If I hear anyone say that we live in unprecedented times again, I’m going to scream. It doesn’t make it less true. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 36 seconds in response to a call that Floyd may have used a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes. The Minneapolis PD has been mum about the alleged $20 bill, so it’s my inclination to believe that it was a false alarm. George Floyd was murdered for being black in America.
Breonna Taylor was murdered by a police officer in her own bed after the police got an unconstitutional warrant to enter her apartment without identifying themselves. When her boyfriend shot at what he believed to be robbers, they shot Breonna eight times.
Tony McDade was a black trans man likewise killed by the police in Florida in murky circumstances. McDade was considered a suspect in a nearby stabbing, likely because of his skin color. An eye witness told a local news station that they never saw an attempt at de-escalation; shots were fired almost immediately.
Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by two white men who sought vengeance for the crime of jogging while black. In an all-too-familiar story, they were protected by a “stand your ground” law, and the assailants were only brought to justice months later when a viral video surfaced of their murder.
I could go on and on and on and it wouldn’t even scratch the surface of the abject cruelty black Americans face every day at the hands of police who protect and serve systemic white supremacy rather than the communities they’re released into.
The U.S. erupted in an outpouring of rage and fear and passion and mourning that’s shut down major cities for weeks now. There hasn’t been a protest of this magnitude against white supremacy ever in our history, so it’s difficult to contextualize the moment we’re in.
Protests have sustained even past all four officers involved in George Floyd’s murder were convicted because this is beyond just one instance, or five, or 12. We’re protesting against the system that time and again fails black Americans and the neoliberal band-aid solutions that continue to do nothing to stop it.
Personally, I support the abolition of police and prisons, as both are extensions of America’s racist past and are a form of violence that don’t make us any safer (leave a comment if you want me to write more about this). Protesters are also fighting to defund the police, slashing their budgets and investing in social programs like education, which is the logical step towards abolition.
According to Public Citizen, the New York Police Department’s $6,000,000,000 budget would make it the 33rd largest military spender on the planet.
More than anything, we’re tired of protesting every few months or years against the murder of another person at the hands of a white supremacist system. We’re angry that nothing has changed. It’s not a question of reforms. It’s time for a reckoning for the entire policing and criminal justice structure in the United States which disproportionately targets black and brown people.
I want to share my experiences and thoughts from the D.C. protests not to center my white experience but to counterbalance the media’s mischaracterization of this uprising to suit their racial capitalist ends and speak to the misconceptions about these protests — many of which are held by those on the left as well.
The Collision of Two Crises
I didn’t know I’d end up running a marathon of three protests in three days. On Thursday, I had helped organize a demonstration outside my apartment building to demand that the management cancel rent in response to the economic suffering sustained from the COVID-19 crisis.
As I wrote about extensively in my articles about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Americans along racial and class lines, COVID-19 is hitting BIPOC, but black Americans in particular, the hardest.
In many ways, these colliding crises are born from the same seed: white supremacy and racial capitalism, a term I’ve adopted from political activist and academic Angela Davis who used it to describe the economic violence done through capitalism to BIPOC on a virtual event hosted by The Movement for Black Lives and The Rising Majority. You can watch the seminar/discussion for yourself, it was honestly uplifting to hear activists speak about where we can take this movement in such revolutionary and hopeful terms.
Both police brutality and racial capitalism belie a violence of priorities. The most central role of the police is to defend capital at home (much as the U.S. military’s imperialist agenda is to defend capital abroad). Through the racialization of crime, we end up in a place in which black lives are valued less than the developments kicking them out of their own neighborhoods.
In the months leading up to this moment, armed agitators protested against stay-at-home orders across the U.S. to little police response. So far, there have been at least 12 protesters killed by police while protesting police brutality, and thousands arrested.
The reality for black people in America is that they’re battling two equally deadly viruses at once.
The Police Riots
I will never forget how the police laughed at the raw emotion of protesters pleading with them to recognize their humanity. As a young man hunched over, pleading with the cops who might as well have been a brick wall. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but two other men were visibly comforting him, one with an American flag wrapped around his hand draped over the other’s shoulder in a show of tender masculinity rarely portrayed in the media, especially for black men.
