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On parents’ shoulders and their own two feet, children march for Black Lives Matter

Teenagers are drawn to seize the moment, and younger kids see a chance to right wrongs.
Jennifer Garrett, 29, watches her 4-year-old son, Boaz, as protesters gather across the street from City Hall on June 11 in St. Petersburg.
Jennifer Garrett, 29, watches her 4-year-old son, Boaz, as protesters gather across the street from City Hall on June 11 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 19, 2020
Updated Sep. 28, 2020

Toddlers smile in strollers, clapping hands with the crowds. Six-year-olds pedal bikes with pink training wheels, trying to keep up. Older kids march miles through the streets, raising signs they made, joining those across the country protesting police brutality, proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter!”

Across Tampa Bay, parents have been bringing their children to rallies, mostly during the day. And teenagers have been showing up with friends to march, skateboard and chant.

A grandmother who couldn’t walk the whole route strapped her three grandchildren into the backseat of her Buick and drove behind the protesters in St. Petersburg, so they could be part of it. A dad who heard the crowd coming carried his daughter on his shoulders to the corner by their house in the Old Northeast, so she would see. Boys hopped a fence on the southside of the city, so they could offer support.

Some parents don’t want to share their children’s names or have their photographs taken. They fear criticism for putting kids in potentially dangerous situations.

But many are proud to bring the next generation into the fight for change.

***

Padonda Ali with her two sons at a recent rally.
Padonda Ali with her two sons at a recent rally. [ Divya Kumar ]

“I’m black, my kids are half-black. I want to show them they have to stand up for what they believe in,” said Padonda Ali, 32. She’s eight months pregnant and brought her 2-year-old and 11-year-old sons to a Tampa march last Saturday. She carried a camp stool, so she could sit when the protesters paused.

Ali, who served 11 years in the Air Force, said her oldest son, Mikhail, understands “that white kids can have toy guns and he can’t, that black kids might get shot anyway, even if they don’t have a gun. He just doesn’t understand why it’s like that.”

She told him, “We’re marching for history, so black people don’t have to be treated differently.”

The sixth-grader asked: “Why do we still have to do that? Didn’t they already do that?”

He was scared to march, to be surrounded by so many people and police. But he wanted to go. He even made a sign: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Black people deserve the same rights as you!”

She told him not to be afraid. She tells other parents that, too. “Bring your kids out to be part of this,” Ali said. “They’re going to be affected by whatever choices and changes we make.”

Still, she wondered if years from now, things would be any different.

***

Brandielle Gibson with her children during a recent march in St. Petersburg.
Brandielle Gibson with her children during a recent march in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Brandielle Gibson, 38, has taken her son and daughter to protest immigrant children being kept in cages at the border, to fight for trans rights, to walk in Pride parades. But she debated taking them to recent demonstrations, worrying things might turn violent.

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A few days after the protests started in St. Petersburg, she stood on the steps of the police department with the African Socialist Party, without her kids. She went on an evening march through the dark streets, to suss out the crowd.

She showed her children the movie Selma, so they would learn about the past. So they would know things might get scary.

On June 10, she asked her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter if they wanted to go to the early protest downtown. Both said yes, though they were nervous.

“They’re little white kids. I told them: ‘That’s the whole point of being an ally. You make yourself uncomfortable to improve things for a marginalized group,’ " Gibson said. “Kids need to know that things aren’t perfect in the world they live in, but they’re empowered to do something about it.”

Her son, Gibson, brought a sign that said, “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Her daughter Foley’s read, “Black Kids Matter.”

Both pooped out before the end of the march, and volunteers in the supply van let them jump in. “That was so meaningful for them, to talk to these black college kids who are organizing this, who told them what they’re trying to do,” Gibson said.

When they got home, her son said, “So now people know police can’t kill black people anymore?”

She hugged him and said: “I hope so. But change doesn’t happen overnight.”

He asked, “When can we go out with them again?”

