UT Dallas alumna Tess Duke BS’17 recently organized an accessible protest that allowed participants to support the Black Lives Matter movement while maintaining safe social distancing.
Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, communities around the nation united to demand justice and spur action to address institutionalized racism in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented a significant danger to those hoping to organize for societal change. Since large-scale gatherings pose a greater threat for transmission of the virus, those who want to protest must consider the potential health risks of in-person activism.
“I really wanted to join the protests, but I have rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease,” Duke said. “These protests have been effective, so we want to keep doing them, but people who are at a high-risk for COVID-19 need another way to contribute. I figured there were other people in the same position as me.”
Inspired by the local parades that have become a common celebration for birthdays and graduations during the pandemic, Duke planned the June 13 protest in which participants drove their cars, caravanning through a planned route in Frisco.
“After organizing on Facebook and Nextdoor, I reached out to the police department and let them know what was happening,” Duke said. “We had a couple officers volunteer as escorts, and we gathered in Frisco Commons Park to paint our cars and make signs.”
More than 15 cars, decorated with messages like “White Silence is Violence” and “Black Lives Matter,” joined the protest convoy.
Participants of many ages and demographics turned out to support the cause.
“We had people who were at a high-risk for COVID-19, others who just couldn’t walk very far or stand for very long,” Duke said. “A mother brought her daughter who wanted to be part of the movement but was too young to join the larger protests downtown. This was a way they could all protest without fear.”
Duke, who has a passion for human rights work and a history of volunteering, credits Dr. Jillian Duquaine-Watson’s American Studies for the 21st Century course at UT Dallas with opening her eyes to problems of social justice.
“We learned a lot about the statistics and personal stories behind the issue of policing in America,” Duke said. “That class really opened my eyes to what was going on in our country. Before that, it was easy not to pay attention, but I totally feel that UTD changed the way I look at things.”
As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge across Texas, finding ways for activists to safely demonstrate is more important than ever.
“There are many of us with disabilities or who are high risk,” Duke said. “We don’t want to turn a blind eye to injustice but the typical protests are not accessible for us.”
Regardless of someone’s health status, ability or age, Duke encourages everyone to find a way to make their voices heard in this critical moment.
“For all of us who are trying to be allies, the most important thing to remember is that what we’re doing actually moves the needle,” Duke said. “Sharing things on social media is helpful, but what really helps is signing petitions, talking to others, donating to Black Lives Matter causes, things like that. If you are not able to physically show up to a protest, these are things you can do too.”