Ten days of Protest for George Floyd in Washington D.C.
Angered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, thousands have protested in Washington D.C. for ten days and nights thus far. Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was filmed detaining Floyd by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, despite the fact that Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin is being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The other officers present at the scene have also been charged. These actions have not appeased protestors. Their most strident cry now is to “abolish the police.”
Over the past ten days I have reported on a handful of these protests, marches, and rallies. Here is what I observed.
Saturday May 30: George Floyd Protest in the Capitol Shuts Down 395 Highway
Hundreds of protestors in Washington D.C. shut down the 395 highway on Saturday May 30 in response to the death of George Floyd. At the time of this protest former officer Chauvin had only been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and the other officers present had not yet been charged, though they were fired and under investigation.
I caught up with the protestors on Saturday somewhere between the Washington Monument and the African American history museum on Constitution Avenue. It was around 5:30 PM. They had already been marching around the National Mall for a couple of hours. There were hundreds of young men and women of all races marching and chanting as they walked down the road. Many held signs that said “Black Lives Matter.” One young woman behind me sang old gospel songs while others shouted “F**k Trump.” A large majority of the protestors wore medical masks for protection against Covid-19, though it was difficult at times to stay six feet apart.
The protestors chanted various phrases throughout the march from “No justice, no peace,” to “Hands up don’t shoot,” a reference to Michael Brown who was shot in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer.
Many protestors held signs that referred to the death of George Floyd. One man held a sign that read, “Justice for George.” Another held a sign that said, “None of us are okay, none of us can breathe.” Many also marched for Ahmaud Arbery, killed by two men in Georgia and for Breanna Taylor, killed by police in a no knock police raid in Louisville Kentucky.
Once protestors came upon the ninth street tunnel they stopped traffic and entered. Police officers were at a nearby intersection and made no attempt to curb the crowd from entering the tunnel. In the tunnel the chanting grew louder and more excited. The shouts of “Black lives matter” reverberated off of the walls. Some protestors rode bikes, other scooters, but most walked. One woman spray painted “BLM” on the tunnel wall. This acronym for Black Lives Matter could be seen spray painted on surfaces throughout the city. As the group emerged from the ninth street tunnel onto the 395 highway ramp, several protestors took cones and placed them along the highway entrance to block cars.
Once the group moved off of the onramp an entire line of cars that were already on the highway were trapped. Several cars attempted to skirt the protestors, but were purposefully blocked. One marcher attempted to help these cars. “Let them pass,” he shouted to a marcher blocking their way. “Why shouldn’t they be able to drive, they haven’t done anything?” Why should they be able to drive?” the marcher shouted back. The debate was settled by a police car that arrived, not to stop the protestors, but the cars.
The further down the highway the group got, the bolder the protestors became. One man walked along the median. Many cars stopped on the other side of the highway and honked in support. Several people had BLM signs on their cars. Some protestors hopped the median to shake hands or high five these supporters. One care stuck in the lane along the median was not honking or shouting in support. A young woman ran up to the car’s window and shouted over and over again, “If you’re silent, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor.” The driver did not respond. Some people waved and shouted support at the marchers from apartment buildings that line the onramp.
The protestors exited on the ramp leading to Navy Yard. They then marched back towards the National Mall. At this point in the day the protest was non-violent. One woman with a speaker told those around her to keep the protest peaceful.
Her request was not heeded. According to the Washington Post by nightfall the crowd grew to 1,000 and many protestors clashed with police outside of the White House. There, protestors launched fireworks and threw bottles at officers who then used batons and pepper spray to push them back. The Post reports that when a man raised an American flag above the crowd those around him shouted, “Burn it!”
This was the second night of tense protests in Washington D.C. Friday night protestors in front of the White House attacked a FOX News reporter and his crew and threw bricks at police. Similar protests have been happening all over the nation, some much more violent than others.
The message of the protestors was fairly uniform. They seem fed up with the normal processes of justice and believe they must turn to radical means in order to get the change they desire. One protestor held a sign that read, “By any means.” Another stated, “Black People Built This Country & We Will Burn It To The Ground.” A protestor whose face was completely covered and who wore a gas mask on top of his head held a sign that said, “It is right to rebel!” Another’s quoted Nelson Mandela saying “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in he has no choice, but to become an outlaw.”
One young black woman spoke to me as she walked down the 395 highway. “Cops keep killing us and racist white people keep taking advantage of a privileged system,” she said, “I am out here because maybe one day somebody will care enough to dismantle these systems that keep us oppressed, but until that happens we will protest and we will riot, there is nothing else we can do now,” she told me.
