Amanda Washington attended her very first protest Saturday, in the middle of a pandemic, after working an overnight shift at the nursing home where she tends to elderly residents, many of whom are struggling because they can’t receive visits from their loved ones.
When her shift ended at 6am, Amanda stopped to get breakfast for her daughter, then lay down to rest before getting up again and driving downtown to witness the noon protest outside Austin police headquarters.
“I came down to stand for something,” Amanda said. “Even though I’m not yelling, I just wanted to see it.”
What she saw outside Austin Police Department headquarters were hundreds of people — young and older, black, brown, and white, some with dogs, some with babies, some with megaphones. Some came on bikes and skateboards, and a few in wheelchairs. Some came to hand out water, granola bars, and oranges. Many carried signs. Nearly all wore masks.
“It’s just amazing,” Amanda said, “the different races of people. I have no words. I’m only 49, but when I was coming up, we didn’t do this.”
Amanda stood toward the back of the crowd, which spilled from APD building at the edge of downtown onto the frontage road of Interstate 35, the city’s main highway and a well-known marker of historic racial segregation in Austin.
Saturday’s protest was one of several held in Austin over the course of the weekend, and one of hundreds that materialized in cities across the country in the past week, since the killing last Monday of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pinned Floyd to the street with the help of two other officers. Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the handcuffed man repeatedly told officers he could no longer breathe.
Amanda said she’d seen the videos of Floyd’s killing, and many others like it from similar incidents captured on bystanders’ cell phones in recent years. The deaths of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown. But none drew her to a protest until now.
“I’ve seen a lotta things that have happened. Getting killed, especially my people,” Amanda said. “But when I watched the video of George Floyd, and I seen the whole video, something changed in me and I just got real angry. They way they handled him — they just threw him on the stretcher and they went home. The only reason they arrested the officer was because they thought it would appease people. When you can murder somebody on television and go home, when you can stand there and watch your comrade with his hand in his pocket on that man’s neck, and you don’t say nothing. I just never…”
At one point during the protest, a large portion of the crowd moved toward I-35 to climb the embankment and halt traffic in both directions for nearly half an hour until APD and State Police officers pushed people back. This same scene was repeated Sunday afternoon in a subsequent protest that began at the State Capitol, moved to City Hall, then traveled to APD headquarters.
Amanda watched the crowd in motion from a small, triangular median on the road beneath the interstate. She wanted to keep more distance, she said, considering the dangers of COVID-19. She expressed reluctance at joining in the chants of those shouting around her, but she held a sign that read, “If we can’t breathe, y’all won’t breathe.”
A woman had come by and offered the sign to several people, Amanda said. She hesitated at first, but then accepted it. “It took me a while to put it up in the air, but I believe in every sign they have here.”
On her mask, Amanda had written the same refrain, “I can’t breathe,” which is now one of several rallying cries heard in demonstrations across the US, along with No justice, no peace, Black lives matter, Hands up, don’t shoot, and Fuck the police.
Amanda said the phrase signifies even more to her than the recollection of Floyd’s — and Eric Garner’s — dying words. She says the phrase reflects the experience of all black Americans, the need to always hold your breath in the presence of police.
“You get used to it, but you still have that I-can’t-breathe feeling,” Amanda says. “If I see a cop, I automatically make sure my seatbelt’s on. I cut my music. I make sure I’m going the speed limit. You can ask anybody of color. When they get behind you, you might as well just die. My heart beats so fast. I’m thinking about everything I do. You feel it here,” she said, covering her heart. “And if they don’t get from behind you real quick, it goes to here,” she said, moving her hand to her stomach.
Saturday’s protest, which remained mostly peaceful during the day, also drew attention to the death of Michael Ramos, a 42-year-old man who was shot by Austin police on April 24 while driving a car. The day before the protest, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced she would convene a grand jury to investigate the officers’ actions in Ramos’s death, but this did little to quell the fervor of weekend demonstrations that took on much broader aspirations than seeking justice in one or two cases.
Amanda said she was surprised by the outpouring in front of her and the demonstrations across the country. “It shocks me,” she said. “I understood Minneapolis. Then you look — Sacramento, Las Vegas, here, Dallas, Houston. I mean, Colorado, really?!” She laughed. “How many black people live in Colorado? I was glued to it all night. I was at work, but every chance I got, I went to look. I don’t approve of the looting. You don’t have to do that. But what this is — this is okay. When you start looting, hurting buildings — it’s not necessary. Other than that, I’ve just been knocked off my feet.”
The series of protests in Austin over the course of the weekend were not without violence and destruction. Saturday evening, a car was set ablaze under I-35, a boutique on 6th Street was looted, multiple buildings were tagged with graffiti, and there have been reports of police using pepper spray, smoke canisters, and bean bag rounds to disperse crowds, though Austin has not seen the same level of looting and police aggression reported in other cities.
Protests in New York, Oakland, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere have escalated into charged confrontations with police and National Guard troops, which have been deployed to Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Texas to reinforce local policing agencies.
But the part of the protest Amanda witnessed remained peaceful, and she was moved by the solidarity shown by the turnout. “I think Floyd’s death was a turning point. Since Memorial Day on, it’s just been too much. I think that’s what happened to America. They got tired of their friends, brothers, cousins, and coworkers dying. This is where we are now. Amidst a pandemic. It’s unbelievable.”
Amanda grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s, and she recalled the racism she experienced throughout her life in the Deep South. “Even when we had assemblies, it was implied: you sit over here, black people, and you sit over here, white people. That was it. Now look at this,” Amanda said, pointing to the large and diverse group standing in the midday heat. “These white kids could be at home, not out here in the sun. It could be just us out here struggling and hollering, but I truly believe that the change is coming.”
Wearing a T-shirt in honor of her cousin, Travis Washington, Amanda also spoke about his death, which remains unsolved. The shirt shows a black man wearing wings surrounded by hearts, with his name imprinted across the top of the design.
“He got shot and killed in Louisiana,” Amanda said. “They say it was one of his friends, but I wasn’t sure because it was just another black life to them. Our family kept going to the police, telling them what they heard, because a lot of times that’s how things get solved — word of mouth. They didn’t try. Nothing was done. He was an up-and-coming rapper. Spotify and all that. So that’s why I wore this shirt, because to me it was just like they were killing him.”
Amanda also described the delicate balance she tries to strike with her four children, as she tries to help them navigate the world safely.
“When I’m with my kids, I try not to let them see the fear I have when I see the police. I want them to be assertive, but I don’t want them to have that fear,” Amanda said. “I told my sons, ‘I know you’re a young bull, but when they’re talking to you, there’s nothing you can do. They’re the authority. Don’t antagonize them. Don’t make me have to bury you. Leave it alone.’” Her two sons are now 26 and 21 years old, and her daughters are 14 and 12. “I hate when they go to the store. I don’t even like them to go out now.”
When asked about the change she wants to see in the world, Amanda said, “I just want everybody to love each other, to support the cause. Raise your children the same way you are, but raise them to look at what might hurt others because of their beliefs.”
She wants to see bad cops weeded out from police departments. She wants to see solidarity. And she wants to see safety, for all people. “I just want everybody to be safe out here, please. This is strong. And this is nationwide. It ain’t just Minneapolis.”