Zaba Hoque, a young woman from Queens Village, N.Y., made stops at two New York City protest sites on the afternoon of June 3 with a handmade placard in tow.

Hoque stood on the edge of Union Square for about an hour, brandishing her carefully lettered sign that declared, “Say Their Names,” with the image of a clenched fist followed by the names of more than two dozen recent victims of police violence against Black people. Near the top was George Floyd. On the bottom left corner she added: “#F— Trump.”

“Even the pandemic didn’t stop the cops from acting the way they did” in Floyd’s case, Hoque said. “Enough was enough.”

Hoque then moved on to nearby Washington Square, where she staked a good spot by the park’s iconic arch before the hordes came. She was among the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them women, who took to the streets across America last week to raise a fist against police brutality and the shameful history of Black victims dying while in the hands of law enforcement. Television cameras have focused on some of the protests, but they have been unable to document the full extent of the outrage that has spread even beyond U.S. borders in response to the May 25 death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

In her work with low-income communities for a nonprofit organization, Hoque witnesses firsthand the impact of racial inequity, with the lack of access to health care or fresh food and limited government support. “I see injustices every single day of my life,” she said. “We need to be about change in our system.”

Karin Schall, of Hell’s Kitchen, didn’t want to put on her “We Are Better Than This” T-shirt, grab her spray-painted “Stop Killing Black People” banner and head to Manhattan’s Union Square Park around lunchtime on June 3. She didn’t want to do any of that. But she had to.
“I’m here because I’m a human being. It’s a moral obligation to hear the anger and the pain in the community,” Schall said as she and a friend stood in the plaza at the south end of the park, holding up the banner. “As a white woman of privilege, it is my responsibility and my honor to show up and support and be connected. I don’t want to just sign a petition on an online forum.”

Floyd’s brutal death, captured by a bystander on video, has become a “tipping point,” as more than one protester in New York described it, for people from all walks of life to get on their feet and demand justice. It has brought a renewed level of national focus to the Black Lives Matter movement, a cry for recognition of the injustice and the mortal threat that people of color in general and Black people in particular face from police.

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Protesters crowd Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn during a June 4 demonstration. Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/shutterstock

For many women in New York City, joining in on mass gatherings and marches was not about corporate sloganeering (even the digital billboards in Times Square were flashing Black Lives Matter messages) or busting out of COVID-19 lockdown mentality. It was about demanding that the nation finally take the painful first steps of dismantling the systemic roots of racial injustice in a country that was built on the foundation of slavery and white supremacy.

Floyd’s killing “was another tipping point for us,” said Amanda Lugg, of East Harlem, who stood on the other side of the banner with Schall. Lugg cited the agonizing few weeks that included headlines about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the false accusation against bird-watching enthusiast Christian Cooper in Central Park, followed by Floyd’s senseless death.

Lugg blames President Trump for the nonstop turmoil in the nation. “We can’t leave it up to the leaders. It takes people to make the change that is so necessary in this country,” she said.

Lugg, who described herself as a longtime member of ACT UP NY, said she has been heartened by the diversity of the crowds at the numerous protests she’s attended.

“As a Black woman of a certain age with underlying health conditions, I still had a certain reticence to come to mass marches. But we have to keep coming out. In the [1960s] civil rights movement, it wasn’t just a day, a week, a month. It was years and years of protesting. Change always comes from the bottom up.”

Luvia Anderson, a surgical tech who works across the street from Union Square at a Mount Sinai Hospital facility, came out in her scrubs to watch as the crowd swelled in Union Square. Her husband has been subjected to police brutality and pulled over for no reason while driving, she said.

Anderson echoed Lugg’s view that the prevalence of white faces in the protest crowds was significant. “Change can’t just be on African Americans,” she said. “I’m happy and sad at the same time to see so many people coming together putting a big light around an issue that’s been a problem for so many years.”

As tears formed, she asked quietly: “Why are they afraid of us?”

Alicia Robinson of Brooklyn leaned against a concrete NYPD barrier as the crowd began to chant, “Black lives matter,” “George Floyd” and “No peace, no justice.” “I’m not down for looting,” Robinson was quick to observe, noting the pockets of violence that erupted amid the largely peaceful protests. Like Lugg, she wants to see big changes in Washington, D.C., come Election Day on Nov. 3.

“I want to be optimistic that people will vote differently this year,” she said, “and use their dollars to support African American businesses.”

On June 4, a march on a muggy afternoon in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens drew upwards of 500 people, including resident Anne O’Byrne, who brought a small handmade cardboard sign that read: “Justice for George.”

“We have to keep coming out. In the civil rights movement, it wasn’t just a day, a week, a month. It was years and years of protesting. Change always comes from the bottom up.”
Amanda Lugg, protester

“It seemed important to show up,” O’Byrne said. Another woman who gave her name as “Tanya O.” said the protests were important to allow angry people to express their frustration. But the real power is at the ballot box, she said. “Protesting is great. But change starts with dismantling systemic racism,” she said. “We need to vote to change policy.”

As the Sunnyside march snaked through residential streets, a clutch of about a dozen cops trailed the group, marching behind cardboard signs advocating “Defund NYPD” and “NYPD is Racist.”

A female officer in the group, who asked that her surname not be used because she is not authorized to speak to the media, said seeing those signs brandished by residents that she is sworn to protect does not bother her — anymore. “I’m numb to it,” she said.

Numerous Sunnyside residents leaned out of windows of prewar brick-bunker apartment buildings to cheer on the protesters. Shouts of “Thank you, officers” were also heard.

As the marchers navigated a left turn in their route, an elderly woman in a New York Yankees hat (a defiant statement in Mets country) stood on a street corner, clapping and smiling. As the group of police officers passed, she gave them a thumbs-up gesture and a timely bit of advice.

“Remember,” she said matter-of-factly, “you’re part of the community.”