Nearby, others pointed out a cop who couldn’t help but chuckle to himself behind his helmet and shield. It was this way at almost every location I went to – there was always at least one cop shouted down for psychopathic responses to the protesters. They’d be swapped out with someone else eventually, left to go laugh at black suffering in private. There was never any sign of alarm from their fellow police officers about that behavior.
They weren’t just belittling protesters, they relished the use of excessive force.
I had linked arms with two other white women forming a very short but well-meaning human shield between police in riot gear and other protesters. At many of these protests, there were calls for white allies to move to the front since a cop might hesitate to beat a white person. It’s our white privilege that protects us from police brutality on a daily basis; the least we can do is use that to shield black demonstrators. So long as the concept of whiteness persists and in this white supremacist society, I believe it is my duty to turn that privilege back against the system that creates it. Now is not the time for passive allies.
All three of us are in our 20s – one is perhaps 5’4 and maybe 94 pounds dripping wet (her words). The police were getting antsy as protesters pushed past a barricade to stand closer to the row of riot cops. One standing in front of me was threateningly tapping his thick wooden baton to his riot shield sporting a clenched jaw that gave away how much he was looking forward to hurting people.
Behind us was a heckler of sorts, a young white man who at one point shouted at the cops “look at these girls, they’re braver than you’ll ever be,” and while I don’t think we were particularly brave in the scope of all the actions taken by protesters over the course of even just that day, I appreciate the sentiment.
As the crowd shuffled back and forth, an older woman ended up next to me and she also pleaded with the cops. She had short grey hair and quietly spoke to them saying “stay calm, you have to stay calm, my son is a cop, I know you’re trained to stay calm.” The heckler and I exchanged looks and she implored us that he went into the force to fight white supremacy. I don’t doubt that he did, but the problem with police is that the system, culture and practices of law enforcement are so toxic that they erode away any idealistic intentions a person might have going in.
As the older woman spoke to the police and others walked up and down the small path between the protesters and the police lecturing about the preciousness of black lives, a line of police on horseback approached from behind the cops in riot gear. In my corner of the Western standoff, everyone started coughing — the terrifying thought that not only did I have COVID-19 but everyone there did as well quickly flashed through my mind, but I realized that it was much more likely that something was intentionally or unintentionally released into the air.
No matter that woman’s idealistic view of law enforcement, their actions only showed not just willingness, but glee at the opportunity to hurt civilians. Another feature of almost every protest action I went to were what I could only assume to be snipers on nearby buildings. There’s a chance they were somehow just observing the protesters, but I noticed one with a large bag over his shoulder that could have absolutely held a rifle. Even if they were only preparing in case someone got too close to the White House, it’s telling that only the police half of the protests were preparing for a warzone-like situation.
I knew it was coming when a cop nearby shouted “Police! Move!” and the line started shoving us back. It was entirely unprovoked, but as the mounted police walked closer, it was evident that they wanted us dispersed. The crowd panicked; it seemed like someone else was pushed down and perhaps the person helping them up was pepper sprayed. It was hard to tell.
I had hurt my hip the night before and went to rest on a nearby curb as the crowd thinned but reformed along the police line, now angry at being brutalized for no reason. People were shouting, but there was still no violence coming from the crowd. I found a group of anarchists (you can just tell if you know anarchists) who offered me tylenol for my hip and offered to stick with me as I went alone – which is STRONGLY recommended against. I’ve since been trained to provide support in a more official capacity, and the organizers there emphasized that no one goes alone. But, alas, two of my closest friends are disabled and these kinds of protests aren’t accessible unless organizers take pains to make them so.
When the police gave a rare “three strikes” warning before dispersing the rest of the protesters, I was preparing to leave with my new anarchist adventuring party though we stayed long enough to see the final defiant groups decide to leave. Again, none of us were violent. The group was sent walking down a sprawling path back downtown.
The group I walked with stopped to get ice cream and sit in a park – yes the scary anarchists so maligned by the media didn’t want me to walk alone, wanted to help the other protesters before heading out, then got ice cream and rested talking in the park. They asked what my pronouns are. It’s almost as if the outside agitator myth that plagues these protests with tales of roving anarchists and antifa is meant to divide them, delegitimize the real anger many feel, create a false equivalency between killing an unarmed black man and stealing overpriced products from a multi-billion dollar corporation, and turn the American public against the protests while allowing them to feel morally superior.
