The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s a blue-soaked anger’: Amid protests, African Americans feel a private grief

Protesters gather at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday.
Protesters gather at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
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MINNEAPOLIS — The whole city still smelled like fire, but Yvonne Passmore wanted to survey the damage wrought by days of violent protests. So she stood beside three neighbors in South Minneapolis, all of them black, all of them trying to process what had happened the past few days, and months, and years.

“First, we had the coronavirus, which is wiping us out,” said Passmore, 65, pushing down her mask so she could breathe a little better. “And now it’s this.”

The neighbors debated the intensity of the protests, which left a trail of wreckage in this neighborhood off Lake Street. Had it gone too far? Small markets and convenience stores had been looted and destroyed, taking away a crucial source of fresh produce. The Walgreens was destroyed; the post office, too.

But, as four black people living in America in 2020, they understood the anger that led to it being nearly burned to the ground.

This is what they agreed on: They were scared. They were mad. They were exhausted.

“This isn’t just about George Floyd,” said Passmore. “This is about years and years of being treated as less than people — and not just by police. It’s everything. We don’t get proper medical. We don’t get proper housing. There’s so much discrimination, and it’s not just the justice system. It’s a whole lot of things.”

The month of May brought a particularly glaring accrual of trauma and grief to black communities across the country, which have been ravaged by the pandemic and its economic fallout. A series of attacks on black people, including several caught on tape and circulated in recent weeks on social media, sent additional waves of pain through communities already suffering through a heavy assault by the novel coronavirus.

New Yorkers echoed protesters in several cities with calls for racial justice on May 30, following the police-involved death of George Floyd. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The accumulated anger has been evident in the protests — including demonstrators from diverse backgrounds — that have convulsed dozens of U.S. cities after video emerged of a white police officer in Minneapolis using his knee to pin down a black man by the neck for more than eight minutes. The man, George Floyd, died in the encounter.

Less visible is the private weariness and anguish felt by many black people in the country, some of whom are either too fearful for their health to join the protests or who may disagree with the methods of some of the most riotous demonstrators.

“I’m exhausted,” said Tanya Faison, an activist in Sacramento. “All of these things build up, and they make your soul feel such unrest. And then you add that to all the lives that nobody got justice for.”

For months, Faison has been sheltering in place at home, worried that if she catches the virus, she may die because of a preexisting respiratory condition. But the fear of the coronavirus, she said, is outweighed by the urgent need to push for change while political leaders and nonblack communities are paying attention.

“There comes a time when you need to figure out what’s more of a risk,” she said. “So I’m going to put my mask on, I’m going to put my gloves on, and I’m going to protest.”

Before the protests began, the pandemic had pushed black people and their neighborhoods to new, accumulated levels of despair, said Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University.

“Covid is devastating our communities, and people are wound so tight because it seems like the country doesn’t care. It seems as if there’s a general disregard for what’s happening in black America,” Glaude said. “Many of the folks who live in these communities, because of the nature of their work, they have to go out and expose themselves to covid, risk themselves for wages that barely make ends meet.”

Glaude stressed that the graphic video of Floyd’s death was a spark laid on decades of kindling. He pointed to decades of disinvestment in black neighborhoods and growing income inequality. Those conditions, in turn, exacerbated the health effects and the economic consequences of the pandemic in black communities.

“This is not 1968. This is worse. There’s a global pandemic killing people,” Glaude said. “I’m angry all the time. All the time. And it’s an anger that has a tinge of sadness to it; it’s a blue-soaked anger. The nation has faced these sorts of moments before, and our history doesn’t bode well for what we’re going to do.”

“And then, on top of that all, the police won’t stop killing us,” he said. “They won’t stop.”

In Brunswick, Ga., Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while on a jog that turned into a pursuit by two armed white men.

In Louisville, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, was fatally shot in her apartment by police officers as they executed a drug warrant.

In New York City, a white woman was filmed threatening to call the police on Christian Cooper, a black man who had asked her to follow park rules by putting her dog on a leash; she told a 911 dispatcher Cooper was “threatening my life.”

Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a grass-roots political organization based in Atlanta, called the current moment “a perfect storm — or imperfect storm.”

“People are talking about two viruses — the virus of racism and the coronavirus,” he said. “We’re not all shot by police, but all of us in our daily lives are dealing with people like the [woman who called the police on the birdwatcher in New York]. It’s hard to really even put it in context; it’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant, then combine all that with the crazy man in the White House doing things to disrespect us.”

Glaude, in Trenton, N.J., said the frustrations felt by black people extend far beyond the partisan and cultural wars that have defined the Trump administration.

“We blame it on Trump when in fact this is the culmination of 40 years of a particular ideology that has produced unimaginable wealth inequity and deepening racial divides and despair,” he said. “The only thing Trump has done is broken the implicit rule of manners around how one pursues these policy initiatives. He doesn’t have a dog whistle, he has a fog horn.”

And anti-Trump sentiment among liberals has brought new attention to the long-standing “struggle for justice in black communities,” said Faison in Sacramento. In some ways, the diversity of those protesting nationally may have been facilitated by the growing frustrations felt by white liberals in the Trump era.

“I know a lot of people are saying all this stuff has gotten worse since Donald Trump was elected. But I just think people are paying attention now,” she said.

Vincent Williams said he has friends who lost their jobs and neighbors who had been hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus. There is collective grief wrought by the pandemic, he said, and Floyd’s death appears to have united a lot of people in anger.

“I think we done got tired of the same stuff year after year after year,” said Williams, 60. “Everybody’s sick of it. White people, black people, green people, purple people — it doesn’t matter what color you are. We know it’s wrong when a man chokes another man to death.”

For Brianna Baker, 25, an elementary school teacher in Kansas City, Mo., news of Arbery’s death hit hard. For the first time, she began worrying about her own frequent 3.5-mile runs through Brookside, a residential neighborhood of quaint Tudor homes.

“He couldn’t even run through his neighborhood without being shot down like a dog,” she said. “Worse than a dog.”

Baker was still grappling with this new fear when Floyd’s death left her further shaken. Constant news alerts on her phone brought her to tears.

“How many more people have to die?” She said. “It’s like, enough is enough. We’re not threats, we’re people.”

Back in Minneapolis, Passmore said she was not terribly surprised at the way unrest had spread across city. She was not sure she was terribly angry about it, either.

“Something had to happen to wake people up to the injustice,” she said. “People are so angry, so angry that they’ve turned bitter. And bitterness is why people came in here and destroyed.”

At her side were Tanisha Cardon, 40, and her friend, Marcus Ellis, 49, who lived in the same building as her.

They nodded, mostly in agreement, as Passmore spoke. They had been harassed by police and knew what it was like to live in a neighborhood where the streets weren’t as nice and laws were not enforced in the same ways in other parts of Minneapolis.

But Cardon wondered about the ultimate costs of the protests. She had already wanted to move but was unsure of the destination. And now, even with more promises by mostly white politicians to change the systemic racism she encountered in her daily life, she was especially skeptical.

“I am just scared, and I want to leave,” Cardon said.

Passmore looked at her.

“But where will you go?” Passmore asked. The same problems exist everywhere.

“That’s why I am staying right here,” she said. “Nobody is going to run me out.”