One soft spoken young man wearing black pants, a black tunic, a black hood, and a black lace scarf over his face spoke with me as we walked through the quiet Navy Yard neighborhood. He said that he was out protesting as a “show of force.” “This is how many people are displeased with the situation,” he said. He explained that they would keep marching until people believed they couldn’t come out of their homes unless it was to join.
Friday Evening June 5: Rally in front of Police Headquarters
Protestors gathered in Washington D.C. on Friday June 5 to protest DC Mayor Murial Bowser’s new budget which increased police funding by three million dollars.
Standing in front of the Henry J. Daly Building, headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the group denounced the mayor. One local organizer had the crowd chant, “Bounce Bowser bounce.” She derided those who have been praising Bowser for painting a street with the words, “Black Lives Matter” and designating a street near the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza, after having charged the MPD to “hold hundreds of protestors hostage for marching for black lives” only days earlier. Further, the speaker claimed that instead of investing money in mental health support for African Americans Bowser increased the MPD’s budget by millions.
The rally was organized by a group called Stop Police Terror Project DC (SPTDC), Sean Blackmon, a member of the group, told me. “The police already have too much money that is clearly being wasted because it doesn’t work and all it does is empower them to further terrorize us,” he said.
Blackmon confirmed that he believed police should be completely defunded. “That money needs to be taken from the police and put into the hands of the people that have been oppressed by the police, literally for centuries, because the police have their origins in slavery,” he said.
SPTDC’s website states that the group exists to “change DC’s system of racist militarized policing.” The group also calls for an end to “stop and frisk” practices and for the replacement of police with other peace keeping alternatives that come from within black communities themselves. The site also links mass incarceration and other social problems in the black community to capitalism. “Critiquing capitalism is a necessary part of our movement,” the site states.
Despite a downpour that lasted throughout the rally several people spoke to the crowd over a loud speaker that was covered by a plastic bag. One woman read a list of all those killed by police in DC over the last decade. She had the crowd repeat each name.
There was a noticeably absent police presence at the rally. From behind the building’s glass doors two officers could be seen watching the rally and there was a police truck parked in front, but no other officers were in sight.
According to WUSA a march earlier in the day began at MPD headquarters and ended at the Wilson building where Tyrell Hollcomb, one of the protestors, handed a security guard letters to be given to D.C. councilmembers. The letters expressed opposition to increased police funding and the use of force by police. The letters also called for the creation of an efficient civilian accountability process for police.
I have contacted both the MPD and Mayor Bowser for comment and have not yet been given a response.
Friday Night June 5: DC George Floyd Protests Take a Mournful Tone
George Floyd protests in Washington D.C. on Friday night were exceptionally and deliberately peaceful. This was the eighth day in a row activists gathered in the nation’s capitol to protest George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. There was little to no interactions between police and protestors as a group of over 200 activists marched from the White House towards the Capitol building.
As the group marched they held their hands in the air shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Many held paper and cardboard signs that were dripping wet and falling apart from heavy early evening rain. The signs had now familiar slogans written on them from “Black Lives Matter” to “I can’t breathe” as well as the names of people who have been shot by police.
Within view of the Capitol building the group stopped in the street. They linked arms and shouted in unison, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Police could be seen lining some of the streets or following the group at a distance in cars and on bicycles. One protestor screamed at officers as she walked by, but most others ignored their presence.
Once facing the capitol building right before the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania and yards from the Newseum that has a 75-foot-tall tablet of the First Amendment etched on its wall, the group stopped. After chanting and singing for several minutes they laid face down on the ground for nearly nine minutes in silence. Their intent was to symbolize the eight minutes and forty-six seconds former officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck causing him to suffocate. One man held an American flag as he knelt amongst the crowd. Several others knelt instead of laying down flat, their fists to the sky. Towards the end of the vigil one protestor began to cry out loudly, “Lord we’re tired.”
Afterwards several people spoke to the crowd and expressed distaste for Donald Trump and the police. “Whose streets?” one person shouted. “Our streets,” the crowd shouted back.”
Saturday June 6, D.C. Sees its Largest Protests Numbers Yet
Over ten thousand people gathered in Washington D.C. on Saturday June 6 to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Instead of one large march or demonstration various groups planned their own events that took place throughout the city and throughout the day.
The protests on Saturday were not only peaceful, but joyful. There was a distinct difference between protests this weekend and those that took place just a week prior. On Saturday May 30 protestors that first marched through the Capitol and then down I-395 were outraged that the other officers at the scene of Floyd’s death had not yet been charged. One officer on the scene told me that protests over the previous weekend had not only been angrier, but dangerous. She said these protests were far more peaceful.
