I've been on the frontlines. How have you been doing your part? - Technical.ly DC

Civic

Jun. 2, 2020 6:48 pm

I’ve been on the frontlines. How have you been doing your part?

We're experiencing civil unrest due to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. I've spent the last three days and nights out at protests in D.C. Here's my experience.
Technical.ly DC Market Editor Michelai Graham peacefully protesting on June 1.

Technical.ly DC Market Editor Michelai Graham peacefully protesting on June 1.

(Photo by Arriyonna Allen)

George Floyd’s death was the icing on the cake that nobody wants to eat.

Before I get into my experiences these past few days, it’s important you all know how I feel as a Black woman leading Technical.ly DC’s editorial coverage in the District: Black Lives Matter. My life matters and so did the lives of the Black Americans lost to police brutality. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted but the work has just begun.

My people have spent countless years protesting the injustice of Black Americans being killed at the hands of many different individuals. It’s sad to say that I’m beginning to lose count of the deaths at this point — but I distinctly remember the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was brutally murdered by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The way this case unfolded, and Zimmerman ultimately being set free, took a toll on this nation in a tremendous way. This senseless killing was the first case of its kind that I really tuned in to as an adult since I was a freshman at Michigan State University at the time, and what it showed me is that as a Black American, my life is not valued as much as my white peers.

A trend of killing Black Americans has sadly continued since then. I know you’ve heard them before, say their names:

Eric Garner.

Michael Brown.

Tamir Rice.

Sandra Bland.

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Philando Castile.

Stephon Clark.

What these six Black Americans above have in common is the fact that they were all murdered by police officers who were otherwise sworn to protect them. Rest in peace to all of them and the many more who have lost their lives in similar cases.

We’re experiencing civil unrest now due to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. But don’t forget, we’re still asking for answers surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. My community is suffering but alongside hundreds of District residents, I’ve spent the last three days and nights out at protests here.

I attended these protests as a resident of the nation’s capital, not as a journalist — so I thought. As I was out there, I often found myself documenting moments via pictures and videos to keep as memory but in every part of my being, I am a storyteller at heart.

My experiences each day differed. I witnessed some peaceful protests and demonstrations, I’ve seen cars and buildings get set on fire. and I’ve seen how differently the events of each days changed from sun up to sun down. Above all, the aggressive treatment of protesters by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has been disgusting and disheartening to witness and be a part of.

Saturday, May 30

Black Lives Matter DC’s car caravan moving protest on May 30. (Photo by Michelai Graham)

On Friday, I was too emotionally drained to protest, so I instead drowned myself in news about the surrounding events beginning to ensue. This motivated me to come up with a plan of action to do my part. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) DC collective organized a moving protests from our cars, which not only allowed us to socially distance, but we were able to move the protest through different parts of the District. After meeting up at a Safeway in Northeast D.C. around 4 p.m., the protest was routed westbound on Benning Road NE with an overwhelming amount of cars. BLM made sure we all followed in place and MPD was helping direct traffic as well. It was a peaceful start to a tumultuous day.

Participants in the protest hung out of their cars with protest signs; some played music while others took photos. Often, cars would join right into the protest off the street. Ultimately, BLM led us to the White House, where another collective, Freedom Fighters DC, was also protesting. At this point, we were left to stay and protest at the White House at our own expense, and I did just that.

The event stayed peaceful for the most part, until the sun went down. Then, anyone standing on the frontlines could see protestors throwing water bottles, rocks and even e-scooters over the gates toward law enforcement. At the same time, left and right, officers were pepper spraying protesters for minuscule reasons.

One instance that stuck with me the most was an interaction I witnessed between an Asian protester and a white police officer. This officer was visibly taunting protesters, while other officers stood still like robots. He would often say snide remarks like, “Would you like some of my riot gear?” when water bottles aimed at officers would incidentally hit protesters from behind. But when the Asian protester spit on the officer, we saw more officers line up behind one another, and before we knew it, MPD was pushing us back with their riot shields and shortly after, MPD started throwing mini bombs that exploded with a substance similar to pepper spray.

All hell broke loose after this.

Protesters became angered. Bricks were being thrown. More officers arrived with guns loaded with rubber bullets. Here’s one found rolling on the ground for context of what MPD is using:

A rubber bullet used by MPD. (Photo by Michelai Graham)

Ouch, right? Since Saturday, I’ve acquired four wounds on my legs due to these rubber bullets. I have not thrown one rock, nor one water bottle. I haven’t vandalized anyone’s property, yet I’m being treated this way. That’s the issue. I understand MPD is trying to disperse these protests and demonstrations, but 1.) What was the reason? 2.) How do you decide they to harm? and 3.) What about freedom of speech?

Regardless, if these wounds are what I have to suffer to see my people liberated, I’ll continue to march in the streets until my last days.

