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Orlando police deploy tear gas during a demonstration outside Orlando City Hall in downtown Orlando, Florida. Large crowds of demonstrators have gathered each night to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Picture: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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Orlando police deploy tear gas during a demonstration outside Orlando City Hall in downtown Orlando, Florida. Large crowds of demonstrators have gathered each night to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Picture: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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‘Aoife came home wounded... it was the police who hurt her’; Cork family's experience of US protests 

A CORK woman living in Florida has spoken of the sheer terror she feels knowing her daughter faces abhorrent violence from police forces at daily Black Lives Matter protests. Cathy Tobin, originally from the Bandon area, travelled over to Orlando with her husband Tom, from Douglas,  in 1993 in search of an adventure.

“We fell in love with America. It took me a long time to fully settle but we’ve built a life in Orlando now and there are really good people here,” she said. However, given recent widespread unrest and clashes with local law enforcement, Cathy said the thought of moving back to Ireland has crossed her mind.

On Tuesday one of Cathy’s daughters, Aoife, 19, came home after her fourth day in a row participating in a Black Lives Matter protest. The movement has been brought back into sharp focus following the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.

Mr Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes as he pleaded “I can’t breathe”. Protests held in the wake of the murder have been marred with violence, with many peaceful protests being disrupted by bouts of police brutality in many cities.

“Aoife came home from a peaceful protest in downtown Orlando more wounded than I have ever seen her. I sat with her for a long time before she could even talk. Peaceful protestors, mostly young like herself, were faced down by the Orlando Police Department in full riot gear. Someone in the back of the crowd threw a water bottle and suddenly the police were spraying mace directly in the faces of the young people right in front of them. Aoife was kneeling and was still manhandled and bruised by the authorities,” Cathy said.

 The Tobin family, originally from the Bandon and Douglas areas, now live in Florida, with Tom's mother, Renee, who still lives in Douglas.

The Tobin family, originally from the Bandon and Douglas areas, now live in Florida, with Tom's mother, Renee, who still lives in Douglas.

The hardest thing for Cathy to contend with is the fact her daughter was hurt by the very people whose job it is to protect. “Our institutions are corrupt. It was the police who hurt Aoife.

“I can’t describe to you how terrifying it is and how much I worry about Aoife when she’s out protesting. What’s even more crushing is knowing that this is how the mothers of black children feel on a daily basis. At least Aoife came home — you could call that white privilege I guess.”

Aoife described what it is like to be in the midst of a protest. “The protest always starts out with a gathering at City Hall. We march around downtown and occupy the streets. At all times we’re surrounded by the police. The situation won’t have escalated at all and they’re putting on their gas masks — that’s inciting violence in itself,” she said.

Aoife said for the first day of the protests in Orlando she wore her regular clothes, but now, anticipating that police brutality she comes prepared with a bandana and goggles. “The police will spray mace point-blank at people’s faces. People are screaming in pain.”

Orlando is under a nightly curfew. For downtown Orlando this is 8pm and for the rest of the city it’s 10pm. “It’s just another excuse to arrest people. It’s an infringement on our right to free speech. They don’t want to hear what we have to say,” Aoife said.

“We’ve heard of protestors who have had their phones and car keys taken away from them. Aoife needs to be as prepared as she can be,” Cathy said. “I do feel scared at the moment. It’s like the perfect storm here between the ingrained injustice towards black people, the coronavirus and now on top of it all we’re coming into hurricane season,” she said.

Looking ahead to the Presidential election in November, Cathy said she is fearful of the outcome. “I don’t think it’s a given that he [Donald Trump] won’t get re-elected and I dread to think what four more years of Trump as President could bring. We cried when he first got elected. We were in such shock and so afraid of what the country would look like with him as President.”