DMV Protest March
In response to the brutal murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter activists associated with a group called DMV Protest organized a march in Washington, DC, around the Department of Justice (DOJ) headquarters chanting non-stop on Friday, July 8. Before the march got started, people took turns speaking into a megaphone. There were about 40 people. Many held candles. The atmosphere was subdued. Although the crowd was multicultural, only African Americans came forward to speak. One man, no older than 20, confessed that he was shaking the day before while interacting with a cop who pulled him over, as they do every day. A mother worried aloud that her son would end up killed by a cop after returning alive from deployment with the US military. There was no anger, only hurt.
But then, the march started. Protesters shouted in unison, “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go,” and “No justice no peace, no racist police” and, “Indict, convict, send these killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” The anger was palpable, but the Metro PD were not concerned with repressing it. They were concerned about providing a safe passage for it. Most of the officers were Black and gave the protesters a wide berth. A few Department of Homeland Security police with AR-15s loitered in front of the Robert F. Kennedy DOJ building, and at least one buttoned up, buzzcut, undercover officer who wore black aviators and curly wires over his ears posed as a protester with a tiny sign and a candle. He said nothing but watched everything.
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There were numerous sweaty television crews lugging 100-pound cameras behind reporters who seemed to offer interpretation the protesters’ message to the cameras without having put many questions to the actual protesters. Maybe, they didn’t need to. The protesters were mostly young people of all races who carried signs with messages such as “I don’t want to become a hash tag,” “Your white fear ain’t my Black fault” and “White silence = Complicity” among dozens of others. There were no kids, no seniors and no families except those who stopped to snap pictures while sightseeing in the nation’s capitol. A red city bus driven by a Black woman honked wildly and other buses passed by full of tourists with their smartphones held aloft recording the spectacle of dissent.
Nevertheless, the protesters wanted to send a message to the DOJ and the White House that the status quo of law enforcement must change. After circling the DOJ twice, the march headed to the White House. As the protesters passed by the Trump Hotel construction project in the Old Post Office Pavilion, they vented their spite for the Republican presidential candidate by throwing water bottles and flipping off the billboard displaying his garish brand.
When the crowd arrived in front of the White House, we assembled in a tight circle and took turns sharing their thoughts in the megaphone while others listened. There were other groups venting their frustration. A few labor union representatives seemed to be camped out on the edge of Lafayette Square. A group of Iraqi people was also demonstrating, but although the two groups were practically touching they remained separate. Black-clad centurions stood on the roof of the White House. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech floated on the air from a distant platform that caused some of the protesters to look back distractedly.
“We gotta’ hurt them,” one man shouted into the megaphone, “not physically but in their pocket books.” Later, a young woman strode to the center shouting, “Blue Klux Klan.” She wore a colorful head wrap and circular shades in square frames with a sign hanging around her neck that asked, “Am I next?” She shouted, “You are an endangered species. Nothing has changed!” The circle now was wider composed of people with their arms linked. “What do we keep hearing?” she asked. “No indictment, no indictment. Does that suggest that Black lives matter?” In response, the crowd chanted, “Black lives matter, Black lives matter…”
Then, a teenage girl with long braids holding a sign that read “Silence = Consent” came forward. “I have gone to sleep crying every night this week,” she began. “I cry for my sisters who will die for no reason. I don’t want to have a kid grow up in a world where his life doesn’t matter. Why do I live in a country where we are treated as lesser than?” No one had an answer. Meanwhile, a middle-aged Black woman who had led the call and response around the DOJ earlier concluded while receiving a hug from a young man, “I’m here doing my civic duty, but this ain’t going to change anything. We did this before.”
“Stop Police Terror” March
The next day, Saturday, July 9, a different protest group, Stop Police Terrorism, organized a march that started at the African-American Civil War Memorial on U Street. Approximately 200 people met there under a banner with the group’s name. The organizers carried two banners and a dolly carrying a speaker system attached to the megaphone to lead the chants. They circled up around the intersection of U and 14th, blocking traffic. Most motorists’ faces showed a mix of apprehension and poorly concealed irritation. One white motorist held a sign of support out her window and another gave high fives to every protesting passerby. Like the day before, the Metro Police protected the space of protest and stood by in a non-threatening manner.
Among the protesters, there was a panoply of styles of dress and culture. There were white guys wearing keffiyehs, Black women with colorful braids and guys with flattops. There was a guy in animal pelts with a drum. One white baby-boomer with a cane hobbled along with a fist in the air. Another guy in a motorized wheelchair weaved through the crowd. The march turned down U Street, and the gentrified diners looked aghast at our angry faces. “Off the sidewalks and into the streets,” the protesters yelled. I saw three people spontaneously join, but most on the sidewalk stood, rooted to the sidelines, taking pictures and video. While circling up at an intersection, the protesters danced and chanted, “I love Black people! You don’t love Black people? What’s wrong with choo! What’s wrong with choo!” The faces of the people on the sidewalk did not betray support or disapproval, perhaps because the question called for reflection rather than an answer.
The protesters turned towards Dupont Circle, where they again stopped traffic, flooding the spaces between cars with our bodies. Then, the march headed towards the MLK Memorial via the Rock Creek Parkway. The Metro Police continued to stop traffic for us without impeding our movement, and the protesters flowed over the hills of grass over guardrails and onto the parkway. Going under overpasses, our voices echoed as they sang old Black spirituals. The people on the bridges took pictures of the sea of signs, mostly Black faces and pumping fists. Halfway to the Kennedy Center, they decided to change course to Georgetown, that bastion of white privilege.
African American clerks in the shops came out to show their support. The marchers walked along the edges of the sidewalk challenging the shoppers to come into the streets, but they eyed us nervously and did not move. City buses were stopped in the middle of the road as they made a circle in the middle of another intersection. The man with the megaphone, Eugene Puryear, yelled, “The system is working as it’s supposed to, oppressing us, harassing our kids!” The protesters answered, “Shut it down! Shut it down!” Then, he said, “They can shoot us, beat us, harass us, give us no jobs, while they are off in golf courses, eating shrimp cocktails, living in Palisades, Chevy Chase, Potomac. We know the neighborhoods, we gotta show up in their neighborhoods.”
After the march left Georgetown and crossed another bridge near Washington Circle, where the march ended. Once there, the organizers let the protesters know about future plans. Jonathan Lykes, from Black Youth Project, quoted Bayard Rustin, “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.” He went on:
Black August was when the underground railroad began. Black August was when the protests over Michael Brown swept across the nation. This august we’re going to have sit-ins and nonviolent civil disobedience.
Black Lives Matter is not about fighting violence with violence, the speaker reminded us. “It’s about the transformative power of black love.”