“I can’t breathe.” These words have become a rallying cry for protesters across America who took to the streets after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, on May 25th. Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis who pressed a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes. In a harrowing video of his last moments, Floyd could be heard gasping for air and repeating the words that are now being chanted in the streets. This slogan first became associated with police brutality in 2014 when Eric Garner, who was also African-American, died after being put in a chokehold by a white policeman in New York City.
Floyd’s death has ignited fury in America and beyond, not just at police brutality but at systemic racism in society. It comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on ethnic minorities. In cities across America protests against racial injustice have gone on for days. Many demonstrations have been peaceful, others have garnered an aggressive response from police – many forces have used rubber bullets and tear gas. Some states have deployed the national guard; cities have imposed curfews. A police truck in New York drove into a crowd of protesters.
As America is rocked by the most widespread unrest it has experienced in half a century, we asked four photographers to share their images and impressions from Minneapolis, Oakland, Baltimore, New York and Washington, DC.
As told to Alia Shoaib
“There was intimacy and love and connectivity and hurt and courageousness”
Brandon Ruffin, Oakland
I don’t want to control the narrative, I want to present you with images of what’s happening and give you the opportunity to create your own narrative. I may believe in something, I may be out there and that is a form of activism. But I’m also documenting history.
There is a long history of protest in Oakland which began with the founding of the Black Panthers there in the 1960s. I knew it was only a matter of time before there were going to be organised protests over George Floyd’s death, and I was there pretty much from day one.
As I was walking around, things were tense and seemed like they were going to jump off. When I looked at my pictures from the first night or two, they showed destruction and violence, chaos and anger. And that was indeed occurring. But I realised that I’d concentrated on those images because that’s how I was feeling. I felt angry. I felt very hurt.
A few days ago there was a solidarity march. It was organised by a 19-year-old student from the University of California, Los Angeles. It was just amazing to see how many people came out: thousands of people gathered from every background, age group, gender, race, religion. There were speeches, poetry, different people came up to talk.
Just seeing so many people unified in that moment – not there to destroy the neighbourhood, not there to push out anger violently but to use their anger and their hurt as a means of mobilisation – I needed to see that for my own sake.
Sometimes the experience of being black and feeling these very subtle or almost invisible forces can make you question your sanity. You wonder, are you going crazy? Why is it that other people can’t see what is so obvious in front of you? Those solidarity marches gave me a sense of reassurance that other people see me, they hear me, they’re listening to my experience. It was a beautiful moment. And then the sun went down and it was business as usual.
One photo reflects the duality of these protests. A couple were on the frontline and the police had shot tear gas out. The woman was holding up a sign and was standing out there by herself as people were posturing behind her. She was so angry she just broke down. She was wiping tears from her eyes and was sitting there, kind of facing off with the police. Then you saw her partner come in, and he embraced her, he hugged her and he put his head down onto her shoulder. There was intimacy and love and connectivity and hurt and courageousness – there was so much wrapped into that exact moment. And I just happened to be right there to photograph it.
Brandon Ruffin is a visual artist based in Oakland, California. He creates work under the moniker Ruff Draft.
“I am a black man in America. I use my art to speak out”
Joshua Rashaad McFadden, Minneapolis
The first time I experienced racism I was about ten. Someone called me the N-word in gym class, but I was the one who was reprimanded: they called my parents as if I had provoked him to call me that. My parents were upset and made sure I knew that I was not that word. That should not have been the way teachers – adults – handled that situation.
In adulthood I began to notice racism more and more. I was a senior in college in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed. He was walking through a gated community when he was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood-watch volunteer. When Zimmerman was acquitted it was the first time I really saw my generation protest – and that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many of the young people protesting now were only ten years old then. They grew up within the Black Lives Matter movement and they see it very differently from how I do. I think they feel more empowered, they’re less afraid to participate.
I live in Rochester, New York, but when I saw what was happening in Minneapolis I decided to drive there straight away. I essentially drove overnight.
When I got there, everywhere I went the atmosphere was one of sadness. Everybody seemed traumatised. There were pockets of the city that were burned down, particularly around Lake Street. It was gassy, smoky. There was debris and people were running. It looked like a war zone. Things were sparking, exploding, crumbling right in front of your eyes. And there were huge military trucks coming down the street.
I am a black male in America. I deal with the same issues – being perceived as a threat, or who knows what. In these situations, trying to document the protests, it always comes down to one question: how do the police see me? A white photographer offered for me to join her, saying, “if you come with me, they’re less likely to shoot.” So I stuck with her for the night. Do I see myself as a photographer, an activist or a participant? I’m all of those things. It’s who I am. But I’m also an artist, and my art is what I use to speak out.
