For many converging on the nation’s capital to protest the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, the demonstrations of the last week are only the beginning of their fight on systemic racism among law enforcement and in the nation.
WASHINGTON — Anya Colone watched the number of demonstrators grow in front of the White House all weekend from her home in Albany, New York. On Monday, she got in her car and drove 5 ½ hours to participate in the District’s ongoing protests — promising her family she wouldn’t stay past the 7 p.m. curfew.
“I couldn’t sit at home and watch, when I heard that man yell for his mother,” Colone said in an interview, referring to George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man detained by Minneapolis police over Memorial Day weekend following a complaint that he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill.
In a video, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin can be seen with his knee pressed against Floyd’s throat for over nine minutes before he asphyxiated, according to Hennepin County medical examiner’s report. Chauvin now faces charges of second-degree murder.
Colone, surrounded by throngs of protesters young and old, said she was scared to come to Washington at first. But when she arrived, she saw peaceful people.
When she marched, she even witnessed police giving demonstrators water at times — an exchange that was common among protesters who passed out masks, hand sanitizer, snacks and water at nearly every intersection that overflowed downtown.
“I’m not sitting here thinking every cop is a thug just like we’re not all thugs. What I see here brings me to tears,” she said.
Colone was one of the people hit with tear gas Monday after President Donald Trump — swarmed by members of the Secret Service — ordered peaceful protesters cleared from Lafayette Square. The president posed with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church for a photo op, after reports of a fire in the historic building’s basement.
What followed for Colone was a night filled with flashbang grenades and a Blackhawk helicopter flying low enough to dislodge tree branches. A state employee in New York, Colone emphasized that the “riots don’t start until they come at us.”
“I’ve never been so scared,” she said, describing a man who took rubber bullets to the gut, leaving him with raised welts. “Attacking these young people — it’s not OK.”
And delivering remote remarks Wednesday, former President Barack Obama spoke to that fear.
Demonstrators and those voicing outrage at systemic racism have been unjustly subjected to the prejudice for too long, he said, noting the lingering effects of the Jim Crow era, slavery and their outflows like redlining — the practice of refusing loans to someone based on their socioeconomic status.
These things “too often had been a plague and original sin of our society,” Obama said.
Elizabeth Wyatt, a 28-year-old black woman originally from Hampton, Virginia, now lives and works as a public defender in D.C.
Standing before a line of over 25 law enforcement officers forming a perimeter near the Department of Veterans Affairs building, she delivered passionate remarks to a crowd of over 200 that they should no longer “take this sitting down.”
Floyd’s death at the hands of Chauvin is a tragedy that is all too common, she said.
“George Floyd happens every single day, there’s just no video of it,” Wyatt said. “I think anybody with a heart that has seen that video is traumatized and scared and that’s why we’re here. Just to bring change. Try to.”
And she will come to the streets of Washington every day, she added.
This is part of the prescription Obama offered Wednesday. For the ambitions of national police reform underpinning this latest movement to be realized, they must be transformed into policy.
“Reform has to take place in more than 19,000 municipalities and 18,000 local enforcement jurisdictions. So as everyday citizens raise their voices, we have to be clear about where change is going to happen,” Obama said.
It will be up to mayors, county executives, district and state attorneys.
“The bottom line is: I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter online about voting versus protest, politics versus policy,” Obama said. “This is not an ‘either or.’ This is a ‘both and’ to bring about real change. We have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into laws.”
Wyatt echoed those sentiments as the sun beat down on her Wednesday.
“It’s going to start with individual police getting their attention, getting them to realize we’re not backing down. This isn’t just a hashtag. We’re not just going to protest for two days, they make an arrest and we go home,” she said.
Her work as a public defender exposes her constantly to inequities in a system that is supposed to protect her and other people’s rights.
“It’s going to start small with police chiefs saying ‘enough is enough’ and hopefully it will build up to Congress, but it has to start with individual police forces showing they can make a difference,” she said.
That would require significant efforts at transparency, something in short supply Wednesday from officers manning barricades who declined to tell Courthouse News which agency they represented or who ordered them there beyond a generic response of “the Department of Justice.”
Around noon, nearly 25 law enforcement officers wearing various uniforms had already formed a perimeter around Lafayette Square, adjacent to the Department of Veterans Affairs building. Some officers’ shirts displayed “FCC Beaumont” insignia under bulletproof vests — an acronym for the Federal Corrections Complex in Texas.
Other uniforms featured federal corrections insignia but where the agents hailed from was unclear. As protesters gathered in number throughout the day, the cadre from over five different federal agencies — including Federal Protective Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Prisons, the Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Park Police and the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division — continued to grow in size.
Civil unrest in over 140 American cities spanning eight days has not gone unnoticed by federal lawmakers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried and failed to condemn the president’s “go ahead” to gas peaceful protestors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked the resolution.
But plans for legislation centering on the issues that prompted national protest are forthcoming, like a bill by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who reintroduced a bill that had lacked momentum. The bill — which first gained traction after Eric Garner was suffocated by an NYPD police officer in 2015 — would ban police officers’ use of chokeholds.
“We’re tired, we’ve been watching for 400 years. First of all, black Americans didn’t ask to come here. We were taken from our families and brought here and thrown into slavery and a system meant to oppress us. It was never meant to help us. In 400 years, we’ve seen it happen over and over and over and over again. We’re tired. People are tired,” Wyatt said.