A year after millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, About U.S. checked in with some of the protesters we spoke with last year. Many of them said they had seen little change in their communities, but had made big changes in their personal lives.
Protesters sought not only justice for Floyd, but wide-ranging reforms including the defunding of police and reallocating money for law enforcement to mental health, social services and other resources.
Few communities have embraced the bold changes demonstrators were seeking.
“Not enough has happened,” said Xavier Brown, 20.
But the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of murder in Floyd’s death did give protesters hope that progress is being made, albeit slowly.
“Very seldom do we get justice when brutal, murderous White police officers kill African American ... people … We got justice that felt different,” said 64-year-old Robin Williams, who lives in western Michigan. “It felt like something was changing, that we’re being heard.”
Some protesters have uplifted their lives, while others have faced harassment.
“We can protest and we’ll keep protesting. The next generation will protest until we get some justice in this country, because we aren’t going anywhere,” Williams said.
Following is how some of the protesters are doing a year later.
Xavier Brown, 20
After Floyd’s death, Brown protested to express the pain that he was feeling.
A year later, after a dozen protests, Brown is still planning and participating in protests.
“Just living in America as a Black man, this is a fight for my own life too,” Brown said. “It’s a fight for my little brother’s life, a fight for my friends and a fight for my future son’s life. It’s not like it’s something that you can do one time and just stop.”
And, while Brown said not enough change has occurred, with a new case of police brutality in the headlines "every other week,” awareness has increased.
“Black Lives Matter became one of the largest social movements that this world has ever seen,” said Brown, a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The protests have also helped Brown to find community. The Oakland native admits that he does not always feel safe.
“Sometimes when I’m out protesting, honestly, I feel more safe than other times, because I know that I have people around me that truly believe the same thing as me … that we’re all in this together,” he said.
In addition to protesting, he’s also working on releasing his own music and art, and selling shirts that say, “Our future is bright, stand by our side” in support of Black organizations.
“It is sometimes overwhelming when you’re constantly fighting for your life,” Brown said. “You kind of want to have something that promotes Black excellence, that promotes that we’re good.”
Nevada Littlewolf, 44
“The protests were there to show the will of the people,” said longtime activist Nevada Littlewolf. “Like if nobody came out and said anything, it would just mean nobody actually cared that it happened. But there were hundreds and thousands of people that came out to talk about this and to say that they care and that they were standing for justice.”
Littlewolf peacefully protested in Minneapolis last year with many others, including babies and elders, as police rained down rubber bullets on them.
She wonders what might have happened if Minneapolis police had handled things differently -- if instead of “turning [the Third precinct] into a fortress,” they had been out in the community, "having conversations with people that were protesting … just asking, how are you doing... what else can we do?”
Littlewolf said she has seen some change for the better. Most recently, Littlewolf, executive director of Our Children Minnesota, has focused her energy on racial equity by working on the Page Amendment, a legislative proposal that would make quality public education a civil right under the state’s constitution.
“There are some conversations that are happening now that I've not seen happen in this kind of way before,” said Littlewolf, a citizen of the Leech Lake Nation. “It felt different to actually see law enforcement take some accountability measures within their own departments, in their own ranks, instead of doing that thing where we just back them up no matter what.”
In Minneapolis, ground zero for the unrest, many buildings are gone, but one nonprofit recently celebrated its rebuilding. Recently, Littlewolf and others walked the couple blocks from the burned area along Lake Street to bless the grounds for a new home for Migizi Communications, named after the Ojibwe word for bald eagle, which supports and trains Native American youth.
It was “a healing process that needed to happen where the community can be together in that same space,” Littlewolf said.
Anniston Weber, 22
When Anniston Weber, 22, first held a Black Lives Matter protest in her small Kansas town last June, she wasn’t entirely surprised to see Trump supporters show up, revving their engines and yelling racial slurs at protesters.
“It shows that there are people in this town that are openly bigoted, even if we don’t like to admit it,” Hays said at the time.
But that hostile interaction would prove to be only the beginning. Later that summer, as professional sports franchises like the Washington Football Team changed their names in response to activists, the issue hit her town, where the local high school mascot was known as the Indians.
“I was very vocal about being in support of changing the mascot … and that kind of put a target on my back,” Weber said.
