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

Nelba Marquez-Greene and her husband, Jimmy Greene, embrace during a news conference on Jan. 14, 2013 — one month after their daughter, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, 6, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
John Moore
Getty Images
Nelba Marquez-Greene and her husband, Jimmy Greene, embrace during a news conference on Jan. 14, 2013 — one month after their daughter, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, 6, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

The protests since the death of George Floyd are being hailed by many as a watershed moment that might ultimately bring about an end to police brutality and systemic racism. But the high hopes are also tangled up in dark fears that the current uprising will eventually die down and will end up being just one more missed opportunity.

Nelba Marquez-Greene, 45, has seen it before. After her 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, was killed, along with 25 others, in the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, she'd hoped that tragedy would mark a turning point. She poured herself into protesting and lobbying for meaningful change. Today, as she watches demonstrators demanding racial justice, with their unusually large crowds, their diversity and their "fierce determination to change things," she said, she can't help but feel "so much hope."

But at the same time, she said, her rising hopes also bring pain.

"It just is retraumatizing to live this over and over and over again," she said. "We have learned that people will move on. Attention spans are short, and as big as this is right now, we know that people will move on."

Just as they eventually did, Marquez-Greene said, when she dared to expect new national gun laws after her daughter was killed.

"We had an expectation that because this terrible thing happened, of course, people would do the right thing," she recalled. Back then, she figured "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 out there, they're banking on you to stop putting pressure on."

Marquez-Greene said George Floyd's death is as personal for her family as her daughter's murder. Marquez-Greene is Puerto Rican and her husband, Jimmy Greene, 45, is black. They have a teenage son. She said a recent political cartoon really captured it for them. It juxtaposed two guys: one white, carrying an assault rifle and getting a friendly wave from a policeman, and another black, unarmed and getting crushed by an officer's knee on his neck.

"I thought to myself, I live in an America where my youngest was killed by a mass shooter who looked like the first boy," she said. "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, [for him to endure] 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."

It's what's been driving her anguished tweets lately, imploring protestors to stay the course. "Like a dog on a bone, stay on folks and keep them accountable or we will be doing this again with another child's father," she posted. Another tweet beseeched, "Do not let up the pressure," and "Don't grow complacent... like so many of you did after Newtown."

"I only have one child left," Marquez-Greene said. Watching this current uprising fizzle out, is "just not a luxury that I have," she said. "We have an opportunity, sadly given to us by the cries of a man whose neck was kneeled on for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. How dare us not take this moment and say, 'Enough is enough?' It would be so incredibly shameful of our country" not to do so.

Marquez-Greene is hardly a cynic by nature; she's the type who feeds on hope and is fueled by faith. But her life experience has left both her and her husband leery. As Greene put it, it's not just the eight years since his daughter's murder, but also his 45 years as an African American whose country "has promised a lot of things that haven't come to fruition."

"I've been trained as a black man. You can't get too hopeful about certain things," he said. "Optimism that things are finally going to change ... is always met with a lot of realism that, 'Hey, we've been here before. What's really different now?' "

Sometimes, it feels like not so much, they said, especially in their mostly white, conservative suburb in Connecticut.

Marquez-Greene said it's been crushing to read what some neighbors are posting in an online forum about the protests: "lmao you sound so dumb," began one. "Black people can have the same house, same career, same everything I can [...] I'm not privileged either jerk [...] but I chose to do better and not live off welfare like so many do then call themselves oppressed because they won't try to better themselves."

A U.S. flag flies at half staff on Main Street in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15, 2012, in honor of the 26 students and staff killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
David Goldman / AP
A U.S. flag flies at half staff on Main Street in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15, 2012, in honor of the 26 students and staff killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"It's heartbreaking, but it's what we have to deal with," Greene said. Just like the fact that he's been pulled over by police, and has given his son, Isaiah, "the talk" about what to do when it happens to him. And just like the fact that he opted to skip his evening walk one night when his wife couldn't join him, rather than venture out in their new neighborhood alone. "I think we know all too well what could happen," Greene said. Indeed, the very next day, news broke of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man from Atlanta, Ga., who was killed while out for a jog, by white men who accused him of being a burglar.

Little wonder that when Marquez-Greene and her family happened to drive by a protest in a neighboring town recently, their first instinct was to brace themselves, figuring they'd stumbled on a counter-demonstration rather than a Black Lives Matter rally.

As they approached, "I said, 'Let's take a deep breath,' " Marquez-Greene recalled. Greene says the first thing that crossed his mind was that "it's great that I was in my car and there is a green light, so if it was the wrong kind of protest, I could get out of there fairly quickly."

But as they drew closer, they were both surprised — and thrilled — to hear the crowds chanting, "Black Lives Matter," and to see signs saying, "Racism is a pandemic too" and "We the people means all of us," and placards with the names of many who have died at the hands of police.

"I rolled down my window and stuck my clenched fist in the air and beeped my horn as loud as I could, just to show them I appreciated them, and that we need them," said Greene. "There were people of every shade together, and that's what touched me most."

"He was just, 'Wow, they're doing this for us!' " recalled Marquez-Greene. "It was a moment that took my breath away."

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

"It takes a long time to change humans' hearts," Greene said. "I'm not foolish enough to think that 400 years of [systemic racism] will be washed away in a few years."

Or even in time for their son, Isaiah. At 15, he has also had to deal with the insidiousness of racism, like when he was followed by a department store security guard as he was shopping for a dress shirt for a school dance. But maybe change will come in time for their grandchildren.

"I hope when Isaiah has children," Marquez-Greene said, choking back tears, and they ask Isaiah about this moment in time, he "will be able to say to them, 'It was really hard, but here's how love won.' "

Greene, a saxophonist and composer, just wrote a new song, "While Looking Up." It's meant to buoy people's spirits to keep battling on, even when the reality on the ground makes it hard. He knows all too well how deflating it can be, and the cynicism it can sow.

"This can make people bitter really, really quickly. And [it can make them] lose hope," he said. But "our greatest heroes achieved their greatness because they kept believing in the ability for change to come, even if they couldn't see it in their lifetimes. They fought for it because they knew it was possible. We've got to have that same kind of mindset."

There's a difference, Greene said, between hope and faith. For him, it's the latter that keeps his family going when hope inevitably falters.

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Corrected: June 20, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier photo caption misspelled the last name of Jimmy Greene as Green and misspelled the last name of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene as Marquez Green.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.