CHICAGO — Nine-year-old Aiden Kelley knows that George Floyd died in police custody, that an injustice was committed, and that other black people have died under similar circumstances.
What he doesn’t understand is why.
“This is not fair, this is not fair, this is not fair, “ the third-grader at Andrew Jackson Language Academy told his mother, Katya, an interior designer. “People need to be kind.”
It was in that spirit that Aiden grabbed a box of chalk earlier this month and held a protest of his own. He decorated the sidewalks in front of his Chicago home with hearts, flowers, flags and messages of unity, and invited passersby to add to the art.
Then he picked up a Black Lives Matter sign fashioned from a piece of paper and a ruler and marched down the street in a parade of one.
A neighbor’s photo of Aiden, with his flame-red hair and back-to-basics sign, went viral on Twitter, with over 680,000 likes so far, one of many signs of the power — both symbolic and practical — of the solo protests popping up across America in recent weeks. Examples on social media include a Minnesota mom who protested alone because her friends didn’t want to join her, and a man standing at an intersection in Peachtree City, Georgia, with a grim but determined look on his face.
In Illinois, 18-year-old Anya Sastry’s solitary protest in the wealthy, mostly white suburb of Barrington led to a protest that drew hundreds on June 6.
Faith Jones, who is white, has been protesting after work in Lincoln, Illinois, about three hours southwest of Chicago, hoping to build a better world for her 6-year-old son, whose father is black.
And Kelley, who protested again last Saturday, has spurred interest among his school friends, some of whom have shared plans to lead their own solo protests.
On social media, some observers have compared the lone protesters to teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who began her career with solo demonstrations in front of the Swedish parliament building, or the lone Tiananmen Square protester who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks.
The U.S. civil rights movement includes examples such as James Meredith’s one-man March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966, in which he was shot and hospitalized, according to University of Chicago associate professor of history Adam Green.
Green said that the wide range of lone protesters, young and old, rural and urban, directly affected or newly awakened to the suffering of strangers, is a testament to the increasingly broad appeal of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The 9-year-old boy is every bit as significant as somebody who writes an eloquent op-ed in your newspaper — or any newspaper,” Green said.
“When a young child does that, they’re saying my conscience is touched, I’m disturbed by what I sense around me, and I’m prepared to act in order that it can be different.”
Faith Jones has been referred to with the racial slur for white people who love black people. She has had people taunt her by offering her dog food to eat.
She’s had the police called on her three times.
But still, Jones, 26, brushes aside the hardships of a lone Black Lives Matter protester standing at a busy intersection in downstate Lincoln, the county seat of heavily Republican Logan County.
“I’m very exhausted,” said Jones, who often embarks on a two-hour evening protest after putting in a full day of work running a title loan business in Decatur.
“But me being tired and my back hurting from standing up or me being hot out there is nothing compared to what people go through every single day, just because of the color of their skin,” Jones said.
Jones has a 6-year-old son whose dad is black, and she wants the world to be safe, fair and just for him. She went to a large Black Lives Matter protest in Bloomington after George Floyd’s death in police custody, but she felt called to take a stand in the town where she was born and raised.
She stands at the busy corner with a McDonald’s and a carwash, her signs saying “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George,” and said she gets a lot of support and encouragement.
Most of the negative response has been along the lines of “high school boys being high school boys” and people screaming “All Lives Matter” from their cars, she said. The police who responded to complaints about her were all very polite.
“They made it clear they did not want to respond to the call. They were just doing their job,” she said. “One of them even asked if I needed water or anything.”
For Jones, the protests are a long-term commitment, not just to her son but to friends and strangers.
“I will stand out there as long as I need to, just to let people know, I’m here with you,” she said. “If you can’t speak, I will be your voice.”
When Anya Sastry’s parents wouldn’t let her join the initial George Floyd protests in Chicago because of concerns about COVID-19, the Barrington teen was disappointed and frustrated.
But her parents wanted to help, and they joined Sastry, 18, a veteran climate activist, in brainstorming alternatives. The winner: a one-person protest right there in the primarily white suburb of Barrington.
“I’m so down to do that,” Sastry told her parents, and on May 30 she stood at the side of a busy street with a homemade Black Lives Matter sign, her parents waiting in a nearby park. A minute or two into the protest, a woman in a passing car rolled down her window and belted out, “All Lives Matter!” — a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement’s opponents.
But after that, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with cars honking and drivers giving Sastry the thumbs-up sign, she said.
Encouraged, Sastry reached out to two other Barrington teens who had supported Black Lives Matter on social media, and began to organize a larger protest.
This time, the opposition was stronger, with people posting insults and threats on social media, and even calling the police to ask that the protest be shut down, Sastry said.
But in the end, hundreds of people came together in Barrington’s Citizens Park for a June 6 protest that included five black speakers from the Barrington community.
“It was a very small thing,” Sastry said of her one-person protest. “But I think it was the first step in what needed to happen.”
When neighbors told Katya Kelley that her 9-year-old son Aiden was trending on Twitter, she told them that was impossible.
“He doesn’t have an account,” she said.
As it turned out, he didn’t need one. A neighbor’s blurry snapshot of Aiden marching down the street with his Black Lives Matter sign was already drawing widespread support.
Many applauded Aiden, with fans black, white and brown calling him “soooo adorable,” worrying that he’d get a sunburn, and proclaiming “I’m not crying, I have allergies!!!” Some supporters also saw a broader trend.
“Really loving the individual photos of lone protesters, many who are elderly, immuno-compromised, are front line workers, or are otherwise unable/worried about joining in crowds just … standing alone in solidarity,” a Twitter user wrote.
Aiden’s mom said that he’s a typical bighearted 9-year-old. He loves art and space travel, and hopes to be an astronaut when he grows up.
He lives in a diverse neighborhood and goes to a diverse school, but he corrects his mom when she says he has friends of all races.
There’s just one race, he tells her: the human race.
In an interview with the Tribune, Aiden said he was a little nervous when he started his solo protest, but it felt great when people started pitching in and drawing chalk hearts on his sidewalk.
“I wanted everyone to participate and not just have one person, like, draw one heart and have nobody else be able to do it,” he said.
“And I wanted to spread love and kindness and inspire others.”
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