The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their exchange went viral as a window into generations of black protest

Curtis Hayes, Jr., 31, left, speaks passionately to Raymon Curry, 16, about what he needs to do to survive and grow up to be a leader. (Logan Cyrus)
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Curtis Hayes Jr., 31, roared his way into the American psyche with a furious message for two black protesters — one 14 years older than him, one 15 years younger — who were trying to make a stand against American racism, a problem ages older than any of them.

To the elder, ready to die to make his anger known: “This ain’t the way!”

To the younger: “Y’all come up with a better way, ’cause we ain’t doing it!”

They were standing on a bridge in Charlotte, one of dozens and dozens of U.S. cities where black people and their allies had raised their voices against police violence — and, in the process, faced some. The boy was 16. He stood at attention as Hayes’s voice broke and tears streamed down his face.

“And I have a 5-year-old son,” Hayes cried out, palms open to the sky. “And it ain’t happening!”

It was a multigenerational tableau of desperation, which became a 20-second clip, which became a viral video unlike most: there is no mic drop, no punchline, no sudden reversal of circumstances. His words are given as wisdom to a youngster, but Hayes — still a young man himself — is out of ideas. Peaceful protest, angry revolt, weary lamentation. And it ain’t happening.

So, what happens next?

Flash forward two days. Hayes is in Washington, sitting outside the Capitol, home of an institution that creates laws that he says, “are not for us — they’re not for the minority.”

He has some words for the majority.

“My white peers: We need y’all to jump into the front line right now.”

Hayes is in town to visit a friend who lives in Northern Virginia, but he’s happy to talk, and he suggests the Capitol as a backdrop for an interview. Here the birds are chirping and the air is calm. But Hayes carries every ounce of fervor he brought to that bridge in Charlotte. Over the course of 40 minutes his jaw will shake, his eyes will flood repeatedly. He will speak breathlessly, pausing only to fix his gaze and inspect the face of his one-woman audience for comprehension.

“My people are tired because we’ve been on the front line,” he continues. “My grandmother, my great-grandmother and 10 generations before her have been on the front line. It is time for white people who feel in their hearts that the injustice is wrong [to step up].”

Hayes was born in West Virginia but moved to North Carolina as a child. His mother raised him and his three siblings mostly on her own. He was given love and lessons in respect and hand-me-down sneakers from cousins, but knew his mom struggled to provide for the family. As an 8-year-old, he says, “I made up my mind that my life goal and my life journey would be to break the cycle and break the generational curses of where I came from.”

As a teenager, with no clear view of how to achieve that goal, he felt lost. He rebelled, racked up some misdemeanors — disorderly conduct, larceny under $50, resisting a public officer — and learned what it feels like to see his fate in the hands of a white man in a black robe. “We all make mistakes. But it’s only a certain race, a certain ethnicity, a certain minority that has to bear their mistakes for as long as they live,” Hayes says. “If you have a record you have no right path, you have no option, you have no other choice but to go down the path that the world has designed for the minority and for the black man.”

Hayes grew up and eventually started his own property maintenance company. He says he supports other young, black entrepreneurs and mentors kids in Charlotte. Which is why he was struck last weekend, at the Charlotte protest, when he ran into a young man whose path to adulthood had led him to the same bridge that Hayes was walking across.

Raymon Curry, the 16-year-old who appears in the video, was defying the rules — in that he didn’t have his mother’s permission to attend the rally. She’d find out later, when her son’s face appeared in Hayes’s viral catharsis.

That scene happened a few minutes after they met, when they encountered protesters who had surrounded two police cars. Hayes says the police were just sitting there, smirking, as protesters hollered at them. The officers’ stony silence only agitated the protesters further.

“Engage!” Hayes thunders now, in Washington, willing officers everywhere to hear the voices of protesters standing before them. “Speak! All these people want to know is that you’re listening. But you’re ignoring them as they stand in front of you and cry out. And all they are trying to express to you is that they are tired of their people dying.”

The 45-year-old man, wearing a white tank top and cowboy boots, was one of the tired ones, and in the video, he says so — shouting inches from Hayes’s face. Hayes engages.

“I understand. I understand,” Hayes repeats, his voice raised but his body language receptive.

The older man continues: “We’ve been standing around, as the older ones, taking on this bulls---, always looking for a kumbay- f---ing -ya! Always standing around for a kumbaya! Ain’t nobody coming to protect us. We gotta start our own f---ing law!”

“I understand!” says Hayes, and that’s when he pulls Curry into the frame as a symbol of the future.

There’s crosstalk, with the older man saying it’s “time to stand up,” and Hayes saying “this ain’t the way,” because the police are “ready to let loose.”

Hayes turns to Curry and looks him directly in the face, the brim of his hat nearly touching Curry’s forehead.

“Let me tell you something,” he says, his voice becoming raspy. “What you see right now is going to happen 10 years from now. And at 26, you’re going to be doing the same thing I’m doing.”

Unless Curry comes up with a better way. Somehow.

The video got a huge reaction. It was posted by celebrities like Dennis Rodman and 50 Cent. Activists and cultural critics said it crystallized generations of pain.

“This needs to be seen by every single black person,” one commenter wrote on Twitter.

“Black people already know all this,” another responded. “White people need to see it.”

Hayes and Curry continued to protest together into the night on Saturday. (They lost track of the older man, whose name they didn’t catch.) Curry took his cues from Hayes, who insisted their message would be lost if they didn’t keep the peace. That night, as the protest grew violent, they helped form a line between protesters and police officers, to make sure no one got hurt.

“And then I turned around and a police officer pepper sprayed me in the face,” Curry says on the phone from Charlotte. It was a lesson at odds with the one Hayes had offered. Curry was trying to protect the police, who are supposed to protect him. Instead they hurt him.

It ain’t happening.

“All we did was come with peace. But where was the peace when Trayvon Martin got shot? When George Floyd was killed?” he says. “In my head I was like, ‘This is what my people keep doing over and over again. And yet they continue to do the same thing — hurt us, kill us.’”

Curry found out that he and Hayes had gone viral Monday morning, when his mom busted into the room, having seen the video. She wasn’t pleased he’d lied to her, but was proud he was standing up for his rights. After all, she was the one who sat Curry down to show him the video of George Floyd dying with a knee in his neck.

Hayes said he is glad America got to see the tears he shed. He’s not shy about his tears here, either.“I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. I think people have a perception of black men where we are aggressive beings,” he says, as two Capitol Police officers pass on motorcycles. “We go home to our women and we are soft. We are nurturers. We play with our kids. We talk to our grandmothers. We care.”

Hayes would be home with his friend that evening to watch federal law enforcement inflict punishing rule on D.C. protesters. Civilians violently dispersed by military police so the president could stage a photo. These days Hayes is worried that the chants and cries are falling on deaf ears. “The leaders of the world need to step up quickly,” he says, before people are not only marching for equality but they start marching for revenge.”

An oral history of 48 surreal, violent, biblical minutes in Washington

Back in Charlotte, Curry is worried, too. Worried that people see the color of his skin and automatically think he’s a thug. Worried he could become the next Trayvon Martin, the next George Floyd. “And it makes me angry,” he says. “I’m 16. Why do I have to think about those things? I want to go to college — I want to go to Duke. And I gotta wonder, ‘Am I gonna make it to see these things?’ ”

He’s been thinking about Hayes’s charge, to “Come up with a better way.” He knows violence won’t work, but peaceful protests don’t seem to be working, either. The teenager is wondering about empathy. And how to foster it in white people. “I’m trying to think of a way that I can get them to understand and comprehend that what they’re doing is wrong,he says. “To understand the pain of being profiled for your skin.”

Curry will try. And Hayes will keep trying. One generation after another. And maybe, someday, white people will comprehend that black protesters aren’t the ones who need to come up with a better way.