Kameron Briggs showed up at the steps of the Idaho State Capitol in Boise the morning of May 31 with a backpack full of bottled water. In one hand was a Black Lives Matter sign; in the other was a package of single-use face masks.
"I'm just making sure everybody's OK," he said. "I saw what's going on."
Briggs was one of several hundred people who showed up Sunday morning to protest the death of George Floyd, who died during his arrest by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, and since then, protests have taken place nationwide. Those protests have included rioting, though reports suggest outside groups have taken advantage of the social unrest to loot businesses and damage property, though the degree of their involvement continues to be a subject of debate.
All of this has taken place at a time when the public has been urged to socially isolate and take extra health precautions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and disproportionately affected people of color. In Boise, the Sunday protest drew extensive criticism as an ill-advised gathering during a time of crisis that could potentially discredit the work being done by local activists and contribute to the spread of coronavirus.
The threat of the virus hung in the air like a cloud Sunday: At one point, a particularly enthusiastic attendee speaking into the microphone urged everyone to join hands—a suggestion that caused the entire crowd to physically recoil. The public health problems and other factors led some public figures and organizations to disavow the protest and urge others not to attend.
"There are nefarious forces who want to destroy our just mission, and who are working to exploit these peaceful gatherings. Do not allow your good intentions to be misused," wrote Boise City Council Member Lisa Sanchez on Instagram. "Please stay home. Please respect that COVID-19 still exists and we risk infecting each other by participating in large gatherings."
In fact, the organizers of a previously arranged Sunday protest at the Capitol had cancelled their event amid a flurry of criticism over social media that they had not centered local black leaders in bringing the event together. Many people who attended the rally said they did not know about the backlash against the event or its cancellation. Among them was Emma Schmidt, who said she learned about it from a friend.
"I think it's really important," she said about her decision to attend. "I think Boise is a really liberal enclave, but these conversations [about race and police accountability] aren't happening that much."
The emcees and de facto organizers of the rally were familiar faces to the Black Lives Matter movement in Boise, though some said they'd relocated to Boise only in the last few months. Chance "Chaz" Mikaela Poasa said he moved to the City of Trees approximately 7 months ago. He told Boise Weekly that violence against black people in America is an age-old problem.
"We're peaceful and we're mad," he said. "Four hundred years of racism are still here today."
The peace, however, seemed tenuous at times. Soon after the rally began, the emcees handed anyone who wanted to speak a megaphone, and during the proceedings, a heated verbal altercation broke out between demonstrators and a critic of the protest. Attendees, who had previously been scattered across the broad face of the Capitol steps, stood shoulder to shoulder to break up the argument and return to giving a platform for speeches.
The continuous presence of counter demonstrators and agitators, and a miasma of red-flag social media posts and misinformation, injected an air of paranoia into the demonstration, and emcees repeatedly urged attendees to be aware of those outside elements both during the event and as they departed. One emcee, Zampa Egbe, said the people behind those counter-efforts had a different object in mind than stopping violence against black Americans.
"We are tired of sitting back and seeing brown and black people being treated with no respect," he said. "[The counter-demonstrators are] protesting something else. They have the right to do that, too."
During the protest, speakers and attendees had a range of reactions to Floyd's killing and the progress that has been made since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement. One thing most of them had in common was anger: anger at inaction, and that criminal justice continues to look different for people of color in America than it does for white people. Black Americans form a disproportionate share of the U.S. prison population, and are more likely to be arrested or killed during an interaction with the police than white people.
At the rally, people directed much of their ire toward the police—an institution that has consistently been at the center of the BLM critique—and some attendees yelled "fuck the police" into the microphone, while others described the Boise Police Department as a comparative beacon of progressive security and safety services. Kameron Briggs wasn't convinced that Boise has sidestepped the problems that other communities face.
"When I moved here, I really noticed that shit," he said. "This is racist. The best thing we can do is educate ourselves."
Police did provide security during the protest, with fewer than half a dozen officers patrolling the periphery of the crowd, and jumping in when an argument broke out; but the true presence of the Boise Police Department was much greater, with seven cruisers on standby at a nearby parking garage.
Protesters stuck through it all: risk of virtual transmission, the hijacking of their event by an unseen opposition, criticism from within the antiracist movement. Their message, however, has changed little since the Black Lives Matter movement began, that anger must—not should—translate into change for the better.
"If black and brown people keep getting treated this way, what are we going to do?" said Egbe. "Leaders need to step up and do the right thing."
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the cause of George Floyd's death on May 25. A medical examiner determined that Floyd likely died from police restraint, existing health conditions and any intoxicants in his system, and his official autopsy report had not been released as of May 31. Floyd's family has called for an independent autopsy to be performed, according to CBS Minnesota.
Updated: According to an independent medical examination of the body of George Floyd at the request of his family, his death was the result of asphyxiation, as well as pressure placed on his body by other restraining officers that prevented him from breathing properly, The New York Times reported June 1.