Thousands of protestors chanting “I can’t breathe.” Passionate calls to curb police brutality. Windows being smashed and police cars set afire.
These scenes played out in downtown Grand Rapids Saturday night, May 30, in a peaceful demonstration turned violent, just as the school year was coming to an end for students throughout Kent County. The protests here and nationwide following the death of a Minneapolis black man, George Floyd, shook the consciousness of young people already shaken by the closing of schools due to the coronavirus.
For area students, the ongoing protests could be a teachable moment, a call to action or both. School News Network spoke to five newly graduated seniors, as well as an educator, about the impact the protests have had on them, and what they think is needed to address the root causes.
Kamari Hunnicutt, Godwin Heights High School
Kamari knows all too well the toll of racism. He recalled an incident where his older sister was pulled over with him, their brother, and cousin in the vehicle. They were all required to show identification and before the stop was over, they were in a parking lot, surrounded by four or five police cars. He urged his little brother, very nervous in the back seat, to stay calm and comply.
The ticket? There wasn’t one.
“They literally had no reason to pull us over. He couldn’t tell us what he was pulling us over for,” said Kamari.
That’s one experience that speaks to Kamari about the background of the protests and the insights they yield.
“There’s a saying that ‘all lives matter,’ which is true, but then again, black lives matter and all lives don’t get treated how black lives get treated,” said Kamari.
“The rioting – I don’t think that’s the way to handle things, but I understand why they’re doing it,” he added. “I saw something that said, ‘It was supposed to be a protest, not a riot.’ Someone replied to that and said, ‘It was supposed to be an arrest, not a murder,’ which is true.”
Kamari said he personally knows people who’ve been mistreated by authority. It’s a concern for him as well. “My fear is it happens to me or one of my siblings or one of my close friends. I don’t want it to get any closer to home.”
As for the prospect of change, Kamari is hopeful, but not without his doubts.
“I was just talking to my grandad about this,” said Kamari. “He was saying this was going on before he was born, before we were born, and before his dad was born. Personally, I feel like it will never stop. … I wish it would stop. I feel like everybody should be treated equally.”
Midian Johnson, City Middle High School
Midian vividly remembers watching TV coverage of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer, and “trying to figure out why is this happening to someone who looks like me?”
That 2012 killing is part of a long history of violence and injustice against African Americans that has culminated in the mass protests sparked by the killing of yet another black man, Midian says.
“I definitely support every ounce of rage that Grand Rapids citizens are feeling and that citizens of America are feeling across the country right now,” she said, recalling her own family’s history. “It hurts that I’m 18 years old and I have to still fight for human rights. And it hurts that my grandmother, who lives in the South, had to fight for her rights just to integrate school.”
For her, the downtown protests were “the culmination of every injustice Grand Rapids residents have seen or heard in their own city, and across the nation.” A member of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation Youth Grant Committee, she says she’s experienced many “micro-aggressions” of people prejudging or ignoring her because she’s black.
‘It hurts that I’m 18 years old and I have to still fight for human rights.’– Midian Johnson, City High Middle graduate
While she doesn’t condone the vandalism and rioting, she invokes the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who in a 1967 speech, while condemning rioting, called it “the language of the unheard,” the causes of which must also be condemned. She sees the protest rioting as the build-up of racial injustice and other underlying issues “after years of neglect by the public. … It’s hard to see destruction happening in our community, but it can bring about change.”
She plans to work for change at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, and aims to become a doctor in maternal fetal medicine.
Her hope for this precarious moment? “The issues we’re having now and the protests we’re having now are just going to help us have a better America tomorrow.”
Ja’kaurie Kirkland, Northview High School
Ja’kaurie says he has never experienced racism. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned about it.
Watching as protests about unchecked police brutality unfold “makes me really nervous to go out of my Northview bubble and into the real world,” he admitted. “Now it makes me think about going to college, like what if they don’t see me as a nice kid or an athlete, but all someone sees is an African American. It just makes me nervous how people might react or treat me.”
In school, Ja’kaurie was identified as a leader among his peers: a varsity football standout, a four-year member of the school’s Diversity Youth Program, and president of a student group that aims to interact in positive ways with younger students. He has always felt accepted for who he is, he said.
Ja’kaurie said his family is talking about the peaceful protests — “We’re all for those,” he said – as well as the subsequent violence and destruction over the shocking death of Floyd, which brought charges against four ex-officers involved.
‘It’s easier to say we understand why people are reacting in anger, because they are hurting.’— Ja’kaurie Kirkland, Northview High School graduate
“We talk about how it was wrong, what happened to Mr. Floyd, really wrong. And that we don’t hate the police, we just feel like people who are being recruited need more of a background check than there is now. I thought police were supposed to protect us, and they are, but some have different views.”