***

Faith Burriss brought her twins, Aaron and Ava Burriss, out to Al Lopez Park in Tampa June 12.
Faith Burriss brought her twins, Aaron and Ava Burriss, out to Al Lopez Park in Tampa June 12. [ Faith Burriss ]

Earlier this year, Faith Burriss’ son declared he wanted to be a police officer. He’d seen a presentation by the school resource officer. Then George Floyd died.

“Police officers aren’t supposed to do that,” Aaron said when he heard about the incident from his mother. “Yea, police officers aren’t supposed to do that,” repeated his twin.

The 6-year-olds — Aaron and Ava — are biracial. Their father is white, their mom is black.

Burriss, who lives in Riverview, wanted to take them to a protest. But she worried about their safety, about tear gas and rubber bullets.

She saw a Facebook post for a toddler Black Lives Matter march in Tampa and figured that had to be safe. She took the day off from her job in accounting.

“This is an important moment in time,” she said, as she stood with her twins, all three decked out in masks and Black Lives Matter T-shirts in front of Al Lopez Park on June 12. “It’s important for me to show them that their voice matters, and they need to stand up for what’s right.”

Several hundred parents and children of all ages converged on the park, near Raymond James Stadium. Moms and Dads boosted kids up on their shoulders, hung them on their hips and pulled Radio Flyer wagons down the sidewalk.

Bwack wives matter,” toddlers said in high voices.

Lara Kazanski, mother of 2-year-old Emma, owns a soccer clinic for kids in Seminole Heights and wanted to find a way to show them how to let their voices be heard. She said she plans to host the march every week at different locations.

Lara Kazanski, with her daughter Emma, organized the toddler protest in Tampa June 12. "We want to show our children we are not afraid to speak up about injustice. That they have to be the voice for those who can't speak up."
Lara Kazanski, with her daughter Emma, organized the toddler protest in Tampa June 12. "We want to show our children we are not afraid to speak up about injustice. That they have to be the voice for those who can't speak up." [ Leonora LaPeter Anton ]

Plant High School junior Emily Bernstein said it was her first protest. She said after Floyd died, she spoke with several of her black friends on the phone. She’d written a letter she planned to send to legislators.

“I was crying,” she said. “This isn’t how America should treat its people.”

Emily Bernstein, right, came to protest with her friend Marilyn Watts. Both girls are 16.
Emily Bernstein, right, came to protest with her friend Marilyn Watts. Both girls are 16. [ Leonora LaPeter Anton ]

The event had the feel of a fair as twins Ava and Aaron visited the balloon maker, who twisted them wands topped with red hearts.

But soon, they all lined up, many wearing masks.

Ava and Aaron held up signs they’d made themselves, decorated with red hearts.

The signs read: “My Life Matters.”

Aaron said he still wanted to be a police officer.

“I don’t like that the police are hurting people,” he said, waving his balloon wand around, “so I want to be a good police officer, and I want to take care of people.”

Aaron and Ava Burriss made signs for the Tampa event on June 12.
Aaron and Ava Burriss made signs for the Tampa event on June 12. [ Faith Burriss ]

***

Erin Kennedy, 37, left, gives signs to Terrance Howard, 14, and Isaac Harris, 15, during a protest in front of St. Petersburg City Hall on June 10.
Erin Kennedy, 37, left, gives signs to Terrance Howard, 14, and Isaac Harris, 15, during a protest in front of St. Petersburg City Hall on June 10. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Isaac Harris turned 15 amid the protests.

A group of more than 100 demonstrators — many of whom he’s gotten to know by now, marching alongside them every day — formed a circle in the intersection of Beach Drive and Fifth Avenue N and sang to him.

Later, he’d say he hated being on the spot like that, but the teen isn’t short of confidence. When the millennial organizers get tired at the megaphone, Isaac steps in with a booming voice.

If we don’t get no justice…

A friend had invited him to the demonstrations. He told him something good was going on in their city.

At first, it was just something to do, Isaac said, but then he started to learn more about the movement. The story of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, shot by police serving a no-knock search warrant in Louisville, stuck with him.

“I started to understand more: This isn’t just people in south St. Petersburg. It’s going on everywhere,” said Isaac, who will start his sophomore year at Gibbs High this year.

Once, when he was still in middle school at John Hopkins, he needed to call home and felt like school officials weren’t listening to him, so he walked off campus. An officer told him to come back, then tackled him and put him in handcuffs, Isaac said.

More recently, a white officer who responded to his house after an incident involving his older brother stood with her hand on her holster as she spoke with Isaac. His mother told him to back off.

“She’s ready to do anything,” his mother, Chrisandra Harris, recalled telling her son, “and here you are, a little boy.”

Harris has been living with a knot in her stomach, knowing Isaac is out there every day. But she remembers when she was a little girl, marching during the St. Petersburg sanitation strike as the workers, all black but one, fought for raises. She remembers her mother yanking her out of the protest line. She remembers going back the next day.

“I can tell him, ‘No no no.’ But is that going to stop him?” she said. “If I try to hold him back, he will never know his full potential.”

Any change that comes from this will affect his generation more than hers, she said, and change is needed. Mixed in with the nerves is pride.

Her son is a leader, she said.

“I just feel the energy … We’re getting our point across with every step of every day,” Isaac said. “Peace. That’s all we want.”

***

Audrey Bell with her children and nephews, including Gregory Ruffin Jr., far right.
Audrey Bell with her children and nephews, including Gregory Ruffin Jr., far right. [ Courtesy of Audrey Bell ]

Gregory Ruffin Jr., 11, could hear protesters roaring from blocks away Sunday night. He was standing outside his dad’s barber shop, G S Up Salon and Cuts, on 16th St. S in St. Petersburg, where he had seen the group pass by once before.

The same feeling of pride was rising in his chest now as the march grew closer. What a time to be a black boy, he thought.

Gregory said he knows why people are yelling in the streets. “The march is about equal rights,” he said.

His aunt, Audrey Bell, stood nearby as Gregory and her young sons looked down the street. She keeps them home as much as possible, so she knows they’re safe. “I fear for all of them,” said Bell, 50. “I’m scared every day.”

Once marchers passed, Bell spoke about George Floyd’s death. It was senseless, she said.

Hopefully, the signs, chants and energy in the streets will bring change, Gregory said.

“I know we’re different, and everybody is different,” he said. “But we can all be friends. There’s no problem. … Black and white people can roam free together.”

***

Jennifer Garrett, 29, pushes her son while marching with protesters from City Hall to the Old Northeast on June 11 in St. Petersburg.
Jennifer Garrett, 29, pushes her son while marching with protesters from City Hall to the Old Northeast on June 11 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He wore a Spiderman shirt, camouflage shorts and new sunglasses to the march. He told his mom he could “go the whole way,” but she brought his stroller to St. Petersburg City Hall, just in case.

“Why are you here?” someone asked the 4-year-old, as protesters gathered along the sidewalk.

Boaz Garrett smiled up at the stranger. “I’m a superhero.”

His dad is black; mom Afro-Latino. “Everyone tells us how adorable he is,” said Jennifer Garrett, 29. “And he is. He’s adorable right now. But when will he start being seen as a threat?”

They’re marching now, she said, so that things might be better by the time he’s older.

She has been reading him children’s books about the civil rights movement, telling him about the people who fought before him.

She stenciled a sign, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.” He painted the letters bright purple.

“What are we fighting for?” Garrett asked her son.

“Justice!” the boy shouted, pumping his fist.

“He’s happy to get to use his outside voice,” said his mom.

For a half-hour, they marched through sweltering streets, Garrett chanting, her son waving at everyone. Even after he tired and climbed in the stroller, he kept holding up his sign.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” his mom asked.

“I want to be a policeman,” he said. “Or maybe a fire guy. Or a grocery man. You know, a superhero.”