Thirteen years later, the 22-year-old was surrounded by hundreds of people protesting the death of George Floyd as he unfurled a sign in front of the White House. It read: “Justice or Violence: You Choose.”
Over the course of three days, Thomas — a new college graduate named after a renowned black poet — would be tear-gassed, shot with a rubber bullet and chased out of Lafayette Square by police on horseback so the president could pose for photos at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“The reason people are protesting now is we want, yes, justice for George Floyd and others who’ve died,” Thomas said. “But we also want to change our entire system: our policing, our culture, how this country views black boys and girls.”
As police brutality protests continue across the country, many demonstrators of color say they are motivated by more than Floyd’s death on May 25. They are also driven by their own bitter experiences with racist policing.
Behind their face masks and signs lurk stories of humiliation and loss — often at the hands of the very police departments they are now confronting. And some see the protests as a rare opportunity to share their stories.
Emma Mann stood in front of the White House earlier this month holding a sign the 34-year-old had made that morning at her home in Arlington. On it were crammed photos of 19 dead black women.
Some of their names, like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland, had been shouted at protests across the country. But in the upper right corner of Mann’s poster was a face few would recognize: Gynnya McMillen, Mann’s 16-year-old cousin.
McMillen had been arrested in Shelbyville, Ky., in 2016 after a dispute with her mother. The teen was taken to a juvenile detention center, where guards forced her to the ground during a confrontation using a martial arts restraint. She died in her cell, but her body wasn’t found for more than 10 hours. An autopsy would attribute the death to a genetic heart condition, but the family believed it was from her rough treatment.
“What happened to her?” asked a man walking past, pointing to McMillen’s picture.
When Mann explained, he shook his head and walked away.
For some, the protests brought them face-to-face with the very officers they blamed for their pain.
Jeffrey Price was killed two years ago when his dirt bike collided with a D.C. police vehicle. His relatives alleged that officers had chased the 22-year-old and deliberately cut him off, while officers maintained the crash was an accident. The family filed a wrongful-death suit against the city in March.
Earlier this month, Price’s relatives were marching with a crowd toward the Capitol when they spotted an officer connected to the case.
“This is your target,” a Black Lives Matter activist shouted. “D.C. police killed people here in the city!”
A tense confrontation ended only when the officers biked away.
More often, protesters approached officers they didn’t know, but who stood in for those who had wronged them in the past.
As protesters angrily shouted questions at U.S. Park Police officers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial earlier this month, Bryce Cromartie lobbed a few accusations of his own.
“You lock us up for marijuana,” said the 32-year-old African American from Northwest Washington. “You target our communities.”
“I cannot speak to specific cases you’re talking about,” replied Capt. Jeffrey Schneider.
Cromartie explained how two police officers arrested him a dozen years ago on an assault charge. He was later cleared, he said, but the incident soured his view of police.
“Not every police officer is that same police officer you had that experience with,” Schneider said. “I’m sorry.”
At 22, Langston Thomas is the same age as Price when he was killed. It is also roughly the same age at which his father was sent to prison.
Carl Thomas had often clashed with police as a teenager growing up in the District, according to Monica Thomas, Langston’s mother.
“Being beat up by the police when you’re 13 or 14 years old was not good for him,” she said.
They met when she moved from Augusta, Ga., to the capital to attend Howard University in the early 1990s. He was smart and charismatic with a love for literature. When their first child was born, they named him after one of their favorite poets: Langston Hughes.
Langston was still a baby when his father was arrested for armed robbery in the summer of 1998. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years, according to court records.
Langston’s father sent him letters filled with poetry and seemed happy when his son visited. But court records suggest he was struggling.
His parents married in 2006, shortly after Carl’s release, and Langston — clad in white — was a ring bearer. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day the next year, Langston read one of his father’s poems at the Lincoln Theatre, along with poems by his namesake. Soon, Monica was pregnant with Langston’s little sister.
But his father never fully recovered from his years in prison, nor readjusted to life outside. And one day in the spring of 2008, when Monica was at a doctor’s appointment and Langston was outside riding his bike, his father fell from the family’s seventh-floor balcony in Montgomery Village.
“Somehow, as I was going up the elevator from the front, he was falling from the back,” Thomas recalled, saying he believed his father took his own life but that an investigation was inconclusive. “I just remember being by myself for 5, 10, 15 minutes. Then I heard some sirens in the distance.”
It was around the same time that Thomas was handcuffed by the two white Montgomery County police officers and accused of throwing a rock he hadn’t thrown.
“They said, ‘We can tell you’re lying by how your eyes are moving,’ ” he recalled.
The officers put him in the back of their squad car and drove him home, where they asked the 9-year-old to open his apartment door.
Monica was startled to see her straight-A student walk in with two police officers. The officers said they were entitled to handcuff her son, she recalled, adding that she filed a complaint but it went nowhere.
After his father’s death, Langston moved with his mother and baby sister to Rockville, where he experienced another kind of prejudice. He took middle school math classes two years ahead of schedule. But when he asked teachers for help, they treated him as if he were undeserving, he recalled.
He channeled his frustration into his studies, becoming a class president at Thomas Wootton High School. He was nominated for a prestigious Posse scholarship, impressing his interviewer with a rendition of “I, Too” — one of the Hughes poems he had performed for his father.
The scholarship came with a full ride to Grinnell College, a liberal arts school in rural Iowa. It was there that he came to see his father’s struggles and his own in the context of systemic racism in the United States, he said.
By the time protesters descended on Minneapolis last month, Thomas was already back in Maryland — his graduation ceremony and plans to start with the Peace Corps in the fall both upended by the pandemic.
On May 30, he drove his weathered white Pontiac to the capital and joined a thousand demonstrators in Lafayette Square. When Park Police began launching cans of chemical gas, Thomas suddenly found he couldn’t see or breathe. Two white women he didn’t know poured milk in his eyes.
He returned the next day, staying even after the rubber bullet left a gash in his chest, and then again on June 1, when federal forces cleared the square so the president could visit St. Episcopal John’s Church.
When another protester began throwing water bottles, Thomas tried to intervene.
“Are you going to stop me?” the man replied angrily.
That night he dreamed about the protest. But it wasn’t the pepper balls or batons that bothered him. It was the confrontation with his fellow demