Marching for Social Justice
How older Americans are demanding change
En español | Over the past two weeks millions of Americans have protested in cities across the country to demand social justice and racial equality. And older Americans have been adding their voices and perspectives to those demonstrations.
For some, marching in the street is nothing new — they have attended rallies and protests for decades to bring awareness or demand change on important social issues. For others, the death of George Floyd in police custody has spurred them to action for the first time.
Either way, to hear them tell it, these new protests feel different. Here are some of their stories.
Rhonda Mathies, 69, Louisville, Kentucky, retired social worker
Louisville Metro Police, Kentucky State Police and the National Guard were downtown at Sixth and Jefferson streets on May 30. They were dressed in riot gear and on horses, on foot and on the rooftops. The kids were in the middle of the street chanting “Hands up,” “I can’t breathe,” and “No justice, no peace.” Some were lying down in the street. I went over to the side to pray. I went down on my knees. A black girl, maybe in her 30s, younger than my two daughters, said, “Ma’am, get up. The police are ready to move.” I said I wasn’t getting up because I was praying, and she said, “You’ll get locked up,” and I said, “I don’t care.” But she eased me up. When I opened my eyes the police were coming straight at us. A state trooper on foot took his baton and pushed her, and when he did that, I had a flashback to Alabama in the 1960s, and I broke down and started crying.
I’ve been protesting a long time. I started in the school system seeing how black kids were being treated academically and emotionally. It was always a constant struggle. I’m tired. I’m tired for my people. I keep saying it’s up to the next generation, but knowing what my ancestors have been through, my inner being propels me back out to the streets.
In some ways, these are the best of times because we have a diversity of consciousness, but it can’t be just a moment; it’s a movement. The police are not going to magically do the right thing. Racism is still alive. It’s institutionalized.
Cherry Steinwender, 78, Houston, executive director, Center for the Healing of Racism
I was at the protest [June 2] with 60,000 people in front of City Hall in Houston [George Floyd’s hometown]. It was exhilarating to see so many people of so many ethnicities. It made me so proud; we were looking like what the whole city looks like.
The other exhilarating thing for me was to see all of the signs of protest that people carried. I had one with our organization’s logo and the words “Internalize Oneness.” That’s a powerful statement because people have [the] oneness [of humanity] in their heads, but they haven’t moved it to a place where it really makes a difference. They haven’t internalized it.
For instance, I will never say “people of different races” because I truly believe that’s part of the problem. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that we all are the same human family with at least 99.9 [percent] DNA in common, and then at the same time turn around and look at me as if I’m a different race than you. To me that doesn’t equate. My husband is white, blond with blue eyes. He’s Austrian. And he and I will never, ever refer to each other as an interracial couple.
We were a very diverse group of friends that started this organization, Center for the Healing of Racism, back in 1989. We were third-generation Japanese American, European American, African American, Latino. [The group’s founding] was in response to the silence about racism. You know, whenever you do mention it, it’s “Pass the sugar please.” You don’t talk about it.
So that joy I was feeling at the protest seeing all those different people — it made me feel that now something’s going to change. There’s something different about this.
Nick Sheridan, 71, Baltimore, humanist celebrant
I went to a protest that was huge, several thousand people. There were a lot of homemade signs, which is really good to me because it means people aren’t just following a trope. They’re thinking and feeling and putting up signs that say what they feel.
And people here keep on creating different forms of protest. I belong to an organization that has a lot of older members who are nervous about going on a march because of coronavirus, so they’re organizing a car caravan with signs that they’ll hold out of the window. People are being really creative. They’re starting to realize that we can’t progress as a country unless we start to deal with this.
I went on a ride-along with the Baltimore police six or seven years ago. They invited community leaders and I was leading a community group, and there was no violence on that ride-along, no obvious violence, but the way they dealt with black people and white people — there was just such a horrible contrast. It was disrespectful.
I wrote about it and when it was published in the Baltimore Sun, the police press officer called me and asked me the name of the officer. I said, “I’m not gonna give you the name of the officer because you punishing that one officer gives the illusion that one officer is rogue, and all that officer was doing was following the culture of the department.”
When someone is murdered we [often] hear about it, but these minor forms of disrespect and harassment and bullying, we don’t hear about. But it’s part of black people’s lives every day.
Don Samuels, 71, Minneapolis, former Minneapolis City Councilman
When we were marching on the Interstate 35W Bridge June 2, we couldn’t even see where the march began. Everyone was very cordial. But it got dramatic fast. People started running across the freeway to escape a giant tanker truck driving 30 miles an hour into this crowd of thousands. We thought maybe this truck had a bomb in it that would destroy the whole bridge and kill everyone. Then incredibly — like something out of a Mad Max movie — about eight courageous guys clambered onto this moving truck and slowed it to a stop and took the driver out. Those guys might have saved all of our lives.