As for the destruction in multiple cities, “I’m not for that at all. I don’t understand it,” Ja’kaurie said. “It’s easier to say we understand why people are reacting in anger, because they are hurting. And they are hurting not just about another African American being lost, but about lost jobs, lost health care opportunities.”
What does he think can be done? As someone deeply rooted in his faith, he cited Christian Scripture: specifically, from the Epistle of James 2:18, whose closing words in his version of the Bible are “Prayer without works is dead.”
Ja’kaurie interprets that as: “You can pray all you want but you also have to do. You have to make change. There’s a lot more we can do. We have to truly know that everyone is equal, that people should be accepted (despite) their differences.
“My mom never had to tell us when we were younger to treat everyone with respect. That’s humanity.”
Quyen Tran, East Kentwood High School
When Quyen heard about the protest planned for downtown, she knew she had to be there.
But her presence at the protest did not come without some family angst. Her mom, a Vietnamese immigrant, was hesitant about her daughter attending. She told Quyen a heart-wrenching story about her time many years ago in a refugee camp, and their efforts there to protest for more rights and better conditions.
“They were met with brutality,” Quyen said, her voice wavering. “She told me ‘protests don’t work. I’ve been there.’ I had never heard this story before. But I had to help my mom understand that it’s not like that here, that protests do work and that we’re being heard.”
Being downtown, she added, cemented her belief in peaceful protest.
“I was there from the beginning, and left before it got violent. It was the first protest that I have ever gone to. There was a lot of emotion. People are so driven in this, and everyone is there for the same reason: because black lives matter. We’re all brothers and sisters and so connected.”
Quyen, who is headed to Harvard in the fall, spent her senior year as president of the school’s Asian Student Union, and that experience opened her eyes to the injustices that minorities often face. Though born in Grand Rapids, she has also experienced injustice and racism because of her Vietnamese heritage, especially in recent months because of stereotypes around COVID-19.
“You just get used to ignoring that kind of thing,” she said with a shrug. “But the Black Lives Matter movement and protests have made me realize that you can’t ignore it. You have to call people out and hold people accountable.”
That mindset extended to her alma mater, East Kentwood.
‘There’s a saying that ‘all lives matter,’ which is true, but then again, black lives matter and all lives don’t get treated how black lives get treated.’– Kamari Hunnicutt, Godwin Heights High graduate
After the protest, and after #blackouttuesday on Instagram and other social media, Quyen sent a letter to Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff on behalf of dozens of students, calling on him to make a statement about George Floyd and the nationwide protests. Zoerhoff told her they were already working on a statement, which he issued the following day on the district’s website. He said he is proud of her and other students “for being leaders and advocating for change.”
“I’m not black, and I’m not trying to speak for black people,” she said, “but I felt like I had a responsibility to do something. If you just post a black square (to Instagram), that’s kind of useless. Don’t be neutral in situations of injustice. Do something.”
Marco Guzman, Kelloggsville High School
Marco stopped by Saturday’s protest in downtown Grand Rapids, but once things started getting rowdy, he left.
“I support Black Lives Matter,” Macro said. “What I don’t agree with is the looting and destroying of businesses.”
People put their lives in these businesses and to destroy them is just wrong, Marco said. “I’m all for peaceful protests for any race, but when it comes to destroying businesses and violence … Two wrongs do not make a right.”
Marco said he believes the peaceful protest gave people the opportunity to voice how they feel about what is happening between police and minorities, and that’s what he felt at Saturday afternoon’s protest. “I met up with friends there to show my support,” he said.
“I would not wish police brutality on anyone or any race,” Marco said, adding that he believes there needs to be a way to make all citizens feel safer, whether that be better police training or more body cameras.
Bradley Tarrance, principal at Godwin Heights Middle School
Tarrance says that as a white male, he comes from a stance of privilege and emphasizes the necessity for black voices to be elevated in this conversation. He’s been an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement and has two children of his own.
“For me, education is for liberation,” not for preparing students to assimilate into white culture, Tarrance said.
“Too frequently, when it comes to the standards that are taught, they’re written from a white perspective and we pick and choose what we believe is the most important,” said Tarrance, adding these belief systems need to be disrupted. “It’s uplifting when I see kids seeing the injustice and being able to challenge that.”
Tarrance said it’s important to be “authentic, transparent, and vulnerable” when discussing George Floyd’s death with children.
With his daughter, who is 6, he and his wife started with a video of the riots and employed the “5 Whys” technique — allowing her curiosity to lead the discussion.
“You don’t want to instill hatred,” he said, “but what you do want to do is try to educate our children on what this is.”