Kristina Knox, a 25-year-old child development teacher from Maryland, cried for days after watching video footage of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis who died after a police officer knelt on his neck while Floyd gasped for air.
She had posted about high-profile episodes of police brutality wielded against black Americans on her social media accounts before she attended her first protest this week – spurred, in part, by hoping to create a better world for her two-year-old son.
“I’m over being walked over, mentally, physically, emotionally,” Knox said at a protest outside the US Capitol. “Enough is enough.”
Floyd’s death has sparked protests nationwide and around the world, engulfing city streets with thousands of demonstrators.
Many of the demonstrators who milled around the US Capitol this week were black people in their twenties who, like Knox, had felt compelled after Floyd’s death to march on the streets for the first time.
The US has been rocked by demonstrations over police killing of unarmed black men, women and boys over the past decade. During the most widespread protests, after the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, many of the protesters in Washington D.C. this week were just teens themselves.
New demonstrators said they had been driven to protest after seeing too many videos and hearing too many stories about black Americans dying at the hands of police officers – and by their concerns about the future of the country itself.
“It’s not to say that Ferguson did not anger us, but there’s definitely something different about this moment, especially because it is an election year,” said Arianna Evans, 23, a political science student, who attends Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.
“We’re grappling with the soul of this country this year,” Evans said. If US President Donald Trump isn’t voted out of office, and a new generation doesn’t push for the reforms they want, “we may never see that chance.”
The protests are broadly popular among Americans. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 64% of American adults were sympathetic and 55% of Americans disapprove of the way Trump handled them.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, has suggested to some governors to call in the National Guard.
While it is not clear exactly how many people taking to the streets in protests over the past nine days are first-timers, organizers say the number of new protesters is significant.
Freedom Fighters DC, a newly formed group that has hosted multiple demonstrations within Washington, said that about 150 were first-time protesters of the 500 or so protesters outside the Capitol building on Wednesday.
Alayshia Florida, 20, a self-described first-time protester who is headed to nursing school this fall, convinced a white officer to kneel with her outside the US Capitol Wednesday, amid cheers.
“It’s time we change how police officers view us by inviting them to see us as human beings,” she said.
Asked what made this moment different, Kelsey Marshman, a 29-year-old mail handler, said: “It’s 2020! This should not be happening still. It really shouldn’t. I’m sick of there being video and these police (officers) not being held accountable for that.”
The protesters’ demands include better police-sensitivity training, more serious background checks and convictions against the police officers involved in the case.
Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has been charged with second-degree murder. Minnesota sentencing guidelines suggest that someone convicted for second-degree murder without a criminal history receive between 22 and 30 years in prison. But Christa Groshek, a defense attorney in Minneapolis, said prosecutors would likely seek more than that if they secure a conviction against Chauvin.
Minnesota also filed a civil rights charge against the Minneapolis Police Department over Floyd’s death and said it would investigate the department for systemic discriminatory practices.
On the hot, sunny day in Washington on Wednesday, volunteers passed out water and hand sanitizer, in a bid to minimize risks from the coronavirus pandemic.
Most protesters wore masks as they held up handmade signs bearing phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop Shooting” and “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
“The people rose up against oppression in 2020. Were we successful stopping it? I doubt it,” said Lorenzo Bell, 36. “But did we just let them do it? … No.”