I was raised in Jamaica and arrived in America as a 20-year-old. I went to college out East and I’ve lived in Minneapolis since 1990. I spent 30 years as a design executive in the toy industry and ran for Minneapolis city council. At the end of my designing career, I graduated from a seminary and still preach. My wife and I marched in two protests and observed others. I wanted to get my skin in the game and take part in transformational changes.
When I went to the [recent] Minneapolis protests, I expected to see more people my age, but they were so young.
In every company I worked for I was the first African American in that position. I came in the door minutes after it opened. I had opportunities. It still wasn’t easy. But I got [to the U.S.] after the hard work of the [1960s] marches was over. Then I became a part of the establishment. When [George Floyd’s death] happened, I thought, My God, now I’m on the other side.
Mallorie Baron, 60, Berkeley, California, middle school teacher
I teach Spanish to middle schoolers and went out Saturday [June 6] to the protests in Berkeley, where I live. The mood was quite jovial. A lot of music; a lot of young people. Very upbeat.
I’m a single parent. My daughter is 20 and in college, and as she began to educate me, it became clear to me that we have a COVID pandemic and we have a racism pandemic. We have two viruses.
I thought, I need to get up and move. All of us need to move.
Everybody wore a mask. It had to be several thousand people on Martin Luther King Jr. Way chanting, “Say his name: George Floyd” and “Say her name: Breonna Taylor.”
I carried a sign saying “Black lives always matter.”
I saw my neighbor at the march wearing a double mask. She is a widow in her early 80s. Her husband was a professor at University of California, Berkeley.
I was with friends age 50-plus. It was a lot of young families. Maybe 15 percent there were age 60 and above.
The event was put on by the Black Student Union at Berkeley High and by Malcolm X Elementary School. There were a lot of speakers.
I went to make noise, to demand change; I couldn’t sit back and be quiet. In the past I marched in support of the #MeToo movement, against climate change, against [President] Trump. I also did a lot of protesting in my younger years.
I’m so incredibly proud of our young people who are not stopping until there is real change — institutional change — in our world towards creating a more just society, where people of any color can feel that they’re going to get justice. I feel like we’re at a turning point and it’s taken a long time to get here.
We all need to make change however that is: You’re protesting, you’re donating money, you’re donating time, you’re volunteering. You’re being compassionate with everybody.
Elizabeth “Liz” Palacio, 62, East Chicago, Indiana, retired steelworker
As a brown-skinned woman, I have felt the sting of racism and discrimination. I know a lot of people were afraid to go out [to protests], and I like to stand up for them to make sure their voices are heard. I’m a divorced mother of three who is now engaged. I worked 33 years for ArcelorMittal, which used to be called the Inland Steel.
Now that I’m retired, I want to do things I couldn’t do when I was raising my children. Nobody can sit on the sidelines anymore.
Most of the demonstrators at the Hammond, Indiana protests wore masks and tried to socially distance. They wiped down and sanitized the microphones. A lot of protestors carried signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “Say their names.” They shouted out the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A few protesters got teargassed at one of the protests.
I’m glad I went because it gets the word out. We are making people aware and waking them up. We try to give voice to the voiceless.
I’m a God-fearing person. I wasn’t scared though. I said a prayer beforehand. That’s why I’m never afraid.
Freddye Hill, 74, New Orleans, retired social sciences professor
Last Saturday I participated in the march against police brutality in New Orleans organized by the Rays of Love group, which is led by young people. It began in City Park, with more than 1,500 black, white, Asian, Latinx, Native Americans — young and old. I was deeply moved by the organizers’ attention to detail: They were giving out extra masks, water and snacks along the march route. And I was struck by the irony of speakers standing atop the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard [that was taken down after protests in 2017]. I marched for an hour and left because of a thunderstorm.
My activism to advance the cause of civil rights, human rights and social justice, began when I was 16 and I joined the NAACP youth council. It included protest marches to desegregate the movie theatre in Tampa, even though my father objected.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in my life. In June of 1964 I left Tampa on a segregated Greyhound bus to go stay with my aunt in Atlanta. Two months later I went back to Tampa to get my clothes for college and it was on an integrated bus.
