When Beth Allen, 34, first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter” during the unrest in Ferguson, she immediately bristled and thought, “All lives matter.”
Then, she stopped to listen. She’s spent the past nearly six years trying to learn about the extent of racial injustice in America, a topic that she hadn’t paid much attention to before. This week, she responded to a friend from college who criticized parents taking their children to the recent protests.
“There’s a huge difference between a protest and a riot,” she commented on his Facebook post. She said she wouldn’t hesitate to take her 4-year-old daughter to one of the protests. Allen has avoided them because she is immunocompromised and worried about her exposure to the coronavirus. But she wishes she could be in the streets with her daughter. “It’s important that we show our children how to use their voices and stand up for what is right,” she said. When her friend responded in a judgmental way, she’d had enough: “Well if that’s what you’re going to judge me over, judge away. I’ll be busy not raising a racist (expletive).”
He blocked her.
Allen, who lives in unincorporated St. Louis County, is part of a wave of suburban white families engaging their children in the movement for racial justice sparked by the recent killing of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody. Some had never uttered the words “‘Black Lives Matter” before, let alone carried a sign saying as much in a march against police brutality. Thousands have joined in protests across the region including politically conservative areas in St. Charles and west St. Louis County.
There is a growing understanding that acknowledging that the problem is bigger than “a few bad apples” is not the same as criticizing all police.
Some, like the Harris Dault family, were drawn into the movement after a Ferguson police officer fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown. They have leaned into an infrastructure of anti-racism connections that were established then and continued to grow.
Jennifer Harris Dault, 37, is the interim pastor at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. When she and her husband began attending protests and vigils nearly six years ago she was pregnant with her first child. Last week, they took their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter to a small protest in Ferguson. They had told their son, Simeon, that a man named George Floyd had been hurt by the police, and they needed to speak out and say that it was wrong.
Simeon came up with the words for their sign: “Hurting people is not right.” He and his sister were both wearing masks and riding in their double stroller when he spotted a protester’s sign that said, “I can’t breathe.” He read it and called out to his mother, “That woman can’t breathe!”
She bent down to the stroller and said, “Buddy, people are holding those signs because that’s what George Floyd said. Those are his words that people are using to remember him and say that what happened to him is not OK.”
Simeon and his little sister, Madeleine, chanted their slogan as their parents pushed their stroller down the street.
Harris Dault has been encouraged to see a number of white people engaging for the first time. She belongs to a couple of Facebook groups that support the Black Lives Matter movement. One of them approved 200 new members in a single day. It seems the words went from controversial to mainstream almost overnight, embraced by celebrities and brands that had been silent before. White people started posting questions in these groups about how to protest for the first time.
“As a pastor, there’s a long tradition of speaking into the wilderness, the telling of stories that aren’t being listened to, but you have to tell them anyway because it’s important to do so and because it’s true,” Harris Dault said.
She wants her children to grow up internalizing the importance of being present to witness the pain of others, to stand in it with them, to take that story with them and share it with others.
“It’s essential to being human,” she said.
Her husband, Allyn Harris Dault, said he was never exposed to social or political activism when he was growing up. There are times when he gets discouraged and upset about the slow pace of change, the lack of political leadership focused on racial equity and the violence against innocent people trying to be heard.
“My president considers me a threat. I see good people wounded,” he said. So he tries to focus on what he can do.
Those joining the protests can distinguish between the millions of peaceful protesters across the country and the rioters damaging property and resorting to violence at night. It’s a distinction they’ve also pointed out to their children.
Bryna Williams, 43, of Oakland, took her three children, ages 3, 5 and 10, to a recent march in Glendale. It was the first time her older children participated in a protest, although they have had many discussions about racism at home. She wanted to start teaching them about how to recognize and try to dismantle systemic racism while they are still young.
“It’s easier to learn to ride a bike when they are 5 as opposed to when they are 20,” she said.
“Kids are more reflective about things than we give them credit to be. They can handle it.”
She is aware of her role as a mother raising two white sons, who she hopes will recognize their role in the system and what they can do to make it more fair. And, she hopes the brands and celebrities putting out statements and social media posts plan to share the actions they are taking to make things better.
Saralynn Lester, 45, of St. Louis County, said she was looking for a way to make the theoretical discussions she’s had with her children, who are 16, 13 and 9, more personal.
“I wanted them to feel like they were doing something in addition to just talking about it,” she said. Their family plans to attend a protest together this weekend. She was surprised to see one of her politically conservative white male friends in Kirkwood post on Facebook about systemic racism and the police.
“That was not something I expected to see from him,” she said. “It’s getting harder to overlook it the way white people have for so long.”
Several parents said the difference in this case may have been the unambiguous horror of the video that showed Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, during which Floyd pleaded for breath and called out for his mother before dying. Meanwhile, three other officers watched.
“There literally can be no question about what happened,” said Robin Fogarty, 48, of St. Peters. She attended a protest with her 9-year-old daughter in O’Fallon, Missouri. “It’s really sad it’s taken this long, but hopefully this can be a turning point.”
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