Hundreds of high school and college students marched silently across the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga on Monday afternoon, following the footsteps of hundreds who marched before them over the past 10 days, calling attention to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The students were there to march against police brutality, violence and racial injustice, but for many they were mostly there to show solidarity.
"As someone who is not African American, I would like to represent the non-black people standing before us right now and say I am sorry. I am sorry that the promise of equality was not given to you on Jan. 1, 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation. I am sorry that it wasn't given to you on July 2, 1964, with the Civil Rights Act or even today, June 8, 2020, as we continue to mourn the countless African American lives lost due to police brutality," said Siena Rodrigues, a 17-year-old member of the group, Chatt Students for Justice.
"I am here to say that I see you, I hear you and I stand with you. Not just today or tomorrow or next week but until you do not live in fear."
Though many organizers of the event were people of color, many who attended were not. Still, they stood and then knelt for nearly nine minutes — the length of time the Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd's neck before his death — alongside their peers.
Julia Becker, a rising high school senior, is a veteran of student protests. One of the founding members of Chattanooga Students Leading Change, which formed in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018, Becker said it was important for those students who have been speaking out against gun violence to gather in Coolidge Park Monday too.
"Those of us who have done work with Students Leading Change and Students Demand Action wanted to be a helpful presence. It was really empowering to feel again that we are part of something bigger," she said. "I knew that Chattanooga would show up for this, we've seen it before."
Becker also said she recognized that as a "white ally," as she called herself, it was her turn to stand back and follow the lead of students of color who are leading some of the latest advocacy work in Chattanooga.
Rodrigues echoed Becker.
"I am almost 18 years old, and I am privileged. I am privileged because I don't fear for myself when I go to a gas station, get pulled over, go out jogging or even sit in my very own house. ... I'm privileged to have a community that will accept me for who I am and listen to what I have to say," she said. "Yet who am I to come out and recognize my privilege and not do anything about it? Who am I to recognize these injustices, this inequality, this systematic racism ... only to not do something about it?"
Jordan Austin, a rising senior at Red Bank High School, is one of those students leading the current movement.
"As I look out today, I don't just see a bunch of teenagers who just came together in a park. I see our future lawyers, our future congressmen, our future doctors, entertainers, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs. Together, we can implement the change that we all seek in the world. Together we can end racism and truly achieve not justice for some, but justice for all," Austin told the crowd before helping lead the march across the Walnut Street Bridge.
"I choose to be part of the solution."
Ron King, pastor of Inner Peace Church, also spoke to the crowd and shared some of his experiences as "a pastor for 17 years, but black for 45."
He rallied white students to stand up for their black friends and help elevate their voices.
"To see you all here today standing in solidarity with us, to me, it makes a bold statement. To me, I always say you cannot be neutral in this situation," King said. "If you have black friends, it's not right to watch your friends go through injustices and see them being treated as three-fifths of a human being. ... If you love them, then your voices need to be heard on their behalf."
King also spoke at a demonstration Saturday, organized for younger students, some as young as 8 or 9 years old. Chattanoogans have taken to the streets and held mostly peaceful demonstrations for more than a week now. Many of the protests have begun in the late afternoon and some have lasted well into the night as protesters speak out against police brutality, both nationally and here in Chattanooga.
Becker wanted to remind young people of something she learned while leading advocacy work in the aftermath of a spate of school shootings across the nation.
"I think the phrase that you often hear that we 'are the future,' diminishes the impact our presence can have now," Becker said. "We aren't just the future. We can have an impact now."