Crocker Stephenson, 64, Milwaukee, retired journalist
I was walking our dog, Camus, a fluffy white Coton de Tulear, with my daughter, Irene, around 9 p.m. in my East Side Milwaukee neighborhood [on May 31] when I heard the sounds of the protests growing louder. I didn’t have my glasses or wallet. I wasn’t even wearing socks.
I was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter for 34 years. I retired in 2019. I hadn’t been to a demonstration that I didn’t cover as a reporter since the 1970s. But this is my neighborhood and I wanted to show my support. I told my daughter, Irene, to take Camus’ leash and tell my wife I’d probably get arrested.
If things got crazy I wanted to be there to temper both sides. I didn’t want bad things to happen in my neighborhood.
People were yelling and screaming and some were quite angry. It was chaotic, all noises and dark and light. It was a confusing blur to me. That might have been one reason I went to the front of the police line.
I am visually impaired with a degenerative retinal disease. I can’t see well, so I thought that the police officers ahead of me were actually demonstrators. When I got there, I saw my mistake. The police were all dressed in black riot gear from head to toe: helmets and shields and batons. They stood shoulder to shoulder ready for combat. So I said, “Let’s keep this peaceful.” Then I turned around, stepped back up, knelt down and faced the police, with my arms in the air.
I was arrested and charged with violating a 9 p.m. curfew and given a $691 ticket. Police cuffed me with nylon straps and led me to a transport vehicle. I didn’t want to trip over someone, so I told [the officers] I was visually impaired. I was held in custody until 3:30 the next morning.
A lot of folks my age who may have been part of the peace or civil rights or gay rights or Equal Rights [Amendment] movement may be a little cynical. But change is possible. People my age, we bring something to this table. We can share our wisdom.
Black lives matter. We need to work harder to move our culture towards justice.
Bishop Roy Edward Campbell, Jr., 72, Washington, D.C., Auxiliary bishop for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington
About 40 or 50 bishops, priests and deacons, and between 100 to 200 lay people, gathered on the sidewalk outside of Lafayette Square on Monday [June 9], which was cordoned off, across from the White House. We prayed there. We recognized George Floyd and the others who have died at the hands of law enforcement in the past. Then we proceeded to walk to the front of the [National] Museum of African American History and Culture, and had our closing prayer there. We were not taking a political side one way or another, we just said we need to pray for justice — for everyone.
God created us with the skin color we have and he loves each one of us. We need to love each other the way God loves us. If we do that we’ll have justice. And it has to start with each of us. That’s what I said at the prayer. Treat others how you want to be treated.
Lois Knowlton, 84, La Mesa, California, ESL teacher, retired college dean, active in community outreach at her Methodist church
I don’t know if you’ve read about La Mesa. It’s a quiet middle-class community of about 60,000, and it was really the first area around San Diego to have any kind of looting after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. It’s really sad, but on [Wednesday May 27] there was a problem between a police officer and a young man here, where [the officer] roughed him up. The young man was just waiting for a friend at the trolley stop, so I guess the police officer wanted to move him along because he was black. The protests started out very quietly that Saturday night [May 30], but then we had quite a few small restaurants and stores that had broken windows and looting, and two banks were burned down. I was awake a good part of the night with the helicopters going over.
I took part in the vigil Sunday night, where there were probably 200 or 300 people. We had candles and there were signs [reading] “Black lives matter” and “We love La Mesa.” The mayor was there, with tears streaming down his face.
I have a long history of activism, and it goes back to my mother: When I was 5 or 6 years old, when we were living in the state of Washington. I remember her taking me and my sister to go see a Japanese internment camp, and, when we were standing outside, she said, “This is one of the worst things that our nation has ever done to a people.”
So at the vigil, I went down on my knee, giving a knee, you know, like [the football player] Colin Kaepernick. But it was a little hard to get up after that.
The Rev. Carlton Barnes, 51, Crown Point, Indiana, steelworker and Baptist pastor
I never marched in a protest until last week. At a protest organized by a local ministers’ group we knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to commemorate George Floyd.
There were more than 100 ministers and parishioners from all over Indiana. I wanted to be a part of the conversation and hopefully bring about change.
This demonstration meant a lot to me. It was wonderful to see people of all colors, generations and religions come together in unity. Everyone wanted to be there. It was really peaceful. People driving by in their cars honked in support. Even the police officers seemed glad to be there. There was a joyful spirit. I really believe this is a true movement all around the country and all around the world. This protest seems like a united voice for change, unity and equality. I’m trying my best to understand what we can do to bring about change. And this protest helped deepen that understanding.
— As told to Christina Ianzito, Katherine Skiba, Betty Winston Bayé and Mark Taylor