On Saturday protestors marched with the same signs and chants, but there was a distinct feeling of celebration. Once the largest march arrived on what is now called Black Lives Matter Plaza many in the crowd broke out in dance.
While many did come to demand reform within policing, others used the circumstances to call for much more radical changes not only to policing, but to the nation as a whole. According to this schedule several different organizations took part in planning events. Some of these groups are more radical than others.
These protests were just as much about opposition to the Trump administration as they were about police reform. One group named Refuse Fascism held a rally on Saturday. They led many impeachment protests outside of the capitol back in December and January. Their slogan is “TRUMP/PENCE OUT NOW.” Orange stickers with these words were worn by dozens of protestors on Saturday. Their press release for their Saturday rally states,
An American fascism is here and advancing, wrapped in the flag and Mike Pence’s Bible taken literally—spreading its poison of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and oppressive, fundamentalist “traditional” values.
One of their tweets from Saturday stated,
“We are the force that can stop this regime, millions of us in cities and towns across the country demanding TrumpPence Out Now, and every day shows us even more starkly: Trump and his whole regime must go.”
Refuse Fascism members weren’t the only ones who came to oppose President Trump. One protestor held a sign that read, “POTUS is Racist.” Another, standing in front of the gates that surround Lafayette Park held an enlarged photo of the now controversial moment where President Trump held a Bible in front of the partially burned St. John’s Church. In the photo the president’s eyes were crossed out with black marker. A sign held by a shirtless white man read “We are done with you Bunker B**ch.” A popular chant amongst the protests throughout the week was “F**ck Trump.”
The Party for Socialism and Liberation were also present on Saturday. They held a short rally down the road from the Capitol Building. Their spokesman Sean Blackmon spoke to a cheering crowd about the need to defund the police.
I was able to speak with Blackmon the evening prior in front of the Metropolitan Police Department at a rally organized by Stop Police Terror Project DC. Here he and his group called for the defunding of the police. There Blackmon told me that the issue in the capitalist system is that it values property over human life.
When asked if he disagreed with the rioting that has taken place around the nation he said that he wouldn’t call them riots, but uprisings or rebellions. “When the police say they protect and serve, they are telling the truth, but what they serve is the interest of the ruling class and what they protect is their property,” he said.
The group’s website states, “The only solution to the deepening crises of capitalism is the socialist transformation of society.” One blog post on their website states,
The Party for Socialism and Liberation believes it is not just a few bad cops, it is the capitalist system itself and its apparatus of repression. The police, courts, prisons and the laws that value private property over lives.
Calls to defund the police are growing. What this actually means varies from group to group and person to person. Some groups like the Black Law Student Association focused on reforms like getting rid of qualified immunity for police officers. At their rally one person held a sign that read “We will not tolerate rampant bull mentality in the police force any longer. De-escalate (don’t dominate), help (don’t handle), protect (don’t prejudge), serve (don’t swerve responsibility).” I spoke with a student from the Howard Law Student Body Association named Donald Fryar that was helping run the event. He said that their group was looking for criminal justice reform as well as reform in housing discrimination.
Others however see all police as the enemy. “All pigs will die” is written in spray paint on a monument in front of the capitol building. Another tag on the monument reads “Capitalism must fall” while another states “All cops will die” and yet another says “Fry all pig[s].” One woman walking in the march from the Capitol to the White House held a sign with a pig in a police uniform painted on it. The sign read, “Defund The Police.” Another sign read “Less Police more Housing, Education, Health Services.” This call goes along with the criticisms Stop Police Terror Project DC levelled against Mayor Murial Bowser. They argued on Friday evening that instead of increasing the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s budget she should have given that money to communities that have been oppressed by police.
Many who came to the protests and rallies on Saturday and throughout the week sincerely believe that America was founded on racism. On Saturday one participant held a sign that read “Black Genocide 1619-Present.” Another’s sign stated, “Make America Not Racist For the First Time.” A sign plastered to a tree outside of the White House stated “Racism Starts Here! All Founding Fathers.” A sign hanging on the gate surrounding Lafayette Square explained that the park used to be a slave market.
Blackmon explained to me on Friday evening that he believes the police system in our nation is rooted in slavery. To him, this gives the people the right to protest in whatever way they see necessary. “This country was founded on genocide and slavery so this country and this government has no moral ground.” He explained that since this country has no moral ground and is seeking to kill black Americans it cannot dictate what the proper form of resistance is, so whether it is an uprising or a march, these are all expressions of the same rage. “The state apparatus that seeks to rob us of our humanity doesn’t get to tell us what is appropriate and what is inappropriate,” he said.