On Sunday the police and national guard started to push back more. I saw protesters being shot with rubber bullets. The police were aiming guns and throwing tear-gas bombs. Some people tried to extinguish the tear-gas canisters using traffic cones. The gas goes into your mouth and your nose and your eyes. It burned my face, it was stinging, I couldn’t breathe. All my skin, my whole body was burning. It pretty much took me out for the night.
If I had fear, I wouldn’t be here. It is emotionally taxing. I saw a kid who was about 16, who was out at a protest by himself at two in the morning. People were wondering, why are you here, where are your parents? He said his mother passed away, he doesn’t have any parents and he felt like he needed to be there. Because, of course, he identified. Just seeing the pain, it sticks with you. There’s not really much I could do about it. I just keep moving forward, I just know that the work has to be done.
Joshua Rashaad McFadden is from Rochester, New York, where he teaches photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“There’s nothing left to do but document these times”
Michael McCoy, Baltimore and Washington, DC
Photography kind of chose me. My father had a film camera in the car and I would play around with it. When I was deployed to Iraq I would take selfies and send them back home to my mom to let her know I was safe.
I live with post-traumatic stress disorder from my time in Iraq. Mental health is a problem in our country and nobody really speaks about this issue. So with everything I do I like to use my camera as a tool to be a voice for the voiceless.I started taking pictures of my buddies and it just grew on me. But it wasn’t until my second deployment to Iraq, during which time my mother passed away, that it finally hit me. You can’t catch up on all the things you missed out on, whether that was family gatherings, parties or celebrations. So there’s nothing left to do but document these times. And that’s been my life ever since.
The mood of the protests in Baltimore and Washington, DC, is hurt, pain. People are tired. I’m tired. I don’t like waking up to find out that another black man has been killed by the police. I don’t like waking up knowing that another unarmed black man has been killed by some citizen.
But I know that this stuff has to be documented. If these stories aren’t told, I feel like I failed my part as a journalist, as a black American. In Washington, DC, it feels like we’re in combat. You have the national guard, drug enforcement, FBI, Homeland Security – even prison officers. As a black man, taking off my journalist hat, this feels like an intimidation tactic.
I was walking through a protest the other day and I didn’t want to be in a crowd, so I decided to take a shortcut. As I was walking down the street, I noticed a white police officer in his car who was on duty at the protest. I looked into his cruiser and he was looking at a website. The screen said: “If black lives really mattered, they’d stop shooting each other.” I kept walking but then I turned back. He had his window down and I put my camera to my eye, I looked at him dead in his face and I got the photograph.
Michael McCoy is a combat veteran and documentary photographer based in Maryland.
“It was like everybody understood and wanted to contribute in their own way”
JD Barnes, New York City
I grew up in the south, in Montgomery, Alabama, so I feel like I may have become a bit jaded about the brutality against black people in America. But there was something about that video of George Floyd that was so poignant and visceral.
It takes a lot of strength and courage to do what the protesters are doing. You can’t help but feel a kinship towards them. It’s not readily apparent that I’m press: I just look like another black guy with a camera. Last night I got hit by a baton. I still feel it. Those things hurt.
New York is such a melting pot, all sorts of people, all races and creeds. We’ve had Jewish guys that have marched (I saw a sign written in Yiddish), Latin people, I’ve seen French signs. Just being there and feeling the energy as this group goes past is exciting. We were marching through Brooklyn and these older black women were on their stoop in front of their apartment – they were so excited and happy, and they raised their fists up.
As we marched sanitation workers and city buses were honking and beeping and showing their support. We even had an ambulance throw its siren on in support. It was like everybody understood and wanted to contribute in their own way. One guy was marching on crutches.
But it’s a range. You’ve got people who are super peaceful, guys who are just along for the ride, people who are more prone to violence. Some people get more aggressive, they get a little bit closer to the police and the leaders of the group are always trying to pull them back. And as the days have progressed and tactics have evolved people realise they need to stay together, stay dense, keep themselves from being separated and picked off.
One night we were around the Barclays Centre and the police came out and started rushing at the group. The main contingent of the group had dispersed, so there were just a few stragglers, young guys who just weren’t going home. One kid snuck up around a cop car and started running. An officer pulled out his taser, shot and the kid just dropped mid-run. In the end he was fine. He didn’t even want to talk about it. Maybe he was ashamed. He just left and went home.
I feel as a photographer that my work is decidedly not journalistic, it’s more within fashion and beauty, portraiture. These are the first protests I’ve photographed but it feels more right to me than anything I’ve ever shot.
JD Barnes is a photo editor at Essence and is based in New York.