Kneeling girl in iconic San Jose protest picture comes ahead

SAN JOSE — Her chest still ached when she returned home that night from the double blows of a police baton. Her face was still caked with white residue from the teargas that stung her eyes and burned her throat so harshly she thought she might die.

Khennedi Meeks was just 18 that afternoon last spring in downtown San Jose where she had attended her very first protest. The whole experience, which started peacefully as one of the many demonstrations across the country against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, was so terrifying, so disillusioning that she was certain she would never go to a protest again.

She showered off, threw away her white tank top and jeans, and went to bed.

The next morning, she lurched back into her routine, showing up on time for her 11 a.m. shift at Walmart.

Then something strange happened. Customers started asking:

“Are you that girl?”

Her viral secret

She didn’t know it at the time, but a Bay Area News Group photographer had captured a powerful image of the striking teenager on one knee staring down a phalanx of San Jose police in riot gear. Overnight, the photo had gone viral and the unknown woman in the white top and powder blue surgical mask was quickly becoming an international symbol of resistance for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the coming days, Khennedi (pronounced Kennedy) Meeks watched in awe as her image circled the planet, shared by celebrities on social media and activists on protest pages, by the national news and National Geographic. And like the famous campaign photo of President Barack Obama painted in bright colors, artists used the image as inspiration, calling the anonymous protester “the epitome of power, bravery, resilience, and also pain.”

  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists. The likeness of Sugano’s image has been painted by artists, like this one by Jesse Duquette, who posted it on Instagram. (Courtesy of Jesse Duquette)

  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists around the country. The likeness of Sugano’s image has been painted by artists across the country, like this one by artist Nikkolas Smith of Los Angeles. Smith calls himself an artivist because his most recognized work focuses on activism. (Courtesy of @nikkolas_smith/Instagram)

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  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists. The likeness of Sugano’s image has been painted by artists, like this one by Inaya Fatima in India, who posted it on her Instagram account saying “It makes me smile wider and fills my heart with warmth and tear.” (@ina_nightingalesyaup/Instagram)

  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists. The likeness of Sugano’s image has been painted by artists, like this one by @andretellao, who posted it on Instagram. (Courtesy of @andretellao/Instagram)

  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists. The likeness of SuganoÕs image has been painted by artists, like this one by Bella Snape, who posted it on Instagram. (Courtesy of Bella Snape @bellasnapeart/Instagram)

  • The image photographer Dai Sugano captured of Khennedi Meeks protesting was quickly noticed by artists across the country. The likeness of SuganoÕs image has been painted by artists, like this one by Noor Qwfan, who posted it on Instagram with a hashtag #powertothepeople (Courtesy of Noor Qwfan @noors_nook/Instagram)

Now, for the first time, she is sharing her story. For seven months, Meeks has resisted coming forward to tell the world, beyond family and friends or the occasional stranger who asked, that she was the woman on one knee.

“No one knew who I was — and people were looking for me,” she said. “I saw a lot of comments from people who were like, who is this? Can we get an @name? What is her Instagram handle? We want to know who this is.”

Even though she was anonymous, part of her was already overwhelmed by the attention. And part of her was afraid.

“I didn’t want to be targeted,” she said. “The internet is a scary place.”

Some people posted hateful comments. Others suggested the photo was a fake — that it was staged and she was a paid model.

“I don’t know, I felt the picture said enough. I didn’t really need to say anything,” she said. “The picture did its justice just floating around the Internet without me ever coming out and physically saying it’s me.”

But over time, she said, as the photo spread among her friends and her mother posted it on Facebook, nothing really bad happened. “It made me realize I had a purpose. People recognized that and saw that in the photo and saw that that was genuine,” she said. “That is what I always wanted, for people to see me as me.”

Finding her voice

Meeks had turned 19 by the time she agreed to meet. This month, she returned to the intersection where she stared down the police, at Santa Clara and Sixth streets, to share what led to that moment and how it has changed her.

SAN JOSE, CA – DECEMBER 15: Khennedi Meeks, 19, returned to the corner of Sixth Street and East Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose, where she took a knee in front of a line of police officers on May 29, 2020, during a protest decrying the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

She grew up 60 miles away in Mountain House, a planned development in California’s Central Valley on the eastern edge of the Bay Area that had little to offer her but cookie-cutter homes and an occasional corner store.

