When Beth Allen, 34, first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter” during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, she immediately bristled and thought, “All lives matter.”
Then, she stopped to listen.
She’s spent the six years since then 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. She has avoided them because she is immunocompromised and worries about the exposure to coronavirus, but said she wishes she could be in the streets with her. “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 that he was judging her, 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 a
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 police killing of George Floyd. 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 cops.
Some, like Jennifer Harris Dault’s 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 that continue to grow.
Harris Dault, 37, is interim pastor at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. When she and her husband began attending protests and vigils six years ago, she was pregnant with her first child. This past 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 protestor’s sign that said, “I can’t breathe.” Alarmed, 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 BLM. 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.
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.
Those joining the protests can more easily 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, Missouri, took her three children, ages 3, 5 and 10, to a recent march. 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 boys, who she hopes will recognize their role in the system and what they can do to make it more fair.
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.
After nine days of protest, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison increased charges against Chauvin to second- degree murder and charged the other three officers, as well.