Thousands of people filled Nashville’s streets Thursday for a peaceful protest against police brutality. Almost all of them were teens.
And as they marched through downtown, the young demonstrators hugged, linked arms and promised to keep each other safe.
In front of a sea of people waving signs and chanting through sweaty masks, a teen held a stack of notecards in one hand and a microphone in the other. He said he was 10 years old when he and his mom had the talk.
“Not about the birds and the bees,” the teen said. “But about what to do when law enforcement is present.”
Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden movements. Lessons he says he was too young for.
The teenager was one of thousands that gathered on Bicentennial Mall. They urged peace and said they didn’t want anyone to get arrested. They just wanted to make their voices heard.
“I want you guys to all look around at everybody who’s supporting today,” 15-year-old Jade Fuller, one of the organizers, told the crowd. “We need to change America, and everybody here right now is supporting that.”
The teens ranged in age and race. But one thing that united them was their raw emotion, as they pleaded for police reform. Racial justice. Unity.
“Show me what unity looks like. This is what unity looks like,” the crowd is chanting. We’re walking back toward the Capitol. pic.twitter.com/kFnFAqOK19
— Samantha Max (@samanthaellimax) June 4, 2020
“I can play with a toy gun, but Tamir Rice couldn’t. I can sleep in my home, but Breonna Taylor couldn’t. I can go for a run in peace, but Ahmaud Arbery couldn’t,” said Emma Rosa Smith, another 15-year-old organizer. “I can do all of these things without fear because of my white privilege.”
Smith said she’d come as an ally of the black community.
“I know I’ll never be able to understand the struggles you face,” she said. “But here I stand for you.”
For others in the crowd, those struggles were all too familiar.
“What’s it like to be black? For those of you who don’t know, it’s like having your body carry more bullets than promises,” said Clayton Edward Oglesby. He’s a recent graduate of the Nashville School of the Arts and a spoken word poet.
Oglesby shared a piece he wrote two years ago, which he said it still holds weight today.
Listen to the full spoken word poem, “What It’s Like To Be Black,” by Clayton Edward Oglesby.
“It’s like me, writing another black poem in black ink while hoping I’ll be seen as white as the paper I’m writing it on, but know I have three bullet holes on the side to remind me that I’m still black, because the red, white and blue margins don’t matter.”
‘We are tired’
The demonstration was organized by a group that calls itself Teens4Equality, which came together over social media, as protesters across the country took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“Us teens, we are tired of waking up every day to see another innocent person being slain in broad daylight,” said Zee Thomas, 15, who helped plan the event.
Marching behind a banner that read “Black Lives Matter,” the crowd looped through downtown, starting at Bicentennial Mall, then marched down Broadway, before eventually turning back toward the Capitol.
As as protesters walked, and sometimes ran, in the heat, they checked in on one another. Strangers passed out water bottles and masks. They waited on the sidelines as friends caught their breath. They joined hands, holding each other close after months spent apart.
And many in the crowd hadn’t only come to protest police use of force.
Jason Brooks, of East Nashville, said he was also marching for gentrification.
“I’m from here born and raised. I was in one of the worst hoods here in Nashville,” he said. “It got tore down, and they didn’t care about us at all.”
Evan Davis, 21, said he decided to protest because he was tired. Tired of dealing with the same discrimination his grandparents faced decades ago.
Davis said he’s frustrated that many have fixated on the rioting and looting that’s occurred during other recent demonstrations, instead of concentrating on the lives that have been lost at the hands of police.
“People are focused on losing their favorite things,” he said. “Stuff that we don’t even need. More and more every single day, we are getting prepared to just be able to survive.”
Standoff with police on Broadway
The names of those killed by police lingered in the streets as protesters made their way through downtown. They rang through megaphones and were painted across T-shirts and handmade signs.
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Daniel Hambrick. Jocques Clemmons.
For hours, the crowd marched through downtown, chanting and embracing, crying and raising their fists. When they reached a team of officers dressed in riot gear on Lower Broadway, they stopped in the tracks. The protesters couldn’t decide which way to turn.
There are dozens of officers in pads and shields down here, the teens have stopped at 5th ave to avoid police. Many are knelling and lying in the ground. pic.twitter.com/cI3wWAdpFa
— Samantha Max (@samanthaellimax) June 4, 2020
But then, a new chant filled the street.
“Who keeps us safe?”
“We keep us safe.”
No pepper spray. No tear gas. The teens just picked a new direction and kept moving forward.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member. Chas Sisk contributed to this report.