Hashtag activism brings Ferguson to White House


Janessa Robinson stands with a sign that reads “I’m afraid to have a child one day,” Thursday afternoon in front of the White House. – Clinton Yates/The Washington Post

It took 16 boxes to fit 900,000 petitions. On Thursday afternoon, a group of about 100 people showed up in front of The White House to demand action from President Obama and the Department of Justice regarding police accountability in light of the recent police shootings of unarmed African American men. Organized by Colorofchange.org, a group that bills itself as “designed to strengthen Black America’s political voice,” the demonstration was an organized display of activism.

Jamilah Nasheed, (D) a state senator from Missouri, was one of the speakers, along with a student from Howard University and members of the DC Youth Slam Team. There was talk of “moments versus movements,” a popular theme in the weeks following Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Some of the more seasoned protesters knew the Park Police officers out front by first name. “Text the word JUSTICE to 2555-something” the signs read. #justiceformikebrown was printed across the top of the over-sized print page posters. Passers by in matching Duke university t-shirts posed in front of the White House with the sign before going on their way.

“Are you guys here for the action?” organizers asked participants who wandered in after work, unsure of where to stand for the press conference.

This is what hashtag advocacy looks like in the capital. “Can everyone with a poster please help us get started? We need you on THIS side of the cameras, thank you,” Matt Nelson of Colorofchange.org asked the crowd before beginning the program. Action is a little different than Missouri. The battle between tripods of the camermen was the most contentious thing happening here today.

“We’re here to demand justice for Michael Brown, and call on the Obama administration to set a higher standard for policing across the country,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said. “Real federal data collection on police brutality, broken down by race. We need a new and improved federal mechanism for police oversight, that brings about real accountability. And an end to the type of cover-ups, that send a message to law enforcement and the country, that black and brown folks lives are not worthy of due process, protection or dignity.”

A message that nearly everyone can get behind.

One sign in particular stood out, which spoke to the psychological eugenics that police and sentencing policies have done to communities of color in America. “I am a afraid to have a child one day,” it read. The author of the sign was Janessa Robinson, 24. She lives in the District and works as a marketing coordinator. Her explanation of it was simple and and rang so true.

“I wrote it, because it’s true. I see the way that black and brown girls and boys and men or women are treated, and the fact is that I could have been Mike Brown, I could have been Trayvon Martin, or I could have been Oscar Grant and if I have a child, they could be, too. It’s really kind of scary to think about that,” she said. Robinson is from Chicago and came to D.C. two years ago after graduating from Tulane in New Orleans.

As incidents caught on tape continue to pile up, and we get further away from the horrific scene that left a young man’s body lying in the street for four hours, the search for real-life day-to-day solutions becomes difficult. The dizzying array of incidents nationwide — whether it be a Chicago police commander sticking his gun in a suspect’s mouth, a Minnesota man being arrested for being black while sitting, or a Seattle man, arrested after a white guy starts a conflict at a protest — can be overwhelming.

But on the local level what can be done? Starting with the smallest of steps seems key–  andsomething that Tony Lewis, the well-known community activist, decided to try just recently.

Two weeks ago, he and a former Ward 5 ANC Commissioner organized a bike ride between a group D.C. police officers and a dozen or so men, many of them black. At first sight, the photos on social media had an incredible effect just from an optics standpoint.  “It was beautiful to see people from the community, old neighbors, new neighbors, riding together with MPD to show that kind of solidarity,” Lewis said last Thursday at the Black Men’s Summit and Town Hall meeting held at The Temple of Praise on Southern Avenue SE. “That’s how it should look. That’s the message we wanted to send, locally and nationally,”

A basic visual message goes a long way when we’re talking about race.

“As a dude from the communities that went through getting harassed and searched by police since I was 11…it didn’t even bother me, it became that normal, for me to even be willing to do that, besides being an activist, for me to say I’m going to ride with MPD and show that we can get to that point, I think that’s important,” he said of the ride. “From the MPD standpoint, that they know where I come from and say ‘that kid that I’m jumping out on, he could turn into Tony Lewis. When I jump out on him I have to see him as more than just a possible threat. He also could be a possible community leader, possible lawyer, possible doctor.’  That’s my hope.”

Will a bike ride in Edgewood solve this country’s deep divide? Of course not. But every lasting image of solidarity does a little something more for each generation of people who can’t even shake their own subconscious bias after years of very real conditioning.

But on Thursday, as demonstrators prepared to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting, “hands up, don’t shoot,” another image jolted any hope of growth I had that day right out of my system. A white guy, ostensibly a tourist, was enthralled with a particular item. He was staring taking pictures, marveling at the vision. No more than 15 feet away from a relatively large crowd in a full-throated chorus, he was smiling, circling and taking pictures, covering his face in admiration at one thing. At one point he kneeled down to get a photo of an accessory attached to it.

Microagression? Maybe. There’s no way to know. But I still can’t get that haunting image out of my head, with the soundtrack of activism in the background.

What was his gaze directed on? The Park Police motorcycle and the club affixed to its side.

 

 

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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