Erin Yarbrough wants to know her five sons will be safe.
She wants to know they will grow up. That they will lead the lives she dreams for them, ones overflowing with aspiration and joy and success. And no fear.
But, right now, she is afraid. In a country where Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to die during encounters with the police, in a country where George Floyd died last week after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck as Floyd repeatedly said, “ I can’t breathe,” Yarbrough is feeling like so many other parents of Black children: Terrified. Devastated. And deeply tired.
“I want every single one of my sons to grow up and not look at the cops and wonder if they’re going to get killed,” she said.
Yarbrough, who lives in Muskegon, believes this world—one in which she and her sons, and all people of color, are safe and supported and respected—is possible. And on Sunday, May 31, she saw the seeds for that world planted when hundreds of people, likely upwards of 1,000 individuals, gathered in downtown Muskegon for a peaceful march organized to support those protesting the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Change, Yarbrough said, is here.
“I believe people are coming together,” she said. “We’re all fighting for the same cause; we’re out here doing something. That’s why this is big. Things are changing, and it’s going to continue to change. You can see all shades of people here today. That’s big.”
Indeed, the crowd that gathered Sunday outside of the Muskegon County building at 990 Terrace St. was diverse. They were young and old; they were Black and white and Hispanic and Native American and Asian American; they made their way on wheelchairs and crutches and sneakers. Those who marched around the county building and throughout the streets of the downtown weave the complex web of humanity: they were students and teachers, musicians and poets, judges and police, politicians and business owners and activists, among many others.
And while they may walk very different paths in life, those paths all led them to the same place this Sunday afternoon: under a bright blue sky on the last day of a May shadowed by a global pandemic, calling—often from behind masks meant to protect them from Covid-19—for a better, more just world.
“We are telling people, peacefully but powerfully, that Black lives matter,” Leonna Watson, one of the Muskegon march’s organizers, said, invoking the phrase and movement—Black Lives Matter—that was launched in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and has since become an international rallying cry for racial justice.
It’s a phrase that, in different variations, was repeated time and again during the march, one of numerous protests happening across the country in the wake of Floyd’s killing. With many donning masks that said “I can’t breathe”—some of Floyd’s last words, in addition to calling out for his mother, marchers carried signs with phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “stop killing us,” “will my sons be next,” and “can I live?”
The marchers carried signs that invoked hundreds of years of violent oppression—”400 years of racism is enough,” one said, the posters’ short slogans and phrases emblematic of a long history of slavery, lynchings and police brutality. People carried the names of Black men and women who have been hurt or killed by police—names like Eric Garner (whose last words, like Floyd, were “I can’t breathe”), Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, and Tamir Rice—and called on the crowd to remember them. A couple individuals spoke of Julius Johnson, a 23-year-old Muskegon man who was shot and killed in 2009 by former Muskegon Police Officer Charles Anderson. Anderson was fired in 2019 after KKK memorabilia was found in his home.
Many of the signs simply called for humanity, dignity and respect. “My life matters,” one child’s sign said. “Black is beautiful,” said a sign carried by a young girl. “I just wanna live,” another sign said.
These are statements that, protesters emphasized, are often not heeded by the systems in which they are forced to live: how many Black people must be killed, fired from their jobs, stopped while driving, and degraded because of the color of their skin for change to happen? For everyone to stand up and say: Enough. Your life matters. You are loved. We will keep advocating for change until you are no longer hurt, ever. Until you never have to live in fear again.
“We just want the racism and police brutality to stop,” said Shineka Brooks, a Muskegon resident who marched on Sunday. “I hope people understand we have issues with racism here. That could be us on the news getting shot and not returning to our families.”
Throughout Sunday’s event, marchers called for police reform, saying it is imperative that new legislation and law enforcement policies reshape the criminal justice system nationwide into one that protects people of color and holds officers accountable for criminal acts and racist and biased policing. Christina Mayberry, of Muskegon, said she wants to know a world in which she can be stopped by the police and not have to worry that her life, or the life of anyone in her car, is about to end.
“I was in the car with my grandson the other day, and we got stopped,” she said. “My grandson, who’s 12, panicked. A child should not be panicking when they’re stopped by the police.”
Muskegon County Sheriff Michael Poulin addressed Sunday’s crowd, as well as walked with marchers, and emphasized that he supported them.
“We are here to serve you; please do not let one criminal act define all of us,” Poulin said, referring to the killing of George Floyd. “We are better than this as a law enforcement family, and we’re better than this as a community.”
Poulin’s statements were met by loud cheers from the crowd, as well as chants of, “Black lives matter,” which Poulin responded to with clapping and a thumbs-up.
Marchers said they were happy to hear Poulin’s support, but emphasized that dialogue around race and policing needs to continue—particularly in light of the fact that KKK memorabilia was found in a former Muskegon police officer’s home.
“I would like to see change in [local police] leadership,” said Dawanda Greene, of Muskegon. “There must be more diversity. You’ve got to break up the boys’ club.”
Part of the change she hopes to see happen when it comes to reforming police and championing racial justice will need to stem from new legislation, said Greene, who moved from Washington D.C. to Muskegon in 2010.
“This [Sunday’s march] is good because it gets attention, but now we have to look at legislation and who we’re electing,” Greene said. “When I moved here from D.C., I found that schools weren’t bringing kids to field trips to Lansing to learn about the legislature and how to get involved. That needs to happen.”
Eddie Sanders Jr., a community activist from Muskegon Heights, encouraged Muskegon County residents interested in galvanizing change to shine the spotlight on racial justice at local government meetings.
“Attend the county commission meetings and local city council meetings; share your heart there so people who can make change can hear the heartbeat of the community,” he said.
As the march subsided and some at the event called on attendees to leave, fearing there would be the property destruction or violence that has happened in other cities, a portion of the crowd dispersed. For those who remained, there was no violence. No destruction. There was, however, a poetry reading from Gemini DaPoet. Eloquently, people shared feeling sad and angry and frustrated in this world of ours. Raising signs, they danced. Not because this was a joyous occasion, but because they have learned what it means to create hope and solidarity in the midst of despair. Then, they moved to the sidewalk, where drivers laid on their horns in signs of support.
There, on the side of Apple Avenue, they tightened their face masks and linked arms. One person lifted a sign to a cloudless sky. It read: “Are you listening?”
See more photos of Sunday’s event below.