‘I saw young girls get kicked, hit, sprayed and dragged off gasping for air’
George Floyd protests: Irish people across the United States describe their experiences
Protesters have been marching in cities across the United States since the death last week of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man, after police restrained him in Minneapolis. Officer Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes – including almost three after Floyd lost consciousness – has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Many of the protests have been peaceful, but some have turned violent. The Irish Times asked readers living in the US to share their experiences and views. Here is a selection of the responses.
‘There was no interest in allowing peaceful protest’
My partner and I attended a peaceful march on Saturday to protest the fact that a man was murdered on camera with cold indifference and then the wheels of injustice immediately kicked into protecting his killers, because he was black and they were police. This story is so routine it doesn’t engender shock until it’s captured on camera, to force us to confront the systemic fear that white people in the United States are usually able to ignore but black and Hispanic people cannot.
The plan was to march downtown to Seattle City Hall, with some speeches and poetry readings. I’ve attended many similar marches on other topics, with no issues. But this one was a direct criticism of the police. And so there was no interest in allowing peaceful protest; instead there was an immediate cordoning off of the peaceful assembly, with police dressed in full body armour, with gas masks and thick wooden clubs, with dozens and dozens of assault weapons and guns firing tear gas and pepper spray held ready to attack.
There were kids. There were elderly in wheelchairs. There were families. They chanted “Black lives matter”, “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up don’t shoot”. And the response from police was to march silently towards the crowds, firing flash-bang grenades and pepper spray, to force people even in crowded and packed streets to start running or to get beaten and forced to choke and gasp for air while surrounded by people in a pandemic.
I saw young girls who refused to move get kicked, hit, sprayed and dragged off gasping for air. I did not once see any officer attempt to communicate or engage before attacking, short of shouting “back up” while already advancing.
We saw smoke coming from the next street over. I saw young white people dressed in black darting back and forth, spray-painting, and, while I didn’t see it, they had set police cars on fire. Anyone there could tell this was a small and distinct group of prepared people, with the vast majority of the protest people chanting and holding signs in peaceful protest. But the focus is on those who vandalise, because it retroactively helps legitimise the use of the police as a military force to attack protesters.
Before this week we’d been talking about moving back to Ireland. The United States increasingly feels like it’s without a future. I’ve worked for the US government and for nonprofits with the sincere belief that America is a country filled with wonderful people where change for the better is attainable. I still think that. But I can’t justify raising our kids here any more, when there’s no quick or clear path to fixing the corruption that led to Trump.
They deserve a chance to grow up in a country where the police aren’t a military more loyal to a leader than the people. Where the people deciding their future in a pandemic care whether they live or die more than they care about their image, or whether their stock portfolio goes up. Where they don’t come to see the institutional violence towards minorities justified by the state as “just how things are”. Leaving feels like quitting, but they deserve better than I can give them here.
‘Being an Irish white family with a black son, there is so much we have realised’
Our family marched with 60,000 people in Houston, George Floyd’s home city, on Tuesday. He will be buried here next week. His family were leading the march and gave great speeches. Everyone on the mic asked for peaceful protesting and emphasised how George wouldn’t want violence. The crowd was very diverse, and the atmosphere was amazing.
Being an Irish white family in Houston with a black son, there is so much we have realised in the last years about the things that black and brown people have to go through. This year Isaiah will learn to drive, and will have special lessons on how to behave if stopped by the police, something our other kids never had to do. The march gave some hope that maybe things might change for the better, though there is a lot of work to be done.
‘People ask would I move back to Ireland if Trump gets re-elected’
San Francisco, California
I have been working from home since March 16th, and San Francisco has been locked down hard since then. Virtually no businesses have been open. The recent demonstrations have added even more eeriness to the streets, with citywide curfews over the past week making the usually buzzing downtown area like a ghost town. Peaceful protests have passed my apartment. Most of the looting and rioting has happened in other parts of the city and the Bay Area.
It’s coming up on my five-year anniversary living in the US. Over that time I have noticed how the country has become more divided in so many ways – particularly race and politics, fuelled by the president. California is a very liberal and democratic state, so I don’t interact with people that support Trump much in person. San Francisco is also Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district, and she has been a warrior in standing up to Trump and calling him out. Her approach has made her not only an icon of women’s power but also a how-to guide in standing up to a bully.
