WASHINGTON (CN) — They would flow down every avenue to kneel or be silent. They would cry. They would scream. They would chant or they would sing. In the nation’s capital, the streets overflowed this weekend with the largest demonstrations yet to unfold in response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.
Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police has sparked protest against police brutality in over 140 American cities. Derek Chauvin, who is seen in a video of the arrest with his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, faces second-degree murder charges — which in Minnesota carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane, officers who assisted Chauvin in Floyd’s detainment, face aiding and abetting murder charges.
By 2 p.m. Saturday, thousands amassed in the newly-named plaza at 16th St. NW outside the White House, now renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in respect to the movement after a directive by Mayor Muriel Bowser Friday.
Bowser also emblazoned the group’s rally cry and symbol against police brutality and systemic racism on the street — the slogan was painted by city maintenance workers on two blocks leading to the White House’s north face.
Black Lives Matter organizers called the move “performative and a distraction,” from Bowser’s dodging of demands to decrease the Metropolitan Police budget, which in May called for $45 million in additional funding.
On Saturday night, Black Lives Matter activists painted an inscription of their own near St. John’s Church. Altering the etching of the district’s flag near the end of the slogan to resemble an equals sign, protesters drawing synonomity with their rally cry and to “Defund the Police.”
Long before the sun set however, demonstrators followed a bucolic path to the Lincoln Memorial, scene of many a Civil Rights movement before Saturday’s latest addition to a seemingly-endless struggle for human equality.
Cutting across a thicket adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on foot, thousands finally gathered at the monument enshrining forever the 16th President’s place in the “hearts of the people for whom he saved the union.”
There they knelt or sat before black orators who called for a continuation of the fight in the days and weeks ahead, in most cases “as long as it would take” to achieve demands to defund and demilitarize the police.
Just days before, throngs of protesters were often and quickly outnumbered by police during a scramble on 21st and Constitution Avenue which ended in quick bursts of pepper spray.
Saturday, however, cut a stark contrast as D.C. Metro Police instead directed traffic, stopping for demonstrators rather than peppering the thousands surging Henry Bacon Drive, allowing masses to move unencumbered — protesters passing out snacks, water or first aid as necessary.
They moved through the streets chanting “No Justice, No Peace” or booming choruses of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” when squad cars passed. After surging uphill, led by a lone man on a motorbike heralding a black liberation flag riding block-for-block with a lone Metropolitan Police officer on a motorcycle, activists stood together at the Institute of Peace calling for unity, autonomy and representation.
A man seeking justice and equal representation who wished to remain anonymous protested near the White House late Saturday, telling Courthouse News that George Floyd’s death disgusted him beyond measure.
Describing his panic attacks caused by what he expressed as the burden of merely existing as a black man in America and being forced to witness lynchings on television or online, he was exasperated.
“Another nigga got killed by the police and that was on Memorial Day. I am here because a man was lynched. I am here because a man was lynched and it was copyrighted, watermarked and broadcast into people’s homes, that’s not fucking fair. CNN, Facebook, Twitter, all of you undermining instigating ho-bags to pay for these people’s bail, you incited them to riot. Yes, a man died. Yes, occasionally you inform us, but at what cost? ” he said. “You talk about the nation is burning, what about my soul?”
The man’s horror stemmed from his assault by a police officer last October, he said. Following a 15-hour shift laying tile and planning to take the train home, he purchased a farecard which wouldn’t scan at a turnstile.
“‘The machine don’t make no mistakes,’” the protester recalled a nearby police officer’s remark to him before, he alleged, he was assaulted and hospitalized with fractured ribs and later charged with theft over $50.
According to the D.C. Policy Center, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority expanded funding for fare enforcement in recent years though the D.C. council only recently decriminalized fare evasion. In New York, studies from nonprofits such as the Community Service Center found wide racial disparities in enforcement efforts, some of which end in situations where young unarmed black men have guns drawn on them for allegedly hopping fare.
Before descending toward the Washington Monument, the young man in Washington on Saturday said his demands were simple.
“Stop marginalizing people of color. Stop marginalizing humanity. Treat people with respect,” he said.
Tanuj Deora, a 47-year-old-executive for a software company, appeared in Washington brandishing a flag turned upside down — the U.S. military code for emergency or distress.
He brought his family to protest “the same thing that brought everybody else down here,” he said.
“We have lots of problems, this country’s always had lots of challenges. I think we need to take the opportunity now that everyone is really paying attention and see if we can make some real progress on the many challenges this country faces, because we really need them,” he said.
Speaking to the necessity of looking at the protests from a “big picture” perspective, Deora continued: “We’ve got some challenges with policing, we’ve got some challenges with racial inequality. Let’s go ahead and take the tragedy and turn it into something positive. That’s part of it.”
Deora also was incensed at President Donald Trump’s order to use tear gas on citizens exercising their First Amendment right six days earlier.
“I first came to protest on Tuesday and that was very specifically in response to what happened in Lafayette. The fact that peaceful protesters — regardless of what the reason for it was — peaceful, law abiding protesters were attacked by federal government police, was just completely unacceptable,” he said. “That’s why the flag is upside down, yeah. It’s harder to imagine a clearer violation of the First Amendment than that and it’s the First Amendment for a reason, right?”
Calling it “the most stark, vicious crime against the Constitution,” Deora, with his daughters nearby, said what has happened “to our brothers and sisters” over the last few months and for “hundreds of years” was a crime against “individual humans now coupled with a crime against the Constitution.”
“I think that’s unacceptable,” he said before taking off toward the White House, his upturned flag flapping in a hot breeze.