Her father, Kenneth Meeks, who plays drums in a church band, had told her stories from his teenage years about being harassed and once thrown to the ground by police while walking home from school with his White girlfriend. She had endured her own frightening run-in with a high school campus officer who grabbed her arm and cursed at her after she was sent to the principal’s office over “a stupid argument” with a boy in class. By then, she was already an activist at Mountain House High, standing up for the LGBTQ community, for women’s rights and for Black Lives Matter.

But she was anxious to set out on her own. As her mother, La’Toya Ashford-Meeks, puts it: “She had a strong personality the moment she hit the birthing table.”

The youngest of her five children was reciting the periodic table in third grade and is fluent in sign language, Ashford-Meeks proudly says. “Did she tell you that? And she’s a phenom with Xbox. She’s won tournaments. We walk in and all the guys are playing, and they think she’s someone’s sister. She comes in and she’s competing.”

At 17, Khennedi moved to her grandmother’s house in San Jose, enrolled in the Year Up training program for aspiring tech workers and landed a part-time job at Walmart on Story Road as a clerk for the self-checkout line.

The suburban city might not be the magnet for young people looking for excitement and culture like San Francisco and Oakland, or the first place you think of to join a Black Lives Matter protest. But San Jose was all that to Meeks, who is quick to laugh and radiates a youthful enthusiasm.

“I grew up in such a small town that the first big city I went to I just claimed as my own,” she said. “I had a lot of firsts out here, walking around downtown, riding the Lime scooters. Everything that was simple out here, that people take for granted, I just love it so much. Even the VTA (light rail train), oh my gosh, you can get on this thing and it will take you all around San Jose? It was outstanding to me.”

She hopped on the train the day she learned online that a local demonstration was gathering — May 29 — to protest Floyd’s killing. She was finally joining a real protest.

“I know why I’m here. I know why I’m doing it. I know what I stand for,” she told herself.

She was certain her voice would be heard, she said. “I just didn’t know it would be heard in that way.”

‘Looked like they were going to war’

She didn’t know her way to City Hall, so she followed the small groupings of protesters to Santa Clara Street. She carried her cellphone in one back pocket and her wallet with the rainbow-colored lining in the other — a wallet that is visible in the photograph but would later get lost for good in a cloud of teargas.

When she arrived, she was surprised to see police in riot gear forming a line. She was unaware that 20 blocks away, protesters had stopped traffic on Highway 101 and a man was bashing in car windows or that in the hours to come, businesses would be vandalized.

“It looked like they were going to war,” Meeks said of the police. “That’s why I was confused.”

She approached several officers, looking for answers about why they were dressed for battle, but they ignored her — except for Officer Terrence Campbell. He was on the front line and Black like her.

Why, she asked him, are you “on the oppressors’ side?”

The officer, who had been on the force less than a year, explained that he wanted to “make a difference from within,” Meeks said. The moment was captured by TV cameras. After that, when the line of police started moving forward to break up the crowd, “he protected me. He was telling me when they ask us to move, move.”

She lost sight of him after a flashbang grenade exploded and rubber bullets started flying. That’s when this teenager at her very first protest became a witness to numerous recorded scenes that would spread across social media: the blood pouring down a man’s face, the screams of a woman struck by a rubber bullet, and the cocky confrontations of a young officer who appeared to be relishing the conflict.

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 29: San Jose Police officers confront protesters during a demonstration in downtown San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

When the rubber bullets finally stopped and the protesters regrouped, Meeks felt not only angry but emboldened. She returned to face the police.

“We knew it was dangerous,” she said, “but we weren’t doing anything wrong.”

She is too young to remember the heroics of the late Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten in 1965 by police in Selma, Alabama, on what would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” But she could recite the long list of names of those killed by police in the last couple of years — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice …

And when one of the protesters in the crowd took a knee before the row of police, she knew from former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem crusade that doing so was a symbol of peaceful defiance.

Just steps from the row of police batons, she too dropped to one knee.

