Sandy Hook Victim's Parents Encourage Protesters To Persevere Nelba Marquez-Greene and her husband, James Greene, are inspired by the marches for racial justice but fear they could fizzle out and become just another disappointment.

Parents Of Sandy Hook Shooting Victim Hope Protesters Will Hold Out For Real Change

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The ongoing protests across the country are being hailed by many as a watershed moment in the fight to end police brutality and systemic racism. But those high hopes are also tangled up in fears that this moment may go down as one more missed opportunity. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith with the story of one family.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Like many Americans, Nelba Marquez-Greene has been encouraged by the protests she's seen in the past few weeks with their huge crowds, their diversity and their passion.

NELBA MARQUEZ-GREENE: I saw a fierce determination to change things, and that gave me so much hope.

SMITH: But at the same time, she says, her rising hope also brings pain.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: It just is retraumatizing to live this over and over and over again. We have learned that people will move on. Our attention spans are short, and people will move on.

SMITH: Just as they did, Marquez-Greene says, after her 6-year-old daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting eight years ago, and she dared to hope for stricter national gun laws.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: We had an expectation that because this terrible thing happened that, of course, people would do the right thing. Nobody in their right mind is going to stare at the mother of a child who was murdered and shot seven, eight times and say, I won't enact legislation. And the truth is that's where we went wrong. Some of these legislators that are out there - they are banking on you to stop putting pressure on.

SMITH: As a Black and brown family with a teenage son, Marquez-Greene, who is Puerto Rican, and her husband, who is Black, say George Floyd's death is as personal as their daughter's murder. One political cartoon really captured it for them, juxtaposing two guys - one white, carrying an assault rifle, getting a friendly wave from a policeman and another Black and unarmed, getting crushed by an officer's knee on his neck.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: I thought to myself, I live in an America where my youngest was killed by a mass shooter who looked like the first boy. And I live in an America where my son looks like the second boy with a knee on his neck. What an unjust thing that is to have to have the perception of evil or harm that people might think of him, especially knowing how his sister died. The irony there is breathtaking and the injustice even more so.

SMITH: It's what's been driving her anguished tweets lately, imploring protesters to stay the course.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: How dare us not take this moment and say, enough is enough. It would be so incredibly shameful of our country to do so.

SMITH: Marquez-Greene is hardly a cynic by nature. She's the type who feeds on hope and is fueled by faith. But experience has left both her and her husband, Jimmy Greene, leery.

JIMMY GREENE: I've been trained as a Black man, you know? Hey, we've been here before. What's really different now?

SMITH: Sometimes, not so much, they say, especially in their mostly white conservative suburb in Connecticut.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: I'll read you a comment that I was just looking at...

SMITH: Marquez-Greene says it's been crushing to read what some neighbors are posting in an online forum about the protests.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: You need to get more educated and stop being a sheep. I'm not privileged either, jerk. But I choose to do better and not live off welfare, like so many do, and then call themselves oppressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

SMITH: Last weekend when they happened by a rally near their home, Greene says his first instinct was fear that it was not for Black Lives Matter but against.

GREENE: Well, yeah, it's great that I was in my car, and there was a green light. So if it was the wrong kind of protest, I could get out of there fairly quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Black Lives Matter.

SMITH: But they were both surprised and thrilled to find supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Black Lives Matter.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: You hear the horn. And that's, to me, I think just - wow. They're doing this for us.

GREENE: I rolled down my window and stuck my clenched fist high in the air and beeped my horn as loud as I could just to show them that I appreciated them and that we need them.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: It was a moment that took my breath away.

GREENE: There were people of every shade together, and that's what touched me the most.

SMITH: In moments like that, it's hard not to let yourself believe this time will be different, Greene says. But, as always, before getting too carried away with hope, that skeptical side always punches back.

GREENE: It takes a long time to change humans' hearts. I'm not foolish enough to think that 400 years of history will be washed away in a few years.

SMITH: Or even in time for their son, Isaiah, who, at 15, has also had to deal with the insidiousness of racism, like when he was followed by department store security as he was shopping for a dress shirt for a school dance. But maybe, Marquez-Greene dares, maybe change will come in time for their grandkids.

MARQUEZ-GREENE: I hope that when Isaiah has children, Isaiah will be able to say it was really hard, but here's how love won.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Greene, a composer, just wrote a new song meant to buoy people to battle on when the reality on the ground makes it hard.

GREENE: This can make people bitter really, really quickly - and lose hope. And we can never lose hope.

SMITH: But there is a difference, Greene says, between hope and faith. For him, faith doesn't falter, he says, and it keeps his family going when hope does. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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