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A Year Later, How George Floyd's Killing Opened These Kansas City Residents' Eyes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

George Floyd's killing did not just kick off protests around the world; it opened the eyes of many who had never stood up for racial justice. Now, almost a year later, reporter Luke Martin from member station KCUR has been talking with residents around Kansas City who found Floyd's killing to be a surprisingly pivotal moment.

LUKE MARTIN, BYLINE: Russell Hill was raised to mind his business. Apart from signing a few petitions, the Independence, Mo., resident never got involved in any social movements. That changed last May, when the 39-year-old and the rest of the world watched the disturbing video of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd. Hill says he couldn't unsee it.

RUSSELL HILL: Look; I'm a white guy. I'm from Missouri. My family's super conservative. We don't talk about race. And with George Floyd, I started asking questions.

MARTIN: Lots of questions - and before long, Hill had found someone selling Black Lives Matter merchandise.

HILL: And I was like, well, give me some of the signs. I'll put them in the yard. I have a corner lot in front of an intersection. There's a lot of traffic that goes by my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASSING CARS)

MARTIN: Russell Hill doesn't mind when the signs go missing. He keeps a stack of extras in his garage. And sure, sticking a sign in the yard can seem simplistic, but it can also help sway public opinion. That's according to research cited by Emmanuel Cannady, who studies social movements at the University of Notre Dame.

PATRICIA BROWN-DIXON: I have taped it on my deck window so that my neighbors, who are mostly affluent, can see it and just be reminded. And I hope they think, oh, no, not in our neighborhood.

MARTIN: That's Patricia Brown-Dixon, who is African American and lives near where some of Kansas City's biggest protests took place. She grew up in segregated Arkansas, and after learning of Floyd's death, she protested for the first time in her life.

BROWN-DIXON: It's just like, living while Black gets you killed. And the George Floyd thing was just the last straw for me.

MARTIN: Emmanuel Cannady says about 22 million people in 60 countries took part in last summer's protests.

EMMANUEL CANNADY: In the United States alone, about 7,750 demonstrations happened. So you couldn't go anywhere last summer without hearing the phrase Black Lives Matter.

MARTIN: Americans of all stripes heard the messaging, too, he says, and many responded, even if they didn't put out a sign or agree with the actions of protesters. Bryan Poston is a white 61-year-old who lives in suburban Olathe, Kan.

BRYAN POSTON: I'm sure there's some police brutality out there. And honestly, I do believe that Blacks are treated differently than whites. And this rioting makes us more aware of it, but I don't think that's the cure.

MARTIN: Cindy Kuhlman is white and lives with her family in suburban Mission Hills, Kan. She's encouraged by some of the things she's seen since Floyd's killing.

CINDY KUHLMAN: We go to a protest. We read. I listened to Emmanuel Acho talk about his "Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man." Try to educate yourself. You put a sign in your yard. But I don't know. Is that enough?

MARTIN: Seventy-six-year-old Barbara Johnson is Black and has never protested, but she did put a sign in her front yard on Kansas City's east side.

BARBARA JOHNSON: Now, don't get me wrong; my sisters - they did the marching and stuff. I'm a lung patient, plus I got bionic knees, so they usually spare me those kinds of things because I am the one that's most active in the community.

MARTIN: She says lasting change may be difficult, but it starts through more contact and more familiarity across racial lines. For NPR News, I'm Luke Martin in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "END CREDITS SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.