As is obvious the spectrum of beliefs among the protestors are varied, but most if not all find their home on the left. Many not only call for a change in 2020, but a change to America’s system of government. Though George Floyd’s death was the catalyst for this movement, it is being used by many groups to further their radical left leaning agenda and to call for change far outside of the spectrum of police brutality.
Sunday June 7: Spontaneous protests erupt in front of the Capitol Building where protestors berate capitol police
There were few planned protest events on Sunday, apart from a group of churches that gathered to pray and march. Despite this, small groups of activists could be seen walking along the National Mall looking for one another or a good spot to demonstrate. In the late afternoon a young woman with a bull horn began directing all of these protestors to the Capitol Building. By 5PM 150-200 protestors had surrounded the Capitol steps on the side facing the Washington Monument. The steps were barricaded by low gates. On one side of the gates were dozens of Capitol Hill police officers and on the other side were screaming protestors. The two were only separated by a matter of feet.
I arrived just as protestors were moving from one dense spot in front of the Capitol to spread out along the entire perimeter of the fence. This allowed as many protestors as possible to come face to face with the officers. I listened in on as many conversations between the protestors and the officers as I could, noticeably all one-sided. The officers stood silently as protestors screamed, yelled, reasoned with, and insulted them. Once in a while an officer would respond to a protestor’s inquiry or the demand that they take off their sun glasses or move their hands off of their name badge. I rarely heard the officers speak. A noticeable exception was an officer that informed the protestor next to me that she had a spider on her mask.
The protestors spent a lot of time chanting. They alternated between “Quit your job,” “Abolish the police,” “Defund the Police,” and “F**ck 12.” In one powerful moment chants were shouted like a round, from “Hands up, don’t shoot to “Get off my neck” and “I can’t breathe.”
One African American woman with a blue scarf around her face and who led most of the chants with a mega phone told me that she was a police abolitionist. She was discontent that education and housing get a fraction of the funding that police departments see. “These are the most funded offices in many cities and localities” she said. “It makes no sense how well funded this militia is and it’s to get military equipment to use against citizens.” She argued that if communities were better funded then there would be less crime. “Once you fund communities… people won’t have to go out and steal,” she said.
Earlier she told police through a bullhorn that she was sorry, but they were going to lose their jobs. She explained that the money going to the police needed to go to healthcare and education instead. “At the very least we need to demilitarize you people,” she said.
Another young African American woman with blond colored braids often defended the particular officers standing in front of her, though she agreed that they needed to be defunded. At one point she told them, you are all probably great dads, but I hope you teach your kids to stand up for what they believe in. She also told them that if they decided to support the protests by taking a knee and then got fired she would “have their back” and speak up for them.
Ciara, a young African American woman that wore a pink mask said she was there because “They are treating us like we are different just because our skin color is different. They treat us like animals.” Her solution to the problem is to defund the police. Her friend said the solution is to defend the whole system. When asked what system she was referring to she could not name one.
While the protests were going on the news came out that the Minneapolis City Council had plans to defund their city police department. Cheers erupted. The girl in the blue scarf turned to the officers and said, “It’s only a matter of time.” Then protestors began singing, “Nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey goodbye” at the officers in front of them.
Josiah Johnson, a retired marine officer who carried on a one-way conversation with the officers in front of him for over twenty minutes said that he was representing the Martin Luther King Jr. side while he sent everyone who talked like Malcolm X to the other side of the wall. He told the officers in front of him that he was going to pray for them. He told me that he wants to see a change in the way the police are policed. He also said he feels like black people often get harsher sentences and there are officers who get away with murder. “All lives matter, but black lives matter the most right now,” he said.
Two young sisters of Indian descent hurled insult after insult at the officers. “If you’re afraid of a water bottle you’re a p**sy and you shouldn’t be a cop,” she said referring to protests the weekend before where police were repeatedly hit with frozen water bottles.
Randy, a middle aged African American man who was protesting with his family was particularly vocal. He and a white man in his mid to late twenties echoed one another as they yelled at the officers, “You can kill black people and get away with it, but God forbid you take a knee.” In a calmer moment they said they understood that these specific officers might not be the problem, but they are still part of the problematic system. “You can understand when we say f**k the police it may not be ya’all” Randy said to the officers in front of him. This did not keep and others from chanting and at times screaming, “Take a knee” and when the officers did not insulting them as individuals and for their jobs.
