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Reporter's Notebook: Covering New York's Racial Justice Protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes a little wider view of the protests about racial justice in this country. What we often see on social media and in the news are scenes of chaos and violence - that's what draws the cameras - and those scenes can be frightening. But there are other parts of the protests that are not chaotic, not violent. NPR's Brian Mann has been covering marches in New York City and in Rochester, N.Y., and has a Reporter's Notebook on what he's seeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Here's the moment in these protests that usually make it into my stories...

(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS DETONATING)

MANN: ...A violent encounter between activists and police here in Rochester. The crowd rushes back, choking and coughing as tear gas billows over the street. This kind of unrest is obviously part of what's happening across the country. But I spent long hours with demonstrators, and what I see most are moments like this...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Singing) Which side you on, my people? Which side you on? Which side you on...

MANN: ...People sing as they march, sometimes hundreds of voices at a time. There's also a lot of conversation - people talking ideas, teaching, telling stories. Christopher Coles (ph), a poet here in Rochester, speaks to hundreds of people sitting on the pavement in the middle of an intersection.

CHRISTOPHER COLES: I'll give you hope that can't be lynched, dreams they can't put bullets to.

MANN: There is anger here and frustration. Coles shares his poetry a stone's throw from the place where Daniel Prude, a Black man, lay on the pavement last March - naked, a hood over his head, surrounded by officers. Prude later died in police custody, sparking much of this city's unrest. But along with rage, there's a lot of talk of hope.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have to work together because I have children in this world. And we want to let the next generation inherit what we leave them.

MANN: Listening in the crowd, there are demonstrators with helmets and plexiglass shields, some wearing red and black antifa colors, obviously ready for confrontation with police. But they're the minority. There are also clergy offering prayers, street nurses giving first aid, Black people and white people just looking out for each other. Melanie Funchess (ph) organizes volunteers who offer counseling.

MELANIE FUNCHESS: Now, this work is hard. Y'all know me. I have one lane - the healing and love lane. That's my lane. OK?

(APPLAUSE)

FUNCHESS: Y'all my babies. I need y'all to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round, turn...

MANN: Many of the people here are taking real risks. Each night, some of them are injured by pepper bullets fired by police, others arrested. But they keep coming, some nights thousands of people marching through neighborhoods, singing.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) ...Me round - I'm gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.

MANN: Along the way, I keep being surprised by moments of quiet and beauty. At one point, organizers call on the crowd to kneel and meditate.

UNIDENTIFIED ORGANIZER: Feel all the collective energy that's out here tonight. Inhale peace.

MANN: After a moment of silence, they listen together while a Sam Cooke song plays over a tinny loudspeaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) It's been a long - a long time coming. But I know a change gon' come.

MANN: Obviously, these demonstrations have been tumultuous at times. But moments of grace are part of the story, too. Music and poetry and prayer are part of an argument being made on these streets night after night about the value and richness of Black lives.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Rochester, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) It's been a long... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.