For more than three weeks following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer May 25, protests broke out in almost every major city across the nation. From Los Angeles and Seattle to Brooklyn and Philadelphia, millions took to the streets to demand change.
In North Carolina, thousands gathered for marches in Greensboro, a city known for its historical significance in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, Chapel Hill and Fayetteville.
Protected under the First Amendment, protest has been a feature of every major social movement in America, including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and immigrant’s rights, as well as specific policies, such as the recent protests in several states against stay-at-home orders imposed by governors in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are living through the golden age of protest,” LA Kauffman, a grass-roots organizer, told the Berkley Economic Review last year.
The demonstrations following the death of George Floyd have been remarkable in size, scope and timing, as they come in the middle of a global pandemic. But there’s something else that feels different from the others: The demographics of the crowds.
About 61 percent of the participants in these protests nationwide were white, according to data compiled by Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, and Michael Heaney, a research professor at University of Michigan. That percentage represents a seemingly cosmic shift in public opinion on the once vilified Black Lives Matter movement.
“Personally, I have supported Black Lives Matter by talking with friends, educating myself about racism, donating when I could, and calling my elected officials,” said Pearl Sullivan, a Georgia resident and rising senior at Elon University. “But this year was the first time I attended a BLM protest.”
Sullivan says that it was also the first time her mother, whom she describes as an “upper-class white woman,” has been to a BLM protest. The data shows that they are just two of many first time BLM demonstrators who are helping to diversify the movement and drive up crowd numbers.
The question is, why now?
“I felt that direct action was the best way that I could help raise the voices of black people who have long been the victims of police brutality and the systemic racism that it’s born from,” said Joshua Hancock, a white Beaufort native working as an auditor in Raleigh.
Hancock has attended several marches in recent weeks, including one in Raleigh on June 2, one in Chapel Hill on June 6, and another in Raleigh on June 7.
“I think it was hearing about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor in a very short period of time and then seeing the violence with which cops responded to protesters that pushed me to go protest in addition to taking other actions,” Sullivan said.
Tyler Placeres, 17, a residence life director at Elon University from Florida, who attended a June 7 rally in Greensboro, said access to information is one reason more people are becoming engaged in a significant way.
“I think it comes down to the fact that access to information is at an all-time high,” said Placeres, who is both Hispanic and white. “Almost every major cell phone company offers unlimited data, so you can just say, ‘Hey, Alexa, tell me what’s on the news’ and it will just spew out information. The days of saying, ‘oh, I didn’t know’ are over.”
It is not just white folks in metro areas who are speaking up against racial injustice for the first time. Ben Wilkins, a labor organizer based in Durham, recently wrote a story for Facing South about a protest in Siler City.
“The first thing I noticed was that it was a really young crowd,” Wilkins said. “There were probably 60 to 70 high school students and there were also a lot of immigrants. The racial breakdown of the crowd was probably about 50% Latinos, 30% black, and 20% white.”
Not only were many of these demonstrators protesting for Black Lives Matter for the first time, but many of them were there to protest against any type of discrimination, including that against immigrants.
“There definitely were a lot of first-time protesters and many were making a connection between the racism that many undocumented immigrants are facing every day with the threats and brutality they face from ICE agents, and connecting that to police violence against black people,” Wilkins said. “There were a lot of signs that expressed that unity.”
As a labor organizer, and a member of the steering committee of the Poor People’s Campaign, Wilkins is no stranger to these types of demonstrations.
“As someone who has been in this work, and I have a lot of friends who were at the first Black Lives Matter protest in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., I know there are always protests that erupt,” Wilkins said, “but never anything on this scale.”
Many have attributed the increased crowd numbers and inclusion of voices who may have resisted speaking up before, to the magnitude of the moment. The image of an officer’s knee pinned down on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes, ultimately causing his death, became seared into the minds and hearts of many.
“Watching that video — and I mean after just a minute in — I was just numb,” Placeres said. “My eyes were glared at the screen, and at some point, I wasn’t even hearing Floyd’s voice anymore, I was just watching what was happening to him. And all you can think about, especially by the end, is ‘Can you please, please get off of him?’”
“I couldn’t watch the video,” Wilkins said. “I saw the still footage, but it seems like we have been getting inundated with footage of killings ever since Ferguson. My reaction is always the same — horror and disgust.”
