When Davonn Epps ventured out to protest at the intersection of Sixth and Washington streets in central Brainerd, she didn't know what to expect.
Fervor over the death of George Floyd — an African-American resident of Minneapolis who died in police custody on Memorial Day — has reached a fever pitch in communities across the nation, but it can be difficult to gauge just where the winds of society are blowing, she said, particularly in a rural town like Brainerd during quarantine.
What she found there was an eye-opening experience, in a positive way. Minutes before the pre-appointed meeting time at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, May 28, the sidewalks were barren and the parking lots lifeless.
But, soon, people started trickling in.
They came in pairs or small groups. Some came by themselves. They carried banners with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned across the front, or homemade signs scrawled with credos and maxims of racial equality and justice. Every so often, a biker would rev their motorcycle’s engine or a truck driver would blast their horn in a show of solidarity. Smiles flashed all around, followed by a host of waves, thumbs up and nods.
In a matter of minutes, there were more than 60 people packing every corner of the intersection, with more on the way.
“You don’t know how many people stand behind you and how many people care about the things you’re passionate about,” said Epps, who is herself a woman of color. “It’s a breath of fresh air and relieving to know that so many people care about their neighbors and their fellow black people, or any person of color really. It warms my soul. It has to keep growing. We have to build up a resistance.”
“I thought there might be 10, or 20 people, if you’re lucky, you know?” said Epps’ companion on the protest line, Brittany Egan, also of Brainerd. “This is better than I could have expected and it’s going to keep growing.”
Farther down, holding up a “Black Lives Matter” banner was 84-year-old Stephen Long of Brainerd. Speaking as an advocate for racial equality since the Civil Rights era, Long said Floyd’s death is the tip of an iceberg of social issues that the pandemic is bringing to the fore.
“This was clearly murder,” said Long, soft-spoken, but forceful. “This movement has been going for over half a century. I’m old. I’ve been in this movement since 1965. The black population has been treated very unfairly. There’s still racism in this country and it needs to be addressed. And it’s not only the double standard with law enforcement, it’s how (black people are) affected by the coronavirus, the economy, health care. The whole world, it needs all of us. We can’t be so isolated.”
Floyd’s death and the surrounding issues of racial inequality, the justice system and lingering issues of racism in American society have led to points of reflection for many, including Egan, who saw a very personal parallel with the life and death of the Minneapolis man.
“There needs to be some kind of change. After this happened, I realized some of my own white privilege. Back when I was in active addiction, I’d written a bad check in Minneapolis — the same kind of crime, same kind of thing (that Floyd’s been accused of) — but the cops didn’t even get called,” said Egan, who pointed to a double standard, in her mind, that law enforcement enjoys. “If it were me or you kneeling on somebody like that, we’d already be in prison and wouldn’t see the light of day for a long time.”
In the case of Hayley — who declined to give her last name — the issue took on personal dimensions of a different kind.
“I was married for 10 years to a black guy. I have three kids who are brown,” Hayley said. “I have seen all sorts of awful things and nasty comments and people getting spit on, so I know how black people feel about this. My children get pulled over for no reason just because they’re brown. The cop (in Floyd’s case) was in the wrong. What happened to Floyd shouldn’t happen to anybody — white, black or brown.”
For Epps, Thursday’s protest would have happened even if she was the only one on the block, because the issue is that personal and vital to her as a person.
‘I’m sick of seeing my brothers and sisters getting killed every single day for no reason,” Epps said. “I just want to see a change and if I can be a part of that change, I’ll do whatever I can to bring awareness.”
“Murder is murder,” Egan added. “Badge or not, you need to be held accountable.”