A woman wearing a V for Vendetta mask screamed at the officers “You all better do better.” Then the crowd chanted “Hey hey ho ho, these racist cops have got to go.” The irony that some of the officers were black did not escape some of the protestors. The white man with Randy yelled at the white officers saying if you won’t take a knee for us take it for him, he said pointing at a black officer.
At one point while standing on the wall Randy turned to two people he saw high up on the Speaker’s Balcony and stuck his middle finger up. “If you’re Congressmen “F**ck you!” he shouted. “His last words to the officers before leaving was “I oppose everything you guys stand for, f**k every single last one of you all.” He told that he and his family came to support the black lives matter movement. “Color doesn’t matter; this is so 1910… I don’t care if you’re white or black, this is about your life story.” When asked what change he hoped to see, he said “Criminal justice reform.” He said that he agrees with defunding the police because black people are targeted more than any other race. He explained that he moved to D.C. from Houston Texas because of racial prejudice that he had experienced there. “It’s time for change, it’s time for radical change I’m out here to support that,” he said.
There were no serious altercations between the officers and protestors. At one point officers approached a group of men standing on a wall in front of the Capitol and the protestors erupted in screams about unlawful arrests, but there was no arrest or physical interaction.
Most of the protestors had dispersed by 8PM yet many promised to continue to come back every day until the police in D.C. were defunded and abolished.
Sunday June 6 Churches Gather on the National Mall to March for Black Lives
Organized by the Anacostia River Church and Faith+Works, people of faith gathered to show a Christian Response to Racial Injustice. For many churches that joined the march, this was their first gathering since Covid-19 restrictions.
In an email to churches Faith + Works stated,
In recent weeks, our country has been flooded with tragic images of violence, police brutality, racism and widespread injustice. There have been many instances, but the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have been impossible to ignore. After much prayer and a desire to be a true gospel witness, a number of us have decided to raise our voices to lament about the evil of racism.
Upwards of 500 people marched from East of the Anacostia river to the Capitol and then the White House. The marchers met in wards seven and eight, some of the poorest wards in Washington D.C.
Once at the Capitol Building’s reflecting pool participants gathered in a large circle to hear from scripture, pray, and lament. One man prayed for the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. “Use this time to allow them to know that you are still true,” he said. As they prayed many in the crowd lifted their hands to the sky or knelt on the ground.
One woman led a smaller group in prayer. “God, the only thing that will make this right is justice. I pray that our hearts will burn until justice is real,” she said.
The attendees, most of whom wore red or carried red signs sang and chanted as they made their way to the White House. The March had a heavy police escort, from an entire fleet of officers on bicycles to an officer clearing the way on a motorcycle. The march was led by two banners, one that said “Do Justice” and another that said, “Love Mercy.”
The signs the marchers held stood in stark contrast to signs held by other protestors I’d seen throughout the week. One woman held a sign that read “Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with God,” another read “Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Still another said, “Imago Dei: Black Lives Matter” and another “Christ’s love compels us.” One priest held a sign that said, “No justice, no peace.” A man in a red hoodie held a sign that said, “Unalienable Rights.” An African American man with a blue medical mask held a sign that said, “Black people are made in the image of God.”
Several people held signs quoting the famous line from Amos that Martin Luther King Jr. often cited, “Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Another woman held a sign that read “God weeps with us” and another “Black Bodies Matter to God so they ought to Matter to the Church.”
The marchers chanted, “Do justice, love mercy” as they walked. While walking down Constitution Avenue they sang “Way Maker” a popular evangelical song. As they passed by a young African American man held up his fist in solidarity. Hundreds in the group also sang “We shall overcome” and as they approached the White House they sang Amazing Grace. There they were met with many wary protestors who seemed unsure what to think of this kind of demonstration. Most just held their signs up and watched them pass by silently.
I asked several participants why they decided to join the March. One man named Will from The Well Community Church in Silver Springs came to the march to stand with his African American brothers and sisters to make sure there is racial equality in the United States. Kevin, a priest at The Church of the Advent, came to speak out in protest against the injustices in America. Jim Hagan, a campus minister at Georgetown University said he came to show that the Gospel tears down the barriers of race and class. “God calls us to be one,” he said. A member of the Church of the Resurrection came because he was saddened by Floyd’s death and he wants the people who perpetrated the crime to be held accountable. Heather Giroux with Citizen Heights Church said she came out because God created all men equal and it is his heart to see equality and justice. Glenn Hanson with Anacostia River Church came to stand up for injustice and to unite faith and works.