‘We got you.’ A Collier deputy worried about walking with George Floyd protesters. Two women stepped up to escort him.
The blur of red and blue lights cast the night purple.
A barricade of deputies and armored vehicles blocked protesters from returning to Fifth Avenue South in the affluent beachside city of Naples.
“Start walking south so we don’t have to make any arrests,” a voice boomed on a bullhorn.
Earlier, when the sun was still out, the protest had spilled, unplanned, onto U.S. 41, shutting down a major thoroughfare. More people joined. The group swelled to a few hundred before converging on Fifth Avenue, where a Wagyu steak sells for more than $100 and palm trees with white lights make every evening feel holiday-like.
Not this night. It was last week, the first day of protests against racial injustice in Collier County. There have been at least four more peaceful protests here since. And they've grown in numbers. Wednesday evening drew about 600, Naples' largest yet.
More of our coverage:Hundreds of young people march in downtown Naples
People emerged from fancy shops with worried faces. An older man in a polo shirt taunted protesters, many of them teenagers of color, as they shouted, “Black lives matter!” From sidewalks, gawkers licked ice cream cones.
There was no violence or looting, though there was anger as some protesters lobbed insults into the faces of deputies.
Police with big guns and batons stood stone-faced before young men carrying only posters and the T-shirts they had peeled off because it was so hot.
It was after Fifth Avenue South that friends Lisa Martinez, 28, and Cherry Estelomme, 26, joined the march. By then, it had stalled near U.S. 41 and Davis Boulevard.
The voice on the bullhorn nudged, “Ladies and gentlemen, please keep walking south.”
The throng didn’t budge.
Lisa and Cherry used the time to talk to the police.
Why aren't more like Officer Linda?
Lisa and Cherry met at Lely High School in east Naples and share the experience of growing up black in a county that is 90% white. In Naples proper, home to Fifth Avenue, it’s 94%.
As teenagers, they felt uncomfortable even venturing to Fifth. Cherry noticed how people crossed the street when they saw her. They pulled their purses to the other side. She tried to win strangers over by smiling as if to say, “I’m nice. I promise.”
Back then, Lisa wondered if the people staring would see her differently if they knew she was the daughter of the seamstress with clientele living at the mega-mansions nearby.
This was the first protest either had attended, ever. Lisa is a nursing student. Cherry sells furniture. The women had parked at a Walmart because U.S. 41 was blocked.
Earlier that day, Cherry had sprained her right ankle and sliced her heel on a broken vase. She wore slip-on sandals to fit over the bandage. She hobbled but drew healing from the crowd.
“I don’t care about this pain in my ankle,” she told Lisa. “There’s people dying in the streets, so let’s go out there. Let’s just start walking.”
Adrenaline masked her pain.
Lisa and Cherry were pushed to the streets that evening by much more than a feeling of discomfort. Lisa has a black son. He’s 10. Like other mothers, she had heard George Floyd’s call for Mama as the white officer knelt on his neck.
Cherry is tired of unwarranted traffic stops and the need to coach her brothers on how to survive them. Call me. Hit record. Put the phone down so they don’t think it’s a weapon. One brother grew so weary of being pulled over in Naples that he moved away.
Yet she knew good cops too. There was Officer Linda, whom she’d known since middle school. They still hugged when they crossed paths at the 7-Eleven.
“Why aren’t there more cops like that? What are they afraid of? And if they’re that afraid, why are they a cop?”
As the protest lingered at the intersection, Lisa held up her phone, tapped Facebook Live and began interviewing law enforcement guarding the road back to Fifth Avenue.
“What’s your take on what’s going on, sir?”
“It’s a group of individuals that are peacefully protesting,” said one deputy.
“Thank you! Who else? I want to talk. Can I talk to y’all? Because it’s peaceful.”
“I thought that how they killed that guy was awful,” said another deputy.
Her next interview, a highway patrolman, said: “I don’t have an opinion.”
Lisa moved on. A white woman, a bystander, stopped her. “I fled Sanford, Florida, because I have a black chief of police, a black city manager and I was attacked by a 400-pound black woman. … What about white racism?”
“OK, whew, child,” said Lisa, letting the stranger finish. “Now I have a question for you. Do you care what happened 400 years ago? … What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong. When that man had his knee on that man’s neck, that’s assassination.”
Cherry approached deputies too. She thanked them when they agreed that Floyd’s killing was wrong. “How can we change this?” she asked some. “What can you guys do to help our community? To make us to feel whole?”
Naples, she thought, was the perfect place for protesters and police to walk together.
A white deputy in his late 20s, without riot gear, took several steps forward, moving near the protesters. His name was Cpl. Daniel McCoy.
Earlier, Cherry had seen him filming himself on his phone in selfie mode, amid protesters chanting, “Walk with us! Walk with us!”
It was as if he were rooting for them, she thought. It made her trust him.
Lisa saw how he talked with people. And listened.
The voice on the bullhorn returned. “Ladies and gentlemen, he wants to walk with you.”
The announcement set off a ripple of voices. A handful of protesters, voices raised, questioned his motives in a heated exchange.
“Why do you want to walk with us?”
“You don’t look like you want to.”
“Why don’t you take off your vest?”
Cherry and Lisa drew closer to McCoy.
Lisa didn’t like the angle at which some were coming at him. She wasn’t there to be a hypocrite, to say forget all police. What she wanted was to weed out the racist ones. She stepped between McCoy and a man arguing for him to remove his bulletproof vest.
“He ain’t gonna take his vest off,” she defended him. “He’s on duty!”
McCoy turned toward her. “If you guys make sure I don’t get jumped, I’ll walk with you.”
The two women did not hesitate. They moved to either side of McCoy.
Lisa asked, “You walking or you talkin’?”
“Let’s go,” Cherry said. “Let’s go walk. Let’s go walk, man, let’s go walk.”
She repeated the refrain as they linked arms and led McCoy from the crowd to the clear road.
“As long as I don’t get jumped.”
“You’re not going to get jumped,” Cherry said. “We got you.”
“Thank you for protecting. I appreciate that.”
“We’re protectors here the same way you should protect us, the same way.”
Cherry held up her phone and filmed, “We’re scared being next to the cops, and right now they’re scared being around all of us.”
“Let’s just walk together.”
The protesters fell behind the trio as they talked and walked for blocks. The women felt a shift in the crowd. Tension eased. Hope opened.
It’s hard to know what McCoy was thinking. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office said he could not be interviewed. But to the women at his side, his steps felt genuine.
Cherry’s heart exploded with happiness.
It had long been dark, but to Lisa it felt as if “we were walking into the sunset.”
This story is based on interviews with Lisa Martinez and Cherry Estelomme and videos and reports from the June 1 protest that drew more than 300 people.
That night there were four arrests at the first of at least five protests in Collier County since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd. There was no clear organizer of the first protest, observers said, noting local youth made up the bulk of the crowd.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office declined an interview request for Cpl. Daniel McCoy, who has been with the agency since 2015, but provided a statement: “Deputies are directed to allow participants to engage in their right to peaceful protest and protect the protesters and others in the protest area. Cpl. McCoy was acting within the scope of his duties.”
Naples Daily News reporter Rachel Fradette contributed to this article.
Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise writer in Southwest Florida. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JanineZeitlin.