“I was just like, I’m not going to stand for this,” she said. “I physically felt calm, but I was also very angry and very sad, very, very traumatized at that point.

“I wanted them to hear me without physically hearing,” Meeks remembers of the moment. “I wanted them to know and see it in my face — I’m not going to back down.”

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 29: Khennedi Meeks takes a knee in front of San Jose Police officers during a protest on East Santa Clara Street in San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

‘Kneeling quietly amid the chaos’

Scrambling to stay out of the confrontation but drawn to the young woman, Bay Area News Group photographer Dai Sugano captured the powerful image.

“I just remember her kneeling quietly,” Sugano said, “amid the chaos.”

Tensions rose again as police pushed the protesters back. In the midst of it, Meeks felt the thump of an officer’s baton twice on her chest and once on her back as she turned to retreat. Moments later, she was overcome by a cloud of teargas that left her choking and practically blind until a stranger gave her water and poured milk in her eyes, a salve for the sting.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I wanted to go home.”

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 29: Protesters react as a police car drives past them during a protest in downtown San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Just hours before the violence, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia had been visiting his police recruits at the training academy and had played the gruesome videotape of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. He warned them: “Do not tarnish our badge.”

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 29: San Jose Police Department academy recruits watch a video of the police killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, in SJPD’s substation in San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020. Chief Eddie Garcia, left, addressed the death that elicited national outcry after an officer kneeled on his neck. The officer has since been fired and charged with murder. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

But in the days ahead, like police chiefs across the country, Garcia would be both defending his officers and acknowledging their mistakes.

During an interview last week, Garcia called the photo an “incredibly powerful image.”

“All of us, not just in San Jose but in any major large city in America, wishes that that iconic picture you have is all that was occurring that day. We really do,” said Garcia, who would soon announce he was retiring from the force after 28 years and just last week was named police chief in Dallas.

But there were also “very ugly images” of violence brought on by agitators, he said.

“We made mistakes,” Garcia said. “But we also needed to respond to the violence.”

Under pressure as protests grew larger across the globe, San Jose police changed their tactics, pulling back officers from the streets to reduce confrontations. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful after that.

‘Hope that change really happens’

In late summer, as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on, Meeks was homesick and moved back to the Central Valley, where her family now lives in Manteca. Her parents gush about how she handled herself at the protest and the impact of the photo.

“Even though it’s a small gesture to stand out there, it’s powerful. It says I want things to change,” said Ashford-Meeks, 55, who was born in Memphis and whose mother and grandmother demonstrated for civil rights there in the 1950s and ’60s. “We just hope that change really happens, because we’ve marched before, we’ve stood up for things before and that outcome hasn’t always been what we wanted, or lasted as long as it should have.”

For Khennedi, the impact of the photo illustrated the power of a single voice — and the importance of her own.

“It’s just so empowering. I was just some kid who saw a protest on the internet and decided to go with no real plan. I had no sign, no flag,” she said. “I knew what I wanted, and I wanted to make sure I was a part of this.”

It wasn’t long before she had built up the courage to protest again, swearing off her pledge from that night when her chest was still bruised and tear gas powder caked her eyelashes. Within a week, she was joining another one.

  • BRENTWOOD, CA – November 6: Before revealing herself as the woman on one knee from the San Jose protest, Khennedi Meeks addressed a crowd who gathered outside the Brentwood Police department before marching to a home to denounce a “Sleepy Joe” Biden effigy hung by a rope from the roof in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)

  • SAN JOSE, CA – DECEMBER 15: Khennedi Meeks, 19, of Manteca poses for a portrait on Dec. 15, 2020, in San Jose, Calif. On May 29, 2020, in San Jose, Meeks took a knee in front of a line of police officers during a protest decrying the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

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Ever since, she’s spent most weekends traveling to racial justice demonstrations around Northern California, from Gilroy and Brentwood to Lodi and Sacramento. Even Mountain House hosted one — it was small and family-friendly and Meeks was there. Sometimes, someone hands her a bullhorn and she shares her experience from that afternoon in San Jose.

“It changed me. I realized I can’t stop. I can’t not do this,” she said. “I’m still fighting the fight. I want people to know I’m still doing this and I feel good.”

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