets, as had happened countless times after police killings of black people. But this time, the black protesters have been joined en masse by white people, in rallies across New York City and around the country.

Now, though, the protests in New York City are ebbing somewhat, though they are still drawing thousands of people to some events, particularly on weekends. And outside City Hall, there is a growing encampment of diverse demonstrators who are demanding deep cuts in the police budget.

And so that naturally raises a question for black activists who have long been dedicated to the movement: Will the commitment of white protesters endure?

Some of the white protesters identify as liberal and said they had long been sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement but had not done much, if anything, before to show it. Other white people said they had once believed that the police did not discriminate against black people but had changed their minds because of Mr. Floyd’s killing.

Some black people have responded to the influx of white protesters with a mix of hope, I-told-you-so sentiment and skepticism. For longtime activists, there is a frustration that it took a global pandemic and yet another death at the hands of the police to push white people to publicly embrace the movement. They wonder how long white people will keep showing up.

“We see so many white people who hate us, absolutely hate us for the way that we look,” Ms. Patton said, adding: “To see white people on the front lines, it’s exciting to know that these younger generations of white people care.

Still, some black protesters and activists expressed ambivalence about the shift.

Opal Tometi, 35, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, called the outpouring “beautiful,” but she added, “I have minor trepidation, like most, that this could end up being a trend.”

“When the social media posts die down, will the actions and people’s conviction for change die down too? ” she said in written responses to questions. “I have been waiting for this moment since I was 12 years old as the only Black kid on the block. I’ve always known I’ve been a part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t know how it would unfold, but here we are.”

Anthony Beckford, president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn, recalled being at a protest in Brooklyn and feeling uneasy about the large numbers of white people who had shown up.

“I looked around and I was like: ‘I feel outnumbered. Is my life in danger?’” said Mr. Beckford, 38, who added that he feared that some of the protesters were white nationalists infiltrating the march.

He said he and his friends have had to tell some white protesters that they could not just show up and take over.

“Our fight is our fight. Their privilege can amplify the message, but they can never speak for us,” Mr. Beckford said. “There have been moments where some have wanted to be in the front. I’ve told them to go to the back.”

Two young white people new to the movement tried to organize a protest in Bay Ridge that Mr. Beckford found out about from other white people. He said he shut it down. “Their messaging was, ‘Yes, black lives matter, and police lives matter, too.’ I was, like, no. You can think of the ‘Kumbaya’ moment when we get our mission accomplished,” he said.

Research does seem to confirm black protesters’ sense that they have been joined for the first time at demonstrations against police brutality by large numbers of white protesters.

One study of the Floyd protests on one weekend this month found overwhelmingly young crowds, with large numbers of white and highly educated people. White protesters made up 61 percent of those surveyed in New York, according to the researchers, and 65 percent of protesters in Washington. In Los Angeles, 53 percent of protesters were white.

Opinion polls have also shown that racial attitudes among white Americans have been shifting, with a sharp turn by white liberals toward a more sympathetic view of black people.

Ms. Moran, the injured white protester whose plight was noticed by Ms. Patton, said she was a newcomer to the movement. She said her parents and a childhood in a predominantly white block of Woodlawn, in the Bronx, initially shaped her worldview and politics.

“I slowly but surely opened my eyes to the horrors of the criminal justice system,” said Ms. Moran, who said she turned a corner a year ago, influenced by readings, the news and the documentary “Requiem for the American Dream” about income inequality.

As for her parents, Ms. Moran said, “I’m still trying to change them, but they’re not budging.”

Ms. Patton, her voice hoarse from daily chants and speeches, said she remains skeptical of some white protesters who she believes are showing up to “wreak havoc.”

But talking now with Ms. Moran, Ms. Patton said she saw that some white people were willing to be allies.

The teenagers have gone from barely speaking to now having a mutual respect for each other, they said.

These issues are playing out in school settings across the city as well.

When Theo Schimmel, 14, who identifies as white and Indian, decided to hold a protest for children in Washington Heights, where he lives, he reached out to his classmates from Bank Street School for Children, Melany Linton, who identifies as Afro-Latina, and Stella Tillery-Lee, who is black.

Asked whether he chose them because they were black, Theo paused and then said: “Yeah, but I didn’t really focus on that aspect of it. I knew how important this was to them in classes.”

Stella, 14, who lives in Harlem, said she appreciated that Theo took the step that he did. “We definitely need more people that are not necessarily African-American or black helping to support our community because so many people are being bystanders, which is great, but it’s not enough at all,” she said.

About 300 people showed up to join Stella, Melany and Theo on a lawn in Fort Tryon Park.

“Throughout history, people see black people as inhuman or as objects and that’s ridiculous,” Melany said in an interview. “The fact that so many things, like what happened to George Floyd, continue to go on in our country is so upsetting and disturbing that it really does strike a certain nerve in people, as it should.”

Among the protesters were the teachers Ever Ramirez, who is Asian, and Shelby Brody, who is white. They held signs reading, “DEFUND THE POLICE. INVEST IN SCHOOLS” and “ASIANS FOR BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

Mx. Brody said they had learned more about themselves and racism by reading the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and taking part in a group at school where white employees explored racism and their role in it.

Mx. Brody had initially steered clear of the group. “I was called in by a colleague of color who rightly said, ‘White people sitting out is part of the problem,’” Mx. Brody said.

Also at the park protest was one of Melany’s family friends, April Dinwoodie, 48, who splits her time between Harlem and Westerly, R.I., where 95 percent of the residents are white.

A biracial woman raised in the town by her white adoptive parents with white siblings, Ms. Dinwoodie said she moved to Harlem years ago as she searched for a connection to “my blackness.”

Driving through the town recently, she said she could not believe what she saw. There they were, dozens of Westerly residents holding a Black Lives Matter protest.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” she said, almost giddy. “I had to stop and pull over because I was crying, because my little town was having a protest. And I said, ‘Well look at that. That’s new. That’s new to me.’”

“Quite frankly,” she said, “I didn’t expect much from my town.”

For years now, mainly black people have been on the front lines of issues that affect black people, said Adilka Pimentel, 30, a lead organizer at Make the Road New York who identifies as black Dominican.

Ms. Pimentel has been involved in activism for a long time, since she was 14 years old. She pointed out that with the Floyd protests, more white people have the advantages of reliable health care, higher incomes and savings to take to the streets at a time when black people have been especially hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

“The same way that essential workers are mostly black and brown and account for most of the deaths of Covid, they can’t be out there because they have to feed their families,” she said.

She said she realized that social justice movements ebb and flow, and hoped that the new protesters remained part of the movement.

“I worry about all the support dying down mostly because it’s what happens. Eric Garner. It died down. Mike Brown. It died down. Ferguson. It died down,” Ms. Pimentel said. “The hope is that it stays. Those of us who have been doing the work are going to continue to do the work. If we feel like it starts to slip, we can be here to pick it up.”

Ms. Patton, the protest organizer, stood on 125th Street in Harlem recently at yet another gathering she had organized, this one to recognize Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Ky.

As she looked over the crowd and prepared to welcome them, a white man, a stranger, handed her a megaphone.

“Could the white man who brought this help us figure it out?” she asked, laughing. The crowd laughed with her.

The man walked up and hit a button to amplify her voice.

Ms. Patton put the megaphone to her mouth. The crowd had grown to hundreds in just a few minutes.

“I am so overwhelmed at how many of you came out!” she shouted. “Thank you for coming!”