He points to the economic crisis that many families are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic as an underlying reason for the increased crowds and participation in the movement.
“I think unemployment, and not having access to food, is really driving some of the anger,” Wilkins said. “And when you put police violence on top of all this economic crisis, and this deadly virus that is disproportionately impacting black and brown communities, I think it just creates this combustible environment.”
As Mohawk Kuzma, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Seattle put it, perhaps the most important takeaway from this moment that white people all across this country are finally waking up to covert segregation, racial injustice and racism.
“Hopefully it is no longer just a news story or a hashtag,” Sullivan said. “I’m hopeful that white people, especially white people who maybe generally wouldn’t pay attention, will continue to be engaged once news coverage slows, and work and school begins.”
GREENSBORO — Unity was the goal of a Juneteenth celebration held in LeBauer Park on Sunday afternoon.
Organizer Makail Brooks, 23, postponed the event until Father’s Day due to a chance for storms Friday. At Sunday’s rescheduled event, Brooks said his hope was to “bring the community together” and “bring some recognition to this wonderful holiday and why we celebrate it.”
Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed and granted slaves their freedom over two years earlier, but it took until June 19, 1865, until the last of the slaves in Texas were proclaimed free.
Attendees of the Juneteenth celebration socialized on the lawn while listening to music and speeches. Brooks said several vendors and food trucks originally planned for the event were unable to attend on the new date, but a handful of vendors still set up around the park, some selling “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” shirts.
A voter registration tent encouraged passers-by to register.
“(Voting) is the first step to creating change,” Brooks said Sunday evening in an interview. “The power is right here in your own community. It starts with local elections.”
Brooks, who recently returned to Greensboro after living in Germany for three years, said the Juneteenth rally was his first time organizing an event. He said he felt compelled to make Juneteenth a celebration in Greensboro after seeing the progress made through protests across the nation over the past month.
“We’ve seen (protesting) before, but this time it feels really different,” Brooks said. “We’re really going somewhere now. We’re getting to that next step with the new generation.”
Noting the celebratory nature of the rally, the Rev. Richard Hughes of St. James Presbyterian Church encouraged everyone to “keep in mind what we’re really here for” before leading the prayer.
“It’s not just a celebration,” Hughes said. “It should also serve as a means of inspiration to go out there and make freedom become a reality. We can’t be free as long as blacks are 13% of the population but yet control only 2.6 percent of this country’s wealth.
“I love Juneteenth, but we have to start creating a society that makes the real essence of Juneteenth — freedom — become a reality.”
Local community organizer April Parker announced that Juneteenth was declared an official holiday in the city of Greensboro on June 2. The vote was unanimous, Parker said.
Speaking before the crowd, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said the city knows there is still progress to be made, but added, “Greensboro, we do hear everyone. We know that we have our work to do.”
GREENSBORO — When Crystal Kyle joined the Army, she found meaningful work, an active lifestyle and a cause she could believe in.
Twelve years later, upon leaving the service, she found a second career in another field with similar benefits: agriculture. Although it seemed like an unlikely combination, Kyle — who had no farming background — found a field full of veterans with whom she could relate and identify.
“There are lots of parallels between farming and veterans, especially in North Carolina, where agriculture is the largest employment sector in the state, followed by the military,” Kyle says. “Many veterans come from farming or rural backgrounds, and farmers connect with me because of our shared experiences.
“Farming is patriotic. It’s an investment in the land that our soldiers defend. It ensures our country’s safety by maintaining food security.”
Born and educated in Greensboro, Kyle recently took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture in Missouri as a biological science specialist, helping farmers and veterans who are interested in finding their way in farming. For the past two years, she worked for N.C. A&T’s Cooperative Extension program as the coordinator for the N.C. Agromedicine Institute. She was also the director of North Carolina’s chapter of the AgrAbility program, a national program funded by the USDA to provide disabled people with the education and assistance they need to live successful, safe, productive lives in production agriculture or agriculture-related occupations.
In bringing veterans to agriculture, Kyle found a new mission; after years of working through her own trauma, she realized, agriculture can bring veterans to healing.
“I research farmers’ mental health with a focus on veterans,” she says. “All the things I felt personally show up in the data: being a part of the farming community can be a bridge to rejoining the civilian community. In that community, you have something to talk about besides where you’ve been and what you’ve seen as a soldier. You’re not a stereotype, you’re a functioning, productive community member, and that improves your mental health to the point that you can actually rejoin the community. I understand that, because I’ve been there.”
