A year later, activists reflect on the George Floyd protests in Columbus
Adrienne Hood, Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata and Kiara Yakita on the internal and external shifts that have taken place since the Floyd uprisings hit the city in May 2020
For Adrienne Hood, the work of activism predated the Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd in May 2020. Her calling arrived with the death of her teenage son, Henry Green, who was shot and killed by Columbus police in June 2016.
“I constantly tell people the worst thing that can happen to you on this side of heaven is to lose a child,” Hood said. “Regardless of the circumstances, it’s painful, but I feel like it’s even more painful when you have to fight for accountability. I don’t like to use the term ‘justice’ for my son, because justice would be him being here. … But the love and support he has surrounded me with has given me the strength and ability to continue on in this. It reminds me that I have to keep fighting.”
At the same time, Hood said the last year has been a transformative one for the Black lives matter movement both nationally and here in Columbus, leading to a wholesale change in the conversation around police violence directed at the Black community, and even a legislative response, though one that to this point has been less robust than Hood and other activists would like. As one example, Hood pointed to the executive order signed by Mayor Andrew Ginther last June requiring independent investigation of police killings.
“None of us were comfortable with police investigating their own on such important matters, and a lot of people wanted to give [Ginther] kudos for the move, but I find it my responsibility to remind people that slip of the pen could have happened five years ago, it could have happened 10 years ago, when other families were asking for independent investigations,” Hood said. “Unfortunately, in my opinion, it took George Floyd’s public lynching for hearts to be ignited, some reignited. It took that visual of a life being taken for over nine minutes. … For some people, that [video] hit differently, and because of that, we’ve seen some things speed up."
When Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata, who serves as the director of both People’s Justice Project (PJP) and Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC), first heard that police had killed a Black man in Minneapolis, he didn’t flinch, having grown wearily accustomed to death and tragedy in his years working as a community organizer. And then he watched the video, and he heard Floyd tell police that he couldn’t breathe, and he heard Floyd call out for his mom, and the immensity of the moment hit Sundiata with passenger-train force.
“I knew instantly that was it. … I saw the video and it was like, ‘Here we go,’” said Sundiata, who, along with other members of PJP, helped lead months of marches and street takeovers, attempting to harness a growing energy grounded by the awareness that those moments of public attention can be fleeting. “That’s what we always push. It’s like you have 10 seconds to create the conditions to change people’s lives for 10 years. And when you have those critical mass moments, the rebellion, the job of the organization is to lead the struggle. … And you have to be organized enough that you can respond and raise not only the consciousness of the people locally, but nationally and even globally, letting people know that these are the conditions in the United States, and this is what is happening here, and it's not isolated."
Sundiata, an avowed student of history, takes a big-picture view of the movement for social justice, realizing legislative progress will be slow and dominated by pushback, even as new victims of police violence emerge, including Casey Goodson, Andre Hill and Ma'Khia Bryant, all of whom have been shot and killed by Columbus police in the last year. At the same time, Sundiata takes encouragement in the way the message can be instilled within the individual. “When you’re acting in your own power, when you’re out here, that’s what I get excited about,” he said. “I get excited when people feel like they can do something.”
Growing up in Cincinnati, Kiara Yakita, founder of Black Liberation Movement of Central Ohio, said she was always drawn toward speaking up for the oppressed, recalling how in high school she would stand up for Middle Eastern students who faced discrimination at the hands of classmates in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, she often shied from leadership roles, wary of the criticisms she might face as a plus-sized Black woman, she said, a concern that has gradually given way amid the circumstances of the last year. “The people and the issues I’m fighting for are so important that there’s a drive bigger than any egotistical concerns,” she said. “Who cares about looks and perception and trolling when you’re dealing with a fight for life?”
After moving to Columbus in 2018, Yakita initially kept a lower profile, trying to navigate a new city while figuring out where she might fit within the activist landscape — a process further slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. But following the death of Floyd, Yakita said she felt compelled to do something. “And that’s when I heard about the protests Downtown," she said, "and I had to be down there to stand up for him."
“When we started going, the police were extremely violent, and there was tear gas, wooden bullets, pepper spray, people being arrested and tackled and dragged. … And you would think after being traumatized the first few times going down there, we’d be like, ‘OK, we’re not going back,'" Yakita continued. "It’s hard to explain what that felt like, and why we kept returning. ... I don’t want to call it a good feeling, because we were all hurting, and we were there for a tragedy. But it was something special to know there was that power in people, and you could actually feel the physical manifestation of that power being surrounded by and connected to the energy of thousands who were all there and fighting for the same cause.”
Through a series of circumstances, these protest appearances led to Yakita speaking at rallies, which eventually led her to form Black Liberation, where she has taken on the type of leadership role she had previously avoided.
“I was someone who would always try to minimize and silence myself, and shrink myself to comfort other people,” she said, tracing this desire in part to a survival mechanism she developed while attempting to blend in attending a largely white Catholic school as a child. “So I spent most of my life before this movement trying to make myself smaller, so that people wouldn’t label me or be frightened by me. But now I own it. There are articles out there where I call myself an angry Black woman, a melanated queen, a Black goddess — things like that. And it took me a long time to own those things about myself."
These more cellular changes are sometimes overlooked in the overarching narratives around social justice movements, which are often necessarily centered on the big ideas driving the collective. But, as Sundiata noted, it’s these more granular shifts, the accumulated awakening of hearts and minds, that will likely have a greater impact on the future of the movement than any recently passed legislation, most of which Sundiata dismissed as an attempt to pacify the masses.
Like Yakita, Sundiata and Hood said the events of the last year have brought about more internalized changes within them, as well. Sundiata said he’s even more unflappable now than before owing to what he’s experienced, a sense of calm that has both stabilized and reaffirmed his dedication to the cause. Hood, meanwhile, said the advancements of the last year, while far from what she would like to see, have renewed her sense of optimism.
“I’m hopeful that there are more people having these conversations ... and people finding ways they can use their privilege, their resources, their connections to bring about changes necessary for us all to be looked at as human beings,” Hood said. “So in that way I’m encouraged. It’s like a piece of my hope has been restored that people are willing to do the hard thing, because nobody wants to do the hard stuff. Seeing people do that, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful.”