Porsha Williams Says Being Tear-Gassed During Peaceful Protest Gave Her 'Strength' to March Again
The Real Housewives of Atlanta star has been protesting to demand justice for the death of George Floyd
Floyd, a 46-year-old truck driver, was pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for several minutes with a knee on the unarmed man's neck, amid Floyd's repeated cries that included statements like, "I can't breathe."
But despite the peaceful protests, Williams, along with many of those standing around her, was hit with tear gas fired off by the police.
"It was devastating to feel like I was out there trying to stand with my people, stand with our allies, and help them raise a message of hope and to be silenced and not able to breathe because of the gas bomb that was thrown," the Real Housewives of Atlanta star tells PEOPLE exclusively.
As seen in a video posted by Williams to her Instagram from that day, once the tear gas is dispersed onto the crowd, the reality star begins running down the street amidst loud bangs and screams, stopping once safe to pour water over her face. The experience, however, is one Williams believes gave her "another level of strength" to continue protesting.
"It won't stop. Anybody who is out there now and they feel like they can't move forward because of the mistreatment [by] the police and what they're doing to us ... I would say to them, stay focused on the cause," she says. "We are looking to get justice for George Floyd."
Williams, 38, continues, "Right now I am pushing through with a heavy heart for everyone, for the people who live in this country, for my brothers and sisters. I'm searching for answers and the same unrest that's going on in our country is going on within me to find a way to be most effective in this movement for Black Lives Matter."
While sending "love and condolences" to the Floyd family, Williams admits it took her a day to watch the entire eight-minute and 45-second video that saw Chauvin restricting Floyd's breathing, ultimately resulting in his death. In a report released Monday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner listed Floyd's cause of death as a homicide — specifically, "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression." It also said he "experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s)."
Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder in the killing of Floyd, a charge that was later upgraded to second-degree murder on Wednesday. (The three other officers involved will also face criminal charges.)
"It was hard for me to gather myself and watch something and know that it was happening again to another black man," Williams says. "When I finally built up my own courage to watch it, it was heartbreaking. Literally everything within me wanted to fast-forward in order not to have to go through the agony that he was going through. But because he went through it, I felt that it was important for me to see it and feel all of it, to hear every cry, so that at the end of that video, I would be so passionate, so driven by what I felt."
She adds, "I wanted to make sure that I gathered it all, felt every bit, to use it to be able to channel it into a message to help a movement so that this comes to an end."
RELATED VIDEO: Voices from Protests After George Floyd's Death: 'Our Skin Color Should Not Be Considered a Weapon'
Williams' involvement with Black Lives Matter and her presence in the peaceful protests comes years after her grandfather, Reverend Hosea Williams, marched in the Civil Rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The familial connection to the current events has sparked an even greater fire inside of her, Williams says.
"What I experience being on the frontline with them is a very beautiful thing," she says. "The energy of the people is very much one mind, one mission and one goal, and that is to stand side by side, locked in arms, locked in heart, and to use every breath we have to demand justice for George Floyd and for the other victims of police brutality."
But despite the decades of difference between her and her grandfather's times of activism, she says their message to the world remains the same: stand up against the inequality.
"I want everybody to go vote. The same African American lives that we want to save and the same way I just want to live in my black skin and my brother just wants to live in his black skin, those same African Americans die for the right for us to be able to vote," Williams says. "That is how you lift your voice; that is how you fight for real change."
"This a moment where we should live in it, we should breathe it and we should acknowledge the people and what's been activated," she adds. "All of these officials should listen. As you can see around the world, when some of these police chiefs are actually deciding to walk with the people, take a knee with the people, it turns the mood of the protests. If more of that would happen, we would be at least a step forward into change."
Says Williams, "As long as the people don't feel like they're being heard, they're being ignored, they're being gassed, they're being silenced, they can't breathe because of the gas that they're throwing at us, the rubber bullets, then this will not stop. People want to see change and the time for the change is now. The people are serious this time. We do mean no justice, no peace."
Much of Williams' motivation to demand change stems from her experiences as a mom to 14-month-old Pilar Jhena, her daughter with Dennis McKinley. Along with her baby girl's future in mind, the mom of one is determined to bring about change for a better quality of life for all Americans.
"At this moment, I am fighting for humanity, my brother, my sister, my allies, my cousins, whomever you are, if you are like-minded and you are going to be on the right side of history and say no to racism, then you are my family," she says. "Just as passionate as I am about having a safe and quality future of life for my daughter, I want the same thing for any other American."
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
- Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
- ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
- National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.