The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The protesters are dressed as their unique selves — and that’s part of their power

(Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images No T-shirt, color-coding or informal uniform link the protesters, pictured here in Minneapolis. They’re connected by their individuality.)

History is captured in a photograph and so is the pain and anger of the present.

Over the past few days, countless images show protesters moving through the streets with their individuality ablaze. They are suited up for rebellion. They wear masks to protect themselves from one pandemic while rising up in the streets against another. Both are deadly plagues, both are having an outsize impact on people of color. And both of them were avoidable — or at least containable — if only we’d had the will.

No matter the city, the protesters look the same: eclectic, motley, fed up. They are diverse in age, gender and race. They have braids and dreadlocks. They are dressed in hijabs, muscle tanks and ripped jeans. They are adorned with elaborate tattoos and wear scholarly spectacles. They look like college students and soccer parents, the people next door and the neighbors from down the street.

They carry placards with handwritten slogans that rage against police brutality or that bear the name of George Floyd, the black man who died as the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, pressed into his neck for well over eight minutes.

The crowds chant: “No justice, no peace.” For so long that familiar phrase sounded like a warning or a threat. But all along it was a sad statement of fact. There was never peace — even in the sunny times. Just because the rumbling thunder isn’t accompanied by a downpour doesn’t mean there isn’t a storm overhead.

The crowds chant “Black lives matter” because the world needs to be reminded of that. Some people, it seems, need to be informed of it for their very first time.

There’s no cohesion in the look of the marching multitudes, which is part of the deep resonance in those images. Humanity is arrayed in its countless forms. No one is costumed to play the game of respectability politics because the people who have for so long defined the rules of engagement have voided the terms.

The protesters have rough edges, which makes them look decidedly different from the ones captured in the black-and-white pictures from the civil rights marches generations ago. Those men and women were dressed in collared shirts and trim dresses. Age made little difference in their attire in part because adolescence was just a way station between childhood and marriage. Their clothing represented a fundamental optimism that if only the system — the government, our society, the economy — could be pried open so that good black people could shimmy through the crack, all would be well. Or at least significantly better. Everyone wanted in.

To look at those old pictures, it was as if people were always dressed for that moment when the gate popped open. What is luck? When preparation meets opportunity.

The pictures from this new chapter of the ongoing story of racial injustice reflect a shift in intent, a heightened sense of self-determination and an outrage that is both exhausting and indefatigable. Things have gotten better but the system has also been revealed as rigged or utterly broken. Even some of the folks comfortably ensconced inside the system have said so.

Today, the protesters are dressed as if they are prepared to pick their way through the rubble of disillusionment and despair. They’re wearing T-shirts and shorts that can take the tear gas, pepper spray and perspiration. The garments can be discarded with minimal thought, if necessary. The clothes aren’t the kind of message-centered costuming that so often dominates marches: matching T-shirts, color-coded hats, makeshift uniforms.

There are rumblings of race-war agitators, symbolized by their tropical shirts, seeding the crowds with violence. It would make sense that such people would have to find a way to identify each other in a throng that otherwise is united by its humanity rather than racist dogma.

The police officers, indistinguishable in their riot gear, are a wall of helmets, batons and other weaponry. In their uniform line, they are the opposition. With their faces hidden, they are dehumanized and transformed into foot soldiers in what is too often a warrior brigade rather than one of guardians. And then, one reaches out to offer comfort, to take a knee or say a prayer. Every now and then, the dark clouds part.

A lot of the equal justice marchers have short fuses. That’s what happens when a person is at the end of their rope. People are not dressed to uphold decorum. What is decorum but the status quo? There is no single garment that is emblematic of this uprising. There’s no pink pussy hat. No rainbow anything. The face mask is everywhere but it’s a complicated symbol of our fractured politics, which is only a part of a story with breathtaking sweep.

For now, the people alone are a relentlessly powerful message. They are simply dressed as their unique selves. That is more than enough.