From Army to agricultureAs a high school senior, Kyle knew that her family didn’t have the money to pay for college. So, like many other 17-year-olds, she joined the Army to gain skills, earn education benefits and make a living.
After 10 years and tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, she left the Army in 2006 as an E5 sergeant, an avionics electrician working on heavy-lifting CH47 Chinook helicopters. She had three daughters, an ex-husband, a GI Bill for college and a desire to do something meaningful.
But in addition to rank and skills, she had another lingering effect of her military experiences: post-traumatic stress disorder, the mental health condition characterized by anxiety and flashbacks after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events.
“I wanted to be stationed in Hawaii. Instead, I went to Afghanistan and then Iraq,” Kyle says. “Each time, I left my daughter with my mom and shipped out. When I came back from Iraq, my 6 month old didn’t recognize me.
“I dealt with all the emotions that come with war, and seeing all the things that come with it. I had received a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, and I had pretty extreme PTSD, although I wouldn’t have admitted it. I left the Army because my youngest daughter was born prematurely; I probably would have stayed 20 years if not for that.”
Now the divorced mom of three, Kyle started classes at GTCC, working on an associate’s degree. But the transition to civilian life was hard; interacting with her family was difficult, nightmares were constant, and working in an office environment seemed tedious and inconsequential.
One day, representatives from A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences visited GTCC to speak about the college’s programs.
“I had no experience with farming. I thought chicken came from the store,” she said. “But my professor suggested that I check it out.”
While working in the college’s soil lab — “I liked it because I didn’t have to talk to anyone,” Kyle said — one of the soil science professors approached her for help with a project at the 492-acre University Farm.
That assignment, Kyle says, changed her life.
“Being outside, planting, harvesting, getting dirty,” she says. “You’re not behind a desk, you’re doing something active. You don’t have to answer questions or think about what’s wrong with you. You get all the positive benefits of exercise and working with things that are growing and responding to your care. Life is starting, not just being destroyed.”
As Kyle struggled to adjust to civilian life, she found agriculture comforting and meaningful, and similar to the military in ways that were reassuring. Both require “uniforms” of boots and coveralls, special gear, hard work and heavy equipment. There was also the relief of being in the wide-open spaces that a farm provides, where she could hear and see for miles.
Digging in dirt is literally good for mental health, she found out; the natural antidepressants in soil microbes have been shown to positively change the makeup of the brain.
As she spent time on the farm, the PTSD and the nightmares began to recede slightly, and Kyle began to interact with her family again. She also began to develop her interest in agriculture as a career.
Guided by professors who helped her navigate the programs, Kyle received her bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science and master’s in agricultural education from A&T and a doctorate in agricultural leadership and community education from Virginia Tech. As she worked through the coursework, she came to realize that other veterans were also having similar, positive experiences to the ones she had.
She began to study the needs of farmers and veteran farmers, and how farming — one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — can be accomplished more safely. In 2019, she applied for a grant to renew North Carolina’s AgrAbility program, hiring a team of four who help screen, create and deliver assists, from hearing aids to adaptive tools to workshops, to farmers and veterans across the state, to help them stay safe while remaining productive.
“Depression is a snowball, and you feel so isolated,” she says. “On a farm, you are engaged with your surroundings, you get the benefits of interacting, of seeing life begin. For someone who has served in combat, there’s a great relief in a secure food supply and the sense of being a part of a community, just like you were in the military.”
The sense of security and community that agriculture provides is evident in times like the current pandemic, which has seen an increase in backyard gardening, Kyle says.
“Even a small garden gives you the peace of mind of having food, in addition to the mental benefits of being outside and getting physical activity,” she says. “But it also creates community. You have extra food, so you share with your neighbors. Then, they’ll want to give back, so they share with you, or maybe they check to make sure you have groceries. That all promotes security.”
Kyle, whose family lives in Greensboro and High Point, has raised meat goats, chickens and crops, but mainly focuses on her research, home schooling her children and the joy of helping farmers and veterans find a peaceful space and something to build on.
“In coming back to the land, I was able to leverage what I’d learned in the military into a rich, useful civilian career,” she says. “All veterans should be able to experience that.”