People of all colours, creeds, ages and walks of life flooded the national capital Saturday to vent their anger over the police killing of George Floyd, encountering two very different, larger-than-life symbols along the way — a study in political contrasts along a fractured America’s most active fault line.
“Black Lives Matter” — block letters as tall as the roadway is wide, stencilled by city workers in yellow traffic paint — jumps off the asphalt along the two blocks of 16th Street leading to Lafayette Square, ending just before the faded pastel facade of the boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Steps across H Street, at the edge of a strip of pavement rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza, a two-metre black steel fence, initially erected to keep protesters out of the park, snakes all the way around the entire White House complex and its adjacent buildings, fortified by concrete barriers for good measure.
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Dannielle Brown stood at that juncture Saturday, the walled-off seat of presidential power behind her, and mourned.
“He was a scholar and a baller,” she shouted to anyone who would listen, brandishing the framed football jersey of her son, Marquis Jayden Brown, who died in 2018 after an encounter with police — an encounter no one was there to capture on cellphone video.
“The camera was not rolling,” Brown wailed.
“There’s a whole lot of us out here whose story hasn’t been told, there’s a whole lot of us out here right now in the nation’s capital who lost lives to police brutality. We want change, and we want it now.”
Americans are no strangers to that refrain, which in the past has tended to fade with the passage of time. But a palpable sense that this time is different was evident Saturday, partly because of the fact that black men and women haven’t been the only people on the streets.
“This one was just the last straw,” said Zion Raeburn, a 20-year-old black man who attends Suquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Penn.
“All my life I’ve been seeing this; I was in middle school when Trayvon Martin was shot. There’s been countless others since, and now I’m a sophomore in college. I could have been any of those people,” he said.
“A lot more white people are more informed now, and they’re out here. They’re the voices that are really going to be heard. The American government has been known to ignore black voices.”
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Protesters have been clogging city streets for more than a week, moved to action by the death of Floyd at the hands of police officers May 25 on a Minneapolis street. And while the violence and looting that marred the earliest days of the protests has diminished, their numbers have not.
Huge crowds turned out in force in cities across the country Saturday, and in most cases the heavy law enforcement and military presence, a prominent feature in previous days, did not. In Washington, the soldiers and riot squads that spent much of the week in imposing formations in and around Lafayette Square were nowhere to be seen.
By mid-afternoon, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s all-caps roadway tribute had also vanished under the feet of the massive crowds on 16th Street, where street performers, roving DJs with laptops plugged into portable generators and merchants hawking T-shirts and face masks gave the day a carnival feel.
Separate, heaving masses of people also spent part of the day crowded at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and marched defiantly along on the streets surrounding Capitol Hill, with police doing little beyond clearing the streets of vehicles to give the protesters room to pass.
“We’ll be out here for as long as it takes — as long as it takes,” said Adele McClure, 31, a lifelong social activist and executive director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Even from behind her white cloth face mask, adorned with the words “Stop Killing Us” in black marker, McClure’s frustration and determination was clear as she spelled out her reasons for persisting.
“We’re tired, we’re angry … Every single time we see a murder, we see our brothers, we see our uncles, we see our fathers — we see everybody in those murders. So we’re done,” she yelled, straining to be heard over the gospel music blasting from a nearby amplifier.
It’s not just police brutality, McClure added — deep-seated institutional racism has deep roots in the U.S., and has been holding back African-American communities and other people of colour for centuries.
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“As long as it takes, we’re going to continue to put the pressure on and make sure that we fix and dismantle these systems.”
Floyd spent the last eight minutes of his life lying on the pavement, the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing into his neck, after being arrested for allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill.
Chauvin now faces a charge of second-degree murder and manslaughter, while the other three ex-officers involved — Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng helped restrain Floyd, while Tou Thao stood nearby — are charged with aiding and abetting the murder and manslaughter counts.
Those upgraded charges have done little to quell the public momentum.
“We heard that today was going to be one of the bigger days,” said Serena Lecroy, 20, who travelled with her sister Grace from Annapolis, Md., to attend Saturday’s event.
“Our parents were a little bit worried about the safety of being out here in such a large crowd, and obviously the virus as well. But we figured it’s time, we got to get out here.”
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The sisters, both Caucasian, agreed it falls to them and others to carry forward America’s black anger to make sure that this time, it results in change. Education and information — with the help of social media and hashtag — are a vital part of that effort, they agreed.
The diminished incidence of violence, vandalism and looting after dark will also make it possible for people to keep up the pressure, Lacroy noted.
“I think that’s what we’re seeing today too, I think because it’s become less violent, people have decided to start getting out and showing up.”
© 2020 The Canadian Press