Rachel Austin is a photographer and mother of four living just three blocks from where George Floyd was killed. Here’s her personal story and photo journal as the George Floyd protests, memorials and marches took place all around her.
I poured the hot water into my French press and picked up my phone to mindlessly scroll social media while waiting for it to brew. Before I opened Facebook, a message from my brother-in-law caught my attention, “Right by your house,” with a link to a video titled, “FBI investigating after man dies while being detained by Minneapolis police.”
I was not prepared for the horror of what I saw. I turned off the video less than a minute in and froze for a solid minute. “My God, my God, my God,” were the only things I could say, as it felt like the wind was sucked out of me.
“What’s wrong, Mama?” said my 3-year-old, looking up at me.
“Something bad happened.” I paused, then added, “But we are OK.” I scooped up my curly-haired cutie and kissed his neck. I knew we would not be OK.
The kids slowly trickled down the stairs as I tried to digest what I had read. I wondered if my husband had seen it too. My husband is Black and I am white. We have four high-energy kids, who have always found words to describe each other’s skin — but never “black” or “white.” Sundiata is 9 years old and “tan.” Zamira is 7 and claims, “light like mama.” “Dark like daddy,” is what 6-year-old Hezekiah says. All the kids agree that Mateo is “the lightest.”
The George Floyd protests in my neighborhood.
It is the 9th night after George Floyd’s death as I write this. It feels like we’re living in a horror movie. Yesterday, a semitruck drove straight toward my sisters on the 35W Bridge while they participated in a peaceful protest. Brave protestors piled their bodies like squashed bugs across the windshield, blocking the driver’s view.
I watched live streams as moms abandoned strollers and ran with their kids when the police arrived spraying tear gas.
I was on the phone with my sister as my husband and I navigated closed roads and National Guard tanks to pick up nine of the peaceful protestors who had escaped to a 7th-floor apartment. They were then tear gassed on the balcony.
We opened our trunk for my family, friends, and their kids to pile in. We had no time to worry about seatbelts. I didn’t feel my typical embarrassment over having a messy minivan. Shock and trauma filled every empty space.
Later, my dark-like-daddy son crawled into my lap with a mini fan to “blow away all Mama’s tears.” Just a few weeks ago he asked me, “Wait, can I get shot and killed? Because I have brown skin and brown hair.” Can anyone truthfully answer this for him?
Fear, beauty, righteous anger, and hate.
Threats have been made by white supremacy groups to burn down our whole neighborhood. Every night we comb the alley looking for any containers filled with accelerants, and we hose down our cozy porches and wooden fences while helicopters buzz overhead. There are golf clubs by the door, but no one’s going golfing.
My shoulder muscles are so tight that I think I am wearing a too-small sports bra. My smoke-chapped lips and bleeding nose are screaming at me to drink water. I eat at night, once there’s nothing more to be done but keep vigilant with the neighbors. Cars filled with white passengers pull over and idle, and leave after they see the neighborhood is awake and watching.
Our block is diverse in every meaning of the word. We know each face that fills every house. At night, we take shifts outside and it feels like the world’s worst block party; there is solidarity in having each other’s backs.
I don’t know how to fully relay the fear, the beauty, the righteous anger, and the blatant hate that is out here on the streets of Minneapolis. I am leaning on photography to do some of that for me.
United in pain and desire for change.
We joined the first march with our family and waved to so many friends along the way. We were united in pain and a desire for deep change.
We lost sight of one son for nearly an hour. Typically, panic would have set in for a mom who lost her kid in a crowd that size, but it did not now. The unified cries for justice had a tone that everyone was looking out for each other. Two women noticed our son right away and hung out with him as he scootered around, not scared because he knew someone had him.
We saw an immediate need for those left without transportation and groceries. To my amazement, word spread and money poured into my Venmo account. We filled our two 12-year-old minivans to the brim with food and essentials.
My husband grew up in the house next door to our present home in South Minneapolis, and he knew exactly where to go. I shared laughs with women while passing them deodorant for their husbands, and discreetly packaged feminine products while understanding the relief on their face.
Through our neighbor and translator, we were able to buy specific types of formula for each baby. Moms know how difficult it can be to switch formulas, especially in a time of crisis.
“I don’t know how to fully relay the fear, the beauty, the righteous anger, and the blatant hate that is out here on the streets of Minneapolis. I am leaning on photography to do some of that for me.”
The memorial site for George Floyd is three blocks from our house. It’s the place where he took his last breath. The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue is full of art, music, dancing, grieving, righteous anger, speaking, and coming together.
Every day new artwork is added. It is the safe zone, the sacred space. You will see all kinds of people there. You will smell BBQ and burning sage, hear speeches and chants of protest.
This sacred space held vigils 24/7. When this violated curfew, we witnessed through livestream as police cars drove into the memorial site, crushing the flower bouquets and artwork, and sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets. The sights and sounds of those 30 seconds is something I will never forget.
I almost always carry my camera slung around on my back. I reach for it in moments when words and tears and feelings won’t suffice. It is helping me tell our story, one made of tragedy and overwhelming beauty.
One day I’ll show the pictures to my children to help shape their views of history. They will remember what happened that Memorial Day in 2020, and the days and weeks that followed, when the world stood up and shouted for justice once again.
I keep coming back to two photos of my son.
One (right) was taken with a flag on Memorial Day, just before my husband played taps on his trumpet and observed a minute of silence with others on our block.
I posted it on social media with the caption, “Continuing to pray and advocate — believing that one day ALL will have equal rights and freedoms.”
Just five hours later and three blocks over, injustice struck an ugly chord.
In the second photo (below), my son, no longer flag-wrapped, stands quietly in the place where another Black life was lost. His eyes swept over the flowers and signs, up to the faces of the passersby.
I did not hurry him.