A group of residents formed a Facebook group where people shared Weber’s home address and discussed strategies to get her fired from her job, she said. It got bad enough that she had to ask the police to patrol her home for a few weeks.
“I was terrified,” Weber said. “I got several Facebook messages of people calling me to go kill myself, that I was a nuisance to the area and that I should leave if I hate it here so much.”
This weekend, she is helping organize the first-ever Juneteenth celebration in her town. But things are slow to change.
“I have considered moving a lot … but I struggle with thinking that because I want to be able to make a positive impact in this area, because I know that small ultra conservative towns need young progressive ideals in order to change anything,” she said.
Zach Rosenberg, 37
Zach Rosenberg said he had thought the protests would be a tipping point for changes in policing reform, but things haven’t changed as quickly as he had hoped.
“I had hoped that a lot of politicians would see that their constituents wanted major change — and would start making them,” he said. “We’re seeing it in some places, but we’re also seeing this very intense backlash,” pointing to a rise in anti-protest bills and laws that grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters.
Still, he believes that the protests have led to a major shift in the country, especially in raising awareness about racism and police misconduct. He’s had conversations with people about systemic racism and criminal justice reform in ways he hadn’t expected before. Police misconduct and other shootings seem to be more frequently reported in major media outlets, rather than just on niche sites.
“I really feel like the protests helped to accelerate what has been a really long-term change in American society toward policing and the criminal justice system,” said Rosenberg. But, he knows that it will be a long-term process.
“We’re going to see, unfortunately, a lot more George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylors’ before these issues get solved in any really meaningful way. ”
Cameron Yang, 26
St. Paul, Minn.
It was important for Cameron Yang to protest last year because, “our bodies are less likely to be killed or hurt by police when in police custody, ensuring that Black and Brown protesters are not the ones being painfully afflicted by the police.”
The Hmong activist, who has since participated in a dozen protests, said it was “extremely complicated” when one of four of the officers charged in Floyd’s death was a Hmong.
Minnesota is home to the largest concentration of Hmong in America, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. But the pain of Floyd’s death is also very familiar in their community too, Yang added. In 2006, police fatally shot 19-year-old Hmong teenager, Fong Lee. The officer was exonerated in 2009.
Protesting is “the bare minimum of what solidarity is,” said the 26-year-old who works as a school executive assistant. “Especially in Minnesota, we see a lot of white folks showing up, which is great because it shows police and our elected officials like the majority actually care and you should take into account this when you're making decisions.”
The community came together again at protests in “support and solidarity,” said Yang, when only 10 miles away from the Derek Chauvin trial, another Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by police during a traffic stop.
And when Chauvin’s guilty verdict was read, many community members were gathered in George Floyd Square, near the site where Floyd was killed. Just being there is cathartic now, Yang said.
“It’s a place where you can celebrate, grieve together and hold each other,” Yang said. “There was loss and now there’s like a reclaiming.”
Cedric Caschetta, 21
Cedric Caschetta would not have expected that a Black Lives Matter protest he organized in small-town Indiana last year would change his life. At the protest, he was met with gun-toting residents, and a video of the encounter went viral.
“After the protests and seeing the actual amazing involvement of the community, it drove me to want to do more and be a part of more,” Caschetta said.
Caschetta was drawn to the larger protests in Washington, D.C., and visited and participated. While in the nation’s capital, he visited Howard University and the school made such an impression on him that he decided to transfer.
“I knew if I took this risk, regardless of what happened, that I could, reap the benefits of having an HCBU education,” he said
Caschetta, who moved to D.C. last September, is still waiting to hear whether he will gain admission to Howard. He hopes to attend this fall and study law. Life in D.C. has been a departure from the small mostly-White town where he grew up. There, Caschetta, whose adoptive parents are White, was one of the handful of Black students in his classes. He hopes that being in a large city will help expose him to new cultures.
“It's cool to see the different choices of food that I have, and it's so cool that I can drive 20 minutes and be in a different state,” Caschetta said.
While he said the Chauvin verdict was “great progress,” he thinks that more needs to be done to evaluate the mental health of police officers. In his hometown, like in much of the country, not much has changed in terms of policy. But the lack of change won’t stop him from attending more protests.
“Over the next year, I think there will be more of a push [for change] because the younger generation is getting out of high school. They’re getting wiser,” Caschetta said. “Our voices need to be heard.”