The news cycle here is never-ending, with stories of Trump’s outrageous behaviour, which grows more controversial by the day. It is worrying: his rhetoric comes across so hateful and divisive; it appears virtually everyone is in his firing line for verbal abuse. Yet there is still support for him in large pockets of the country, in particular swing states, that will decide the election.
I cannot imagine another four years of this never-ending news cycle, so much so that people ask would I move back to Ireland if he gets re-elected. It is a very strange time to be living in the United States. I moved here for the promise of opportunity and to live in the centre of the tech world, and for the most part my expectations have been met. The November election has more riding on it for this country and American leadership in the world than any other in living memory.
‘I will never have to give my son the talk’
As an Irishman living in Brooklyn during these protests, the main thing I want to convey to people back home is the larger context: racism is different here. While we may feel we understand it due to our own history, plus the experiences of people of colour in our own country and in Britain, it’s still impossible for us to actually understand the pervasive daily effects racism has on people of colour here.
I’ve spent the past few days watching footage of clashes between police and protesters a short walk from my quiet street, or outside my favourite bookshop in the city. Will I feel safe bringing my children to Fort Greene Park this weekend, after seeing photos of a burning police van at the entrance? Well, yes. Of course I will. Even now, my children are safer on the same streets as these protests than a black boy my son’s age will be every day of his life. I will never have to give my son “the talk” to try and minimise his chances of being killed by a police officer, but some of his friends will already have had that discussion with their parents.
‘It isn’t all riots and violence’
Hudson, New York State
On Sunday afternoon we had a very peaceful march here in Hudson. It isn’t all riots and violence, as you might think from looking at the television footage. We are a city of approximately 6,500 people, located two hours north of New York City. There were about 150 people marching to show their solidarity. I imagine such scenes have taken place in many small towns across the country. The people are shocked by the killing of Mr Floyd. This has shaken Americans to the core.
‘Trump spoke for and to your average American’
Trump’s visit to St John’s church was exactly what the silent majority in this country needed. One has to remember that, during the riots of 1968, Richard Nixon referred to the silent majority that opposed riots, arson and larceny. Trump spoke for and to your average American. As a former Democratic operative for many years, I continue to advise people not to discount Trump. He has his finger on the pulse of Middle America, which will once again elect him.
‘My head and heart are completely behind the protesters’
I am from Tralee, in Co Kerry, and moved to the US in 1981. I moved again from the burbs on the east coast two years ago to a tiny town on the prairies of western Nebraska. This is a farming community and is relatively isolated, especially from the goings-on in Washington. Race is not an issue because we are essentially a single-race county, but I have observed systemic racism in the east over all the years I lived there. My head and heart are completely behind the protesters. While I abhor the violence – which in this time seems to be largely perpetrated by the police and white-supremacist groups – I also realise protest is essential. Believe me, it is nothing compared to the destruction and tearing down of our nation at the hands of the president and his goons. Without a wake-up call, people will simply ignore what does not directly affect them.
‘This is a seminal moment in the social history of the US’
I am an Irish actor, originally from Cork. I, along with everyone I know here, is heartbroken and outraged by this enduring crime of police brutality against African Americans. On Sunday, May 31st, I attended a peaceful demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial of some 300 people of all ages and races. (I’ve posted a video at vimeo.com/johnhealy.) Deaf people stood up and talked, via spokespeople, along with the young and old; all spoke about their commitment to make a personal difference on this issue.
Trump’s militaristic rhetoric and action, far from quelling tensions, is serving to inflame more people to demonstrate. I believe this is a seminal moment in the social history of the US, as there is active solidarity across the country to stop police brutality of minorities. It’s already defining the shape of the upcoming presidential election agenda, not just around police discrimination but also around the linked issue of ingrained racial social inequality.
‘Completely peaceful, not a hint of violence’
I have participated in protests over the last couple of days in Queens and Manhattan. Completely peaceful, not a hint of violence. Principled, dignified but incensed New Yorkers that have had enough of the institutional, structural racism that in law enforcement has typified this country since its founding and the first European arrivals 400 years ago.