Words on a wall near the White House: “Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?” (Photo by Michelai Graham)

As us protesters tried to stand our ground, we were tear gassed. A brave woman standing near me picked the canister up and threw it back toward police. An uproar of joy rang through the protest crowd, but within seconds we all were suffering from the lingering gas. This is a pain I never felt before as my breathing was stifled and I couldn’t open my eyes for more than a second. Someone yelled to me to “just breathe” and stop panicking so I did just that. I almost went into my meditation state and then my eyes opened again. I headed home around 11 p.m. after this.

This is America.

Sunday, May 31

Protest at the White House on May 31. (Photo by Michelai Graham)

Sunday was pure chaos.

I arrived at the protest a little after 10 p.m., which was late considering this is the first night Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a curfew of 11 p.m. for the District. The majority of protesters came with rage, as they should. A Black man is choked to death in Minneapolis as people watched, yet we have to go to bed early? It still doesn’t make sense to me. No matter how much looting ensues, there has to be a better resolution.

There was a large fire brewing in front of the barricades separating protesters from the police officers with several folks throwing anything and everything within reach into the pit.

As this fire continued to burn, a shed nearby went up in flames. Enraged protesters knocked down street signs and lights and tore flags off of nearby buildings. Still, no police officers interfered much yet.

They didn’t interact with protesters much until the curfew grew closer. As it did, officers split the protest crowd, with about 75% of people on one side, and 25% on the other. I was a part of the smaller group, which was quickly moved out of the area — even though we were peacefully kneeling — where we soon connected and met with the larger group. This group was consistently pushed back and hit with pepper spray bombs. When I got closer to the frontline, police officers began releasing bombs that ejected small pellets. These, too, hurt and left wounds.

As I was walking back to my car near midnight as the protest dispersed, one phrase stuck with me: Lead with love. Imagine: If police officers didn’t come to these protests equipped in riot gear, would a riot break out? If these officers were able to speak back and hold a dialogue, would that make these events any better?

If you come to me on the offense, I feel the need to defend myself.

Monday, June 1

Protesters marching on past curfew in D.C. on June 1. (Photo by Michelai Graham)

I reached the White House around 4 p.m. and I marched for more than 15 miles and for nearly five hours past the 7 p.m. curfew. This was the most peaceful day of protesting, outside of MPD pushing protesters back at the same time Donald Trump walked to St. John Church to take a photo after it suffered from a basement fire the night before. Very weird.

Around 6:30 p.m., the pepper spray bombs began to fly. This was the earliest MPD attempted to disperse protesters, but we’re stronger together. As protesters began to find each other, we began to march throughout the streets of D.C., touching many roads from the monuments, through U Street, Chinatown and others. We were surrounded by MPD the entire time, who didn’t have a clue where we were headed outside of following our lead — how ironic is that? Shoutout to the church near M Street NW that stayed open for protesters to stop for bathroom breaks, water and snacks. Those were the only breaks we took besides taking a knee a few times to catch our breath.

As we moved through Chinatown, we were met by two military helicopters that hovered over us for some time at the intersection of 5th St and E St NW. They left and came back at least twice before the march was moved up E Street toward the White House and dispersed in many different directions.

This is where I broke off and headed home a little after midnight. But my experience from this night isn’t the only one. As I was peacefully protesting for most of the night, some peaceful protesters were kettled on Swann St NW Logan Circle around 9 p.m., and some brave residents opened their homes to shelter them from police overnight. Ultimately, some folks also still got arrested.

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Between Floyd, Taylor and Arbery, these deaths have been haunting me more than usual. The continuous execution of Black people has ignited a conversation we thought we shouldn’t be having in 2020: Racism is alive and thriving in the worst ways possible. These Black Americans getting murdered look like me. If you find yourself questioning why we are in the streets protesting, or why we continue to knock on the gates of the White House, check your privilege. Realize that we all bleed the same blood, we cry the same tears, we breathe the same air, yet some people think Black Americans don’t have the right to do so. All lives won’t matter until Black Lives Matter. It’s been a movement, but it needs to become a reality.

Though I’ve been marching and protesting, I’m just one person doing my part. I am a vessel and this is what I was charged to do.

Whether you’re on the frontlines, coordinating supplies behind the scenes for protesters, donating funds from afar, or whatever it may be, please do your part. There’re many ways to participate in this revolution, and that goes for my fellow Black brothers and sisters, as well as allies. Do your part. As much as we need ourselves, the Black community needs you.

And to anyone continuously feeling down or unmotivated, take care of yourself but keep fighting in whatever way seems fit. Our work won’t go unnoticed this time. We cannot allow it to.

Finally, if you don’t know where to start, here are some resources:

  • Follow Black Lives Matter DC and Freedom Fighters DC on Instagram and Twitter for updates on protests and demonstrations. For other updates, sign up for AlertDC so you can get updates on what’s going on in the city from crime to demonstrations and construction.
  • Donate medical supplies, food, water and other helpful materials for protesters to Freedom Fighters DC. Refer to their social media channels for updates on where to donate or volunteer.
  • Sign a petition in support of police reform.
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