While they were warm and tried to make my presence feel less awkward, I moved on to avoid feeling like too much of a fifth wheel.
At another point, a group of activists occupied the grand corinthian facade of a building near the White House and shouted to a hungry crowd leading us in chants in between their condemnations of Trump’s presidency and the creeping fascism and white supremacy it represents.
This was one of the many joyful moments of the protests. Amidst the rage and the hurt, there was also a deep sense of camaraderie and excellence. Here were people rising up. Here is a crowd standing together with a common goal.
Flags were burned, very methodically and safely, and buildings were strewn with “Fuck 12,” “Fuck Trump,” and “ACAB.” As two protesters noted, the President was hiding in a house that was built by slaves – twice.
At Lafayette Square, I was hanging back and just taking in another protest in front of the White House. It was also peaceful. Some protesters threw water bottles, others threw insults, but overall the crowd was preoccupied with chating. At one point, an older woman gave an impassioned speech in the middle of the crowd about fighting hate with love and using the protests to make connections and strengthen our communities.
I couldn’t see the instigating event, but moments thereafter, the crowd started running from the police, and before I could really take in what was happening, I also ran from the stampede. I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was gas or not. We were kettled in, though; awaiting us down the street was a line of more cops in riot gear who may have also been marching towards the crowd, so I followed a few people ahead of me and jumped over some bushes and a small incline to get away from the crowd and duck into the awning of a nearby building.
Gestures vs. Actions
A week later at Lafayette Square, now Black Lives Matter Plaza, the mood was much more akin to a block party. There were at least three ice cream trucks and families coming to enjoy the new mural with little to no police presence. They had put up a chain link fence around what used to be a public park which demonstrators decorated with protest signs and art.
The only difference between the plaza on week one and week two was the presence of police and a few large yellow block letters adorning the road.
But we’re not done, yet. Mayor Bowser of D.C. commissioned a mural to paint “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street.
Because you can name every single street in D.C. after a civil rights leader (and maybe we should), but that wouldn’t account for the material change that needs to happen. Mayor Bowser is also considering raising the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget by $18.5 Million. MPD is also among the top 10 largest police agencies in the country, and they’re not even the only police force harassing D.C. residents – we also have the Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, and Metro Transit Police patrolling our city. D.C. is over-policed. And we’re just one city.
I’m so glad that these empty, pacifying tactics aren’t working. We won’t stop until we reach real justice. We’ve tried moderation; police cameras only serve to capture their brutality. We’re beyond the need for police reform. We need to demilitarize the police and invest in the kinds of services that would actually keep us safe – like health professionals, mental health services, and social workers who can de-escalate and serve victims of crime.
We need to shift our priorities from punishing people (primarily black people) for petty crimes in the service of capital to actually protecting and strengthening our communities. We can’t let this moment pass without revolutionary justice for black communities. Since this uprising started, the police have killed at least 12 protesters that we know of, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and two black trans women – Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells. This won’t end until WE stop it.
If you don’t know where to start, I compiled a short list of resources to share through my businesses, which you can read if you’re looking for places to donate, activists to follow or books to read, or podcasts to watch, feel free to peruse.
- 10 Black, Brown and POC Sustainable Lifestyle Influencers That White Allies Should Know
- 25+ Powerful Quotes on Racial Justice and Anti-Racism
- Stop Paying Lip-Service. Here’s How to Improve Diversity and Inclusion in Fashion, Media and Business…
- Race, Racism and Taking Responsibility For Your Silence
- Rin Models Bringing Diversity to the Fashion and Modelling Industry
- Sustainable Fashion Has An Inclusion Issue
- Communicating Sustainable Living: Expanding the Narrative So That It’s Culturally Inclusive
- Racism in the Time of a Pandemic
Cover image of demonstrating taking the Black Lives Matter cause to Capitol Hill on May 30 protesting against police brutality in the death of George Floyd. Photo: Geoff Livingston. All images taken by author unless otherwise stated.