CLEVELAND — Almost a year ago, chants demanding social change and insisting “no justice, no peace,” filled streets nationwide and in Northeast Ohio following the death of George Floyd and countless others.
We watched business owners board up their businesses and brace for violence. However, at the heart of protests were young activists simply wanting their voices to be heard and the painful reality of racism and police brutality to end.
“It was my first protest ever,” said 24-year-old Arshawna Warren.
Warren, who is a 2021 graduate of Baldwin Wallace University, participated in the May 30 protest in Downtown Cleveland. Looking back while sitting at the Justice Center, Warren told News 5 “it’s definitely different than when we were all here.” She went on to say, “it felt like we all really did come together and we all had the same interests…our purpose was to just be heard and not destroy and be destructive.”
Brendan Nichols, 24, a current grad student and defensive lineman at West Liberty University, remembers feeling on edge marching alongside demonstrators downtown. He felt the same way marching in another protest that started outside the Cleveland Second District police station on Fulton Road near the area where 22-year-old Desmond Franklin was shot and killed by an off-duty Cleveland police officer.
“It was just like who’s next? What’s next,” he questioned.
Though their voices were loud and clear, their pleas and demands for justice were muffled by destruction done by outside demonstrators.
“The protest shifted. The mentalities shifted and it stopped being about fighting and it started being more about attacking. Attacking and fighting are two different things,” Warren said. “That was pretty scary because I didn’t know what would happen. People started smashing cars and windows and just setting things on fire.”
Yet, even while planning and organizing peaceful protests, the efforts of many young activists like 16-year-old Chase Tuller were threatened by opposing mindsets.
“I received death threats, phone calls from grown adults threatening if I don’t cancel the events they’re going to show up with rifles and stuff like that,” he explained knowing he would face backlash. “I live in a predominantly conservative area so that was expected.”
Tuller, who says he is used to diversity, moved from Florida to Chagrin Falls with his family. The Kenston High School sophomore, who created his own nonprofit "Rally for Justice," said he was determined to raise awareness in his community after watching the death of George Floyd.
“Just because an issue’s not affecting you, you should still speak up about it…I was angry because I couldn’t believe that stuff is actually going on in this country, but then I realized that what I could do with that anger is turn it into you know action,” Tuller said. “It caused me to grow up quicker than I expected.”
Though they live separate lives and remain strangers, Warren, Nichols and Tuller essentially stood together as one. They each helped lead a revolution for change in between classes, practice and growing into young adults.
“It was like kind of ingrained in me from a very, very young age,” Warren said. “It was my life matters not just because I am a brown skin person not just because I am a woman but because I am a human being. We all deserve the right to have rights and live freely on this earth especially in this country.”