Originally Posted: June 8, 2020
For the seventh day in a row, dozens of sign-waving suburbanites dotted a busy corner in Flower Mound last week, demanding racial equality and decrying police brutality on what seemed unlikely soil as passing motorists honked in support.
In this 80% white, Denton County city of 80,000, they’d united in response to the very public death of George Floyd, who died May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police, an incident that has spawned significant national unrest.
“George Floyd’s life was extinguished on camera for the world to see,” said Laura Haines, a white resident who has been among those gathered daily at Long Prairie and Cross Timbers roads. “We’re all seeing what black people have been trying to tell us has been their experience. And we’re aghast.”
Nationwide, Floyd’s killing has sparked levels of suburban activism largely unseen outside major cities, with people taking to the streets throughout North Texas, from Wylie to Waxahachie: Since May 29, protesters have hit the pavement in Arlington, Lewisville and Carrollton; in Allen and McKinney; in Rockwall and Forney.
Many of the events are highly organized, some with police help, while others have blossomed more independently. All reflect, say those who study race and the suburbs, not just the barbarity of Floyd dying with a white officer’s knee on his neck but changing suburban demographics and the powder keg effects of an ongoing pandemic.
The protests and marches defy notions of Dallas’ suburbs, especially some to the north, as wealthy and self-absorbed. Instead, many have become large, diverse communities confronting the same issues as their more urban counterparts.
“You expect it to be downtown, in Uptown, in Deep Ellum, in Trinity Groves,” said Jacob Clayton, a black Far North Dallas resident who addressed Thursday’s crowd of 400 in Addison. “But the same way people hurt in the cities, they hurt in the suburbs. It’s more important that we be here than anywhere else at this moment.”
The suburban outcry is a national phenomenon, with demonstrations taking place in Columbia, Md., near Baltimore; in Paoli, Pa., outside Philadelphia; in Goodyear, Ariz., west of Phoenix; and in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Tualatin.
In North Texas, the gatherings, while emotional, have largely been peaceful, as in Frisco, Plano, Richardson and Addison. Others turned confrontational, with looting in Arlington and tear gas in Lewisville, each triggering a handful of arrests.
Still more events are planned in the next several days, including first-time sites like Irving and Royse City.
The Flower Mound gathering, Haines said, started after resident Sarah Edwards and her middle school-age daughter talked about Floyd’s death. Edwards, who is white, had been struck by her daughter’s words: That could have been one of my friends.
Moved and heartbroken, she suggested that they make signs and stand on the corner of one of the city’s busiest intersections.
A Facebook post inviting others to join May 29 drew about 40 people, and what was meant as a brief gesture to soothe aching hearts instead became a movement.
“People started joining us off the streets,” said Haines, who moderates the local Facebook group with which Edwards posted her event invite after she said it had been removed from another page.
Some asked if the group would be back Saturday, so they said yes; that Saturday a rabbi came by and asked if he could join with others on Sunday, and by Monday the group had grown to 200.
“That’s how organically this happened,” Haines said.
‘I want to help’
The video was the breaking point — the image of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he begged for his life with the now ubiquitous words, “I can’t breathe.”
Caught on camera, the incident sparked anger and activism nationwide, mostly in major cities at first — but then quickly in farther-flung sites. A measles-like map of the protests published by USA Today illustrates the frustrations that have sprouted beyond the shadows of skyscrapers.
Caitlyn Flynt, among those at the Addison protest, said many suburbanites consider themselves Dallasites because of the city’s sprawl.
“Just because you don’t live in Dallas doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for what you believe in,” said Flynt, who is white. “I think a lot of people are realizing that by being silent, they’re helping to perpetuate the situation.”
The response has spanned generations, from a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair who joined the group in Flower Mound to two white sisters ages 13 and 16 who said they now grasped the meaning of events that had eluded them when they were younger and felt compelled to join the roadside protest.
“Now that I’m older and can understand [the issue], it upsets me so much,” the older one said.
Her younger sister held a sign with the words “I can’t pretend to understand, but I want to help.”
“People of color have been treated wrong for years,” she said. “My friend went to church and got called the N-word for no reason. This generation is growing up and shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
Some, like Addison’s Pamela Augustus, saw suburbs as safer places to introduce kids to the idea of protest as a means of social change. While her husband, who is black, was unable to take off work to go to the city’s Thursday afternoon event, she thought it was important to attend with her 7-year-old son, Carter, and 3-year-old daughter, Avery.
“I sat them down before and had an age-appropriate conversation about why we are doing this now,” said Augustus, who is of white and Latina background. “This is going to be in their history books, and when they learn about it, I want to say that we were there in solidarity and took a stand.”
Others are weary of a seemingly endless cycle of deaths of black men at the hands of police, finally feeling that silence is no longer an option.
“Watching a video of a man dying and begging for his life and so many cops standing there not batting an eye to the officer who was killing him, that was enough for me,” said Jodie Cairns, a white Richardson resident who attended Wednesday’s protest in that city. “It was disgusting.”
‘Suburbs have become more like cities’
The activism stems not just from the egregiousness of Floyd’s death but the changing demographics of suburbs themselves, said sociology professor Lucas Kirkpatrick of Southern Methodist University.
The clear racial demarcations that defined cities and their outlying areas in previous generations have blurred, he said, as many suburbs become more racially and economically diverse. That has produced similar issues of inequality aggravated by an ongoing pandemic that has further laid bare racial disparities.
“Basically, suburbs have become more like cities,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a constellation of factors that made this trigger event much more powerful.”
Scott Sosebee, associate history professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, noted the migration in recent decades of minorities into suburbs that were once bastions of white flight. As a result, those suburbs are no longer homogeneous outposts of conservatism — and their emotional reaction to Floyd’s death reflects that.
“African Americans do not leave their race as they advance economically,” said Sosebee, co-editor of the recent book Lone Star Suburbs: Life on the Texas Metropolitan Frontier. “When they made that move to the suburbs, the racism followed them … And that is one of the elements we see boiling over in the protests.”