Jayla Felix took a bus and then light rail from east Aurora to Denver Sunday to see black lives mattering in person.
By that point, the 14-year-old had been to only one protest – a women’s march a few years ago. She remembers little about it except the pink hats and that she left early.
What she knew about activism she learned in school, where she says “They’re always talking about Martin Luther King.” She knew about the protests King led, how police used fire hoses and dogs to try to stop them, and how the marchers would not be stopped. And she had traveled with her basketball team to Memphis and visited the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. She remembers the used milk carton on the dresser and partially smoked cigarette on the desk, and has pondered what it means when promise is not met.
After George Floyd’s May 25 killing by police in Minneapolis – “that knee thing” – Jayla was hoping to find in Denver’s marches the kind of common purpose and determination King inspired. That possibility made the bus and train rides, and the risk of breaking Denver’s curfew worth it.
“I wanted to know what would happen. I wanted to see if people would stand as one,” she says.
What Jayla and Cameron Johnson, 13, her “little brother who’s not really my brother,” found downtown Sunday night wasn’t what she had sought. “At first, it was like a party, everybody standing around smoking weed like it was some sort of festival. That’s not what we came for,” she says. The two went home after police tear-gassed them and others behind the state Capitol. She says her parents knew where she had gone that night and “didn’t want me to get killed.”
As she tells it, she is accustomed to “shootouts and robberies” near her home close to Aurora’s Utah Park. “Tear gas is just tear gas,” says the incoming Overland High School sophomore. “It don’t make my heart jump like gunshots.”
Jayla headed back downtown on the light rail Monday looking, again, to be moved. She and Cameron joined a march, albeit a chaotic one that made her wish organizers had learned from King’s tactics: “Find a church somewhere and make sure everyone had a plan.” Still, she found more meaning in Monday’s protest than in Sunday’s. Somebody handed her a face mask because she had forgotten hers. Somebody else offered her a bottle of water and some fruit. There was solidarity among the strangers winding through the streets together that night, and relief in the absence of police aiming tear gas, pepper balls and rubber bullets at them.
By Tuesday, Jayla and Cameron had made friends with some other protesters and hitched a ride downtown with them instead of making the two-hour trip on public transit. She was determined to find what she had been seeking.
Activists stopped marching that night to pause for nine minutes of silence in honor of Floyd and other black men killed by police in excessive force cases.
Jayla doesn’t know anybody who has been hurt by police, but fears her father, brothers, or even she could be next. She knows what it’s like to “walk out of a store and hear an old person call me a nigger,” and realizes “that’s not something I should have to deal with as a kid.” She doesn’t expect the world to be perfect or for equity to come in a snap. But she does expect people to know “we’re all the same no matter what color we are” and that “life should be about what each of us decides to do with it.”
When the nine minutes ended and the sea of marchers started moving again Tuesday, Jayla asked an organizer for the megaphone.
“What do we want?” she yelled.
“Justice,” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?” she asked.
Through that megaphone, she talked about the brutality of police, including officers who stand by passively and let it happen. She talked about the need for non-violent protest, and the damage looting and taunting officers do to the cause. She said adults need to change what’s wrong with the system, if not for their own lives, then for their kids’.
Jayla sees herself as “kind of an outgoing person, but maybe more of an inward person.” She admits she doesn’t really like the sound of her own voice. Sometimes it’s too high, she says. And it cracks.
But it didn’t crack as she spoke to the crowd Tuesday, and she could tell people were listening. She noticed police, instead of gassing and blocking marchers that night, stopped traffic to let them by.
“To be honest, yeah, I ain’t never seen people paying attention like that, you know, hearing what I have to say,” says the girl who returned to march Wednesday night and plans to keep going back.
However many buses and trains it takes to get there, she wants to keep that crowd around her and the megaphone in her hands. That must be what it means, she figures, to matter.