By Johanna Houkes
Gray clouds covered the sky in Mainz, Germany, on Saturday, June 6th. A few members of UU Rhein-Main got together, maintaining social distance and wearing masks but smiling at each other nonetheless. Seeing people in person again was wonderful after multiple weeks of quarantine. Still, the happy reunion and the pleasant walk to the protest location on the banks of the Rhine river could not distract from the awful reason for our gathering.
George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. He was on the ground, face down, while a police officer pressed his knee into his neck, reportedly for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, until Floyd died. Three other officers stood there and didn’t do anything while the victim was slowly suffocating right in front of them. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd kept saying. This sentence—a rallying cry since the death of Eric Garner in 2014—was once again taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement as demonstrations in the US, and soon in many other countries around the world, spread almost immediately following Floyd’s death. In Germany alone, more than 100,000 protesters in over 40 cities raised their voices against systemic racism and police brutality.
Mainz was one of those cities. Approximately 2,500 people showed up, about ten times more than expected. We saw numerous cardboard signs that said, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.” People wore black to express their solidarity and support. We noticed a young man with a distinctly strong voice repeating, “Say it loud, say it clear, racists are not welcome here!” multiple times. Others followed. It became a chant more than once.
There was remarkably changeable weather during the protest; it was downright baffling. One minute people took off their jackets because it was getting too warm, and the next minute rain was mercilessly pouring down on us, and people started to huddle in small groups, squeezing themselves under the few umbrellas some had wisely brought. Still, there was an almost tangible feeling that the protesters were serious, outraged, and steadfast. “Enough is enough!” another slogan said, now arguably more relevant than ever. The crowd stayed, determined to make themselves heard.
And they did, with a moment of silence. Or rather, with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. People participated by kneeling down, raising one hand in a fist, and staying in that position, silently, for as long as Floyd had reportedly been fighting for his life, struggling for air. To me, this part of the protest sent the most powerful and memorable message, both to the world and to me personally. Especially when kneeling, I realized just how long 8 minutes and 46 seconds can feel. It is absolutely inconceivable to me how a human being could remain kneeling on someone else’s neck for this long. It shook me to my very core.
Our walk back towards Mainz main station was as pleasant as our previous walk to the protest location. Yet, as we each said goodbye and made our way home, I couldn’t help but feel changed. Today was a wake-up call. I know it was for me. Let’s hope it also was for the human race. Black lives matter.