Days after the murder of George Floyd, I was watching rallies from across the country when I heard the noise of a large crowd, overpowering the TV. I walked outside my apartment and saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people walking down Westnedge Ave with the same message: Black Lives Matter.
I’ve been at many protests and marches in Kalamazoo over the past decade and knew immediately that this was unlike anything that had happened before.
That day began a series of marches and rallies in Kalamazoo demanding social and racial justice. There seemed to be one every few days, organized by different organizations, and the numbers of people kept growing and growing. Injustice had been in Kalamazoo like other parts of the country, and it was time to address it and change it.
What was different than previous rallies was that it felt like things could actually be different. We had already seen monumental change in our society this year: If you would have said in January of 2020 that there would be a global pandemic and most everything would be closed for over a month, everyone would say that is impossible. But it happened. So when we all saw the murder of a man, whose neck was pressed by the knee of a police officer for seven minutes, we realized that change which seemed impossible in the past could happen now.
Looking back at images from this time, it wasn’t just the outpouring of people in the street that defined the moment, but the response of our institutions. As some peaceful rallies had moments of violent and property destruction across the country, there was fear that it would happen in Kalamazoo. At that first march, there was a heavy presence of police in riot and tactical gear that raised tensions. A few nights later, there was some minor property damage downtown. The response was strong: police shut down downtown, the next day most all windows were boarded up, the National Guard came to town, downtown was blocked off and city leaders ordered a curfew. It was a response of force unlike anything I have seen, and it’s not clear how effective it actually was.
The call for racial justice continued, and more and more people came out to show their support. The boarded up storefronts became canvases for local artists and messages for the movement. A Black Lives Matter mural was painted downtown as a visible sign of our community’s support. In an already difficult year, something incredibly special was happening across the country and in Kalamazoo. The fact that so many people came out to call for racial justice during a pandemic showed how uneven things are.
But the ugly face of racism appeared late in the summer when the Proud Boys, a White Supremicst group, descended on Kalamazoo for a march in order to provoke violence. The previous police response from earlier was replaced with a hands off approach. Officers were nowhere to be seen as violence broke out for five minutes downtown. They marched, chanted, claimed these streets were theirs, even though most of them came from outside the city and state. It was ugly, sad and frustrating. But that night, a group marched, continuing the message and calling for accountability.
As summer came to a close, the marches became less frequent and attended. The pandemic spiked again in second and third waves. People continued to adjust to what is commonly called “The New Normal.” The hope is that everyone who marched and demanded justice will continue to believe that it’s possible to make our community safe and prosperous for everyone.