A photographer's story: Youth take on the civil rights fight for their lives in protest

Editors note: Twelve days after the death of George Floyd set off protests across the nation and the globe, the youth of Kalamazoo marched through the downtown to show their support for changes in the country’s criminal justice system and unity with the Black community. The event was the result of a large team effort by the youth primarily from Kalamazoo Central High School, with the support of the Boys and Girls Club and Fire Arts Collaborative. This story, in his own words, is by J.D. Kelley, class of 2023 at Loy Norrix High School. His photos illustrate this piece. 

I really did love the peaceful youth protest, it shows that as a black person we aren’t out there on our own when we see the many other diverse faces and communities who are fighting for justice and equality. Even our teachers and friends are out protesting.  

There was a great sign of care out there, too — help from the Boys and Girls club who were giving out sandwiches and food and another organization, Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative. Even the public was offering chips, foods, and water.

I think this is a very important time in history which will teach our generation that racism and injustice are not OK and it's time to start breaking the silence against injustices, racism, and police brutality. There are people who are publicly racist, using the N-word, wearing blackface, and think it's a joke. This is not a laughing matter to be dealing with this in our generation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve photographed a protest and I hope to continue to do many more. This is not just an event in time where people can unite against the problems we face in America, this is history in the making.

I think this is a very important time in America especially with multiple protests spreading awareness. The youth of our generation are picking up where our civil rights leaders left off. They may kill us, beat us, hurt and threaten us but they will never stop us. This is not just a fight for George Floyd, this is a fight for every innocent black person who has been killed by law enforcement.

What the people want is an end to a corrupted justice system. Just like police officers speak out when their brothers and sisters of the blue are killed they should also speak out when their brothers and sisters of the blue do wrong. Silence makes them look suspicious or guilty.

Kalamazoo Youth March, June 5, 2020

We know that we cannot end racism and that there is always gonna be someone who is going to think differently, but we can sure as hell try to keep those racist people out of jobs who serve and protect the public. Black parents shouldn’t have to teach their children how to survive the streets and the police. 

There is a new saying “Blue on Black Crime.” The “Blue-Line” is not seen by many communities as a group that you can call for help. It is seen more as a gang. There is a great loss of trust in the police force and going out in riot gear or calling the national guard and other agencies is not gonna help. 

Some people even suspect that members of law enforcement are a part of the Klu Klux Klan. People want to see officers out protesting with them and taking a knee. What people are fighting for is a reform in the justice system and to end police brutality. In the Ahmaud Arbery case It should not have taken two months to arrest someone for murder. The perpetrators could have fled the country by then. This shows a great weakness in the justice system. 

Even now in the George Floyd case, it's being yelled in the marches “Third-Degree is not enough.” Which is true. People exclaimed for that officer to get off his neck, and while George was handcuffed on the ground three officers proceeded to lay their knees on his body while one kept people back. George Floyd's final screams of life killed me inside and it scares people in fear of losing their loved ones, including their children.
Kalamazoo Youth March, June 5, 2020
I never feared the police but at the same time, they need to be speaking out against these injustices.

“United we Stand Divided we fall” and it's a beautiful thing to see the diverse protests of people who all care and who many would call family.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” Being black is more than a color, there is a history of being wronged, discriminated against, segregated, redlined, enslaved, suffering, and many more injustices which are still dealt with today. This has become a march for our lives. Our civil and black leaders will not die in vain. We will carry on their work. We will not let the dream of the promised land go extinct.

For every innocent life that is taken, their names will be added to a list. A list that will be recorded and never forgotten. A list which we’re fighting to put an end to today. It is heartbreaking to see innocent black lives be taken especially in the year of 2020.

I know this won’t be my last protest. I just hope that if there is a time where this happens again… that justice will be served to the fullest extent of the law. The world will be watching.


J.D. Kelley, Photographer of this Historical Event

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J.D. KelleyI experienced great care from others in these protests even from other photographers offering water. These aren’t ruthless protesters, these are people with hearts who care for what's going on in the world. People wearing their masks respectfully and holding their signs up high. People even make signs to give out for free for those without. These amazing human beings are expressing how their hearts are broken and how these injustices or some would say “executions” are not humane and should not be part of our American way of life. It’s a shame that we haven’t found peace in the world. Seems we still have a ways to go, hopefully what seems to be an endless road to peace isn’t too far away. We need it.