Editor’s note: Michelle Bir is an American freelance photojournalist currently living in Italy. She has written and photographed for multiple newspapers in North Carolina, including The …
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Editor’s note: Michelle Bir is an American freelance photojournalist currently living in Italy. She has written and photographed for multiple newspapers in North Carolina, including The Fayetteville Observer and The Sanford Herald, where she worked with News + Record reporter Zachary Horner.
VICENZA, Italy — I didn’t know what to expect. A George Floyd protest…in Italy, by Italians?
Internally I debated if they know American history leading up to this event, if they had heard the names of the others that weren’t caught on camera, or if they saw the Floyd video and related it to personal struggles they might encounter in their own lives.
I was tasked by the events organizer to provide photos and video of the event. I have photographed a few protests in America, but never any here. Recent American news alerts that pop up on my phone have detailed journalists receiving serious wounds, some have even lost their eyes due to being shot in the face with rubber bullets.
“This is not America, this is not America,” is what I repeated in my head leading up to the event. No matter how many events I have covered or how long I have been in this game, sometimes it requires self-hypnosis.
People began trickling into Piazza Castello in downtown Vicenza on the beautiful morning of June the 6th. Signs, shirts, and banners were proudly displayed for all to see, unencumbered by fear of retaliation from police or other (less progressive) Italians. There was no counter protest, no armed militia out to protect property. Local police standing casually in a corner of the square, no riot gear, batons, or pepper spray. They must have known that there would be no frustration taken out on them, unlike their American counterparts.
Most signs were written in English, though, their owners spoke Italian. The group which formed seemed to have at least one representative of all walks of life. I saw women wearing hijab, some disabled in wheelchairs, older Italian men, Asians, Africans, Americans — the demographics were endless.
The speakers spoke, the singers sang, and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. were blared through the loudspeakers. My only interest was how these people, a continent away, would perceive these words. Still in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, faces were masked to comply with the current laws. This made it harder for me to do my job; eyes are indeed expressive, but they are harder to pick out of a crowd.
Participants were then asked to lay on the ground for the same length of time Floyd was on the ground. There wasn’t a lot of room to fully stretch out; many sat, some found the room to lay down completely. Over the speaker the full audio from Floyd’s death was played.
Then I saw it. Grief. Pure grief. These people, world-renowned for their enormous hearts, were in pain, and in pain for someone a world away, whom they would have never encountered. Tears poured behind their masks, hands were held, hugs were given, and fists thrust into the air in solidarity. There is was, it was a raw and palpable display of emotion that was clearly felt to their core.
The microphone was then opened to anyone who wanted to speak. I noticed a young man in the crowd early on, and I was happy to see him take the stage. He stood with the quiet confidence of Malcolm X, and spoke with the same passion as MLK. His name is Mathieu Becho, he spoke only in Italian, but you don’t have to speak Italian to understand him. Anger, frustration, and a deep longing for change was emitted with every word, it was visceral and moving.
I thought these people couldn’t possibly know what it is like to be black in America, I don’t even know what it is like to be black in America. I am a white woman who has never had to be in that situation, I can understand it, I can acknowledge it, but I can never actually feel it. But maybe you don’t have to feel it to understand, maybe standing in solidarity against something you know to be wrong is enough. United they stood, forward they move, and together as one, that is how they will change the world.