As I reflect on what life was like in 2020 (as if any of us REALLY want to remember that year), I know that a story about a peaceful protest in a small town and a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people is probably not what you’d think of when you think of a pandemic, and quarantine, and social distancing, and masks. But this is a moment that my 11-year-old son and I shared in June 2020, and it’s a pandemic story because it happened in 2020, and it happened not just DURING a pandemic—but DESPITE a pandemic.
I hope that you’ll read this story. I submitted parts of it to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History for their Coronavirus 2020 stories from people who lived through the pandemic, for purposes of social history that our future generations can read, reflect upon, and imagine what it must have been like to be us at this pivotal point in American history.
I live in a very conservative town in upper Montgomery County, MD (halfway between DC and Baltimore). But it's getting more balanced out as younger, more liberal families move here: Including us. (We ain't young, but liberal we are!)
It was early in the summer of 2020. The pandemic had stretched on and on since March, a time that had a concrete, distinct starting point but that now had a gaping yawning no-end-in-sight.
But what’s important to remember about the pandemic is that, even though social distancing was happening, and masks were being worn, Black and brown people were STILL being murdered due to systemic racism in this country.
Case in point: Memorial Day weekend of 2020. Yes, at the end of May 2020, a raging pandemic was happening, but guess what else happened?
George Floyd was murdered. Please don’t forget about Mr. Floyd, future generations.
And more information came out about the senseless murder of Breonna Taylor well before Mr. Floyd died. My Black and brown friends reached a new low in their collective consciousness, mourning not just for Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor but for 400+ years of slavery, injustice, systemic racism, white privilege, microaggressions, and senseless murders and arrests of Black and brown human beings (mostly male).
Dear future generations: Please don’t forget about Breonna Taylor, either.
Remember, the pandemic has caused those of us (yes, myself included) with depression and anxiety to experience perhaps the most intense depression and anxiety and downward-spiraling we’ve ever experienced. All seems hopeless. We can’t leave our homes except to take socially distanced walks in our neighborhood with family members. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or to other diseases/conditions—and most of the time, we weren’t able to be with them physically as they took their last breath on this earth. Others have lost jobs, income, with no help in sight. Still others can’t feed their families adequately enough—they relied on the free and reduced lunch/meal programs that Montgomery County Public Schools offered (the school district still offers this, but, it’s of course different from the way it looked when school was happening in person). There is a RAGING (and I mean RAGING) debate between parents on one side of the issue (“send our kids back to in-person school”) and the other side of the issue (“keep our teachers and students safe—keep school virtual”). I am in the latter of those two camps.
These are real, Maslow’s hierarchy-type problems—and even with THESE problems ever-growing during the early days of the pandemic, Black and brown people were, still are, being murdered in their homes and on the street next to their cars. They are still being pulled over because they “fit a description” even if they can prove they were nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time that it happened.
In June 2020, I joined a Zoom call with my friend Clayton, an attorney and politician in Chicago, and about 80 others of varying races, and together we talked, vented, and wept for the unfairness and inequities continually doled out to Black and brown people in this country. He cried as he told me how he will never feel safe enough to take his small boys camping. He bemoaned their lack of getting to know our country’s glorious national parks.
A few weeks (days?) later, the small but powerful liberal core of the town I live in shocked me with pleasure by announcing that there would be a protest and a march to honor and remember the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Now, I have been marching and protesting since post-election 2016. I attended the women's march along with tens of thousands of others in January 2017, wearing my pink hat and marching with my Liberal Ladies of Olney in downtown DC. I attended the students' march after the Parkland murders, and was once again immersed in a sea of people demanding justice and the closing of dangerous loophole laws that allow guns into the hands of dangerous people. Fast-forward a few years: George Floyd was murdered, as was Breonna Taylor. And lo and behold, after having lived for the past 15 years in a town that I don't even consider a suburb--it's an EXURB, we are so far north of DC and so far upcounty (country roads border us on basically all sides)--I was so proud to know that my little town was organizing a protest and a march and that we'd call for action, PEACEFULLY. The march was 100% student organized. I'm talking, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS. With megaphones, showing leadership and peaceful demonstration the likes of which I have never seen. Yes, it was the middle of a pandemic. Yes, it was a calculated risk, going. But I couldn't NOT go. I felt it was important to go, do my best to keep a safe distance from people, and wear our masks. I took my son, who was 11 at the time.
We started at the corner of Olney Mill and Rt. 108, one of the "main intersections" of our town (there aren't that many). We began walking, not chanting just walking. My son and I had made signs, and we waved to neighbors and friends who had also come out to show their support. At that point, as I said, we weren't chanting much, and no one seemed to be in charge. We were starting to block the intersection and block traffic. Someone yelled, "Who's in charge here?" We all looked at each other and shrugged. Most of us were adults who had brought
our kids of all ages with us: elementary school, preschool, middle school, high school. Some dogs. Some bikes. Some scooters (including my kid). I'd say at that point there were about 100 of us. A "small" group.
No one else stepped up: And so I did. Now, I have a very loud voice and can really belt it out thanks to my extra large lung capacity that God granted me when I came into the world in 1968 (appropriate year, huh?). So I screamed at the top of my LUNGS, with as much confidence as I could muster: "PEOPLE, PEOPLE! LISTEN UP! Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna cross THAT INTERSECTION (pointing to the crosswalk at Olney Mill and 108). We're gonna go LEFT (pointing toward Good Shepherd Lutheran Church). We're going to KEEP WALKING until we meet up with some others and we'll march to the corner of 97 and 108. GOT IT?" And everyone looked stunned, nodded, and the crowd, en masse, began lining up at the crosswalk.
We walked toward the center of town. Cars passing us beeped, mostly in support (we got a few middle fingers but much fewer than I suspected we would). I worried about police presence. I worried about violence. And pepper spray. Would my son get injured? Would I get injured? But, still, it was in my little town, and I felt pretty "in control." At any point, I could zip him down a side street and we could just walk home if anything scary happened. I really wanted him to experience a PEACEFUL protest.
As it turns out, I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
We walked for a few blocks, holding up our signs and waving to beeping cars. But we were relatively unorganized even still. And then we approached the corner where the Jewish synagogue, B'nai Shalom, stood. And out from that small side street came a massive crowd the likes of which I had never seen. I was awestruck. I was SO PROUD of my town. And leading this (much more organized than us) group was none other than . . . local high school students. With megaphones. Fists in the air, masks securely on. SCREAMING their demands for justice for Breonna and George. "Say her name: BREONNA TAYLOR!" "Say his name: GEORGE FLOYD!" Over and over again. "No justice, no peace. No racist police!" Kids of every color, every culture.
As a grown adult, I felt humbled and proud to be witnessing such greatness, such leadership, such peaceful protest, led by organizers so young and at just the beginning of their paths—human beings with so much promise. I felt, “Our country’s going to be OK with them in charge.” I remember smiling to myself, thinking that.
And the police? Once they got word that the protest was happening (several protests ended up happening simultaneously, actually), they stepped up and slowed the flow of traffic, kept us safe, and wished us well as they crossed us safely from one corner to another, block by block. They yelled things like, "Stay safe out there, folks." “Be sure to drink lots of water; it’s hot out there.”
The local African American church near the library set up a bunch of tables and passed out waters to us. (It was a stiflingly hot day.)
When we reached the post office, the students in charge started wildly waving their hands and then making the hand gestures that indicate to everyone "please stop talking; we have something to say." The walkers stopped walking, the scooters stopped scootering, the dog owners told their dogs, "Sit. Stay." All megaphones dropped but one. We were on a sidewalk but our presence had spilled over onto the road, and the police had stopped traffic in both directions. The boy with the megaphone said something like "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to lie down just like George Floyd had to, and we're going to observe 8 minutes and 46 seconds of complete silence.” This was the exact amount of time in which the officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck, the time it had taken for George Floyd to go from begging for breath to having no breath at all left in his body.
A deafening silence descended upon the crowd of (now) hundreds and hundreds of people, who just moments before had been chanting in unison, saying their names (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor), and demanding justice and equity.
And then, I heard a shifting sort of sound all around me. Bike helmets were removed and tossed to the ground. Dogs laid down and began licking their paws and settling in. And all around me, I watched as this giant wave of people lowered themselves -- almost collectively -- to the ground, face down. Some placed their hands behind their backs in symbolic gesture of George Floyd's positioning on the day he was arrested and murdered while in police custody.
My son looked at me and whispered, "What do we do now, Mommy?"
"We lie down," I said to him. "Baby, we lie down on the ground, on our bellies. And we remember these people who were murdered."
He gently placed his scooter on its side. He waited for me to lie down first. I moved us over to the grass and lowered myself. I turned my head to the side, gazing at my son as he lay next to me. The grass and the dirt were cool against my cheek. He handed me his glasses. I set them down in the soft grass.
And we all stayed that way for exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
You could have heard a pin drop. No cars beeped. I turned my head, looked to the right, where the grassy field extended for miles, situated between the post office on the left and a popular walking trail on the right. The people in the cars just sat there and waited and watched us. There was no beeping. Just deferential silence.
I did take a moment to lift up my phone and get a few photos of the crowds of people, just lying there, in quiet solidarity, honoring the fallen lives of two Black human beings who didn't deserve to die, two people who had become symbols of ALL the Black and brown lives taken over the years--murdered in unfair, inequitable, unconscionable ways.
As I lay there in my little town on the grassy field just off the sidewalk, watching others lying in similar stance on the macadam of the actual road, on the yellow double lines, on the grassy median in between the two lanes of traffic, on the sidewalk, under trees, and in this same field as I, my silent tears merged with the tips of the blades of grass that brushed my face and cheeks, and I sobbed silently to myself. I had never before felt so connected to my community as I did that day. My son, on his stomach next to me, held my hand and snuggled up closer to me. He knew the story of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd well, and he knew why I was crying. He got it. More than I ever expected him to at age 11.
On that day, we marched, we yelled in peaceful unison, and we laid quietly in submission and silence, and our quiet but collective community tears fell, and we were one. It was a landmark moment in my little town of Olney, MD (which up to that time had not been all that "known" for peaceful protests or social justice marches but was beginning to BECOME known for them). I was proud of the people in my little town.
It was my son's first peaceful protest and march. And I'm pretty sure it won't be his last.