NEW YORK, June 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. law student Brieana Gillyard was a child when Sean Bell, Eric Garner and other unarmed black men were killed at the hands of police, and she didn’t grasp the potency of their deaths.
But with the killing of George Floyd, 46, another unarmed African American, Gillyard is old enough to understand and join a protest in Atlanta, like a growing number of young, black women marching against police violence across the country.
“It was so liberating. I’ve never felt more rejuvenated,” Gillyard, 23, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I feel like I’m a legitimate part of history now.”
Gillyard and countless other young black women are marching in the streets for the first time, coming of age in a nation they see wracked by racism and violence, as well as sexism.
The angry streets protests demanding change across the United States were prompted by the May 25 death of Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody after a white policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
About to graduate from high school, 18-year-old Mary Walton joined a protest in Emeryville, California, over the weekend.
“It was probably the best decision of my life,” she said. “I’m tired of just sitting here as my race suffers from police brutality. My life does matter. I’m done being silent.”
The protest turned ugly, she said, when someone set off firecrackers and police started shooting rubber bullets while sirens blared and helicopters hovered loudly overhead.
“Next thing you know, I’m running away and we’re all being trampled. It was just complete chaos.”
In the latest protests, demonstrators smashed windows and looted luxury stores on Monday in New York City and set fire to a Los Angeles strip mall. Four police officers were shot and wounded in St. Louis, and one critically wounded in Las Vegas.
Trying to stem the violence, dozens of cities have initiated curfews, while President Donald Trump said U.S. troops should take to the streets of New York.
Floyd’s death, the latest in a long line of incidents, reignited the explosive issue of excessive police force and racial violence against African Americans.
Sean Bell died in a hail of police bullets after his pre-wedding bachelor party in New York in 2006, while Eric Garner died in a chokehold by New York police trying to arrest him for selling loose single cigarettes. None of the officers was found guilty of any crime.
The latest killing comes amid the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately impacted and killed black Americans, and an economic downturn that has cost them jobs.
Young black Americans already have been at a disadvantage. While black students represent a growing share of college students, they have higher drop-out rates than any other racial group, according to the American Council on Education, a non-profit organization of colleges and universities.
Black undergraduates also owed 15% percent more than other students after graduation, it said.
The maternal mortality rate among U.S. black women is more than two-and-a-half times higher than white women, while black infant mortality is twice the rate of white infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s already a story behind every black young person before they even come into the world that they are not capable, that they’re not worthy,” said Tiffiney Davis, who at aged 39 attended her first protest in New York City after conversations with her 22-year-old son.
“The way he was expressing his feelings to me and how he felt he had to put his life on the line, it broke my heart,” said the managing director of an artistic nonprofit. “I told him I will go out there, and I will risk myself.”
Gillyard said the increased military presence and growing violence would keep her from returning to the streets now.
“It wasn’t much, but I did something. So now what I do from home, the things that I share, the places that I donate to, I’m alright with just doing that now because I put myself on the line, I went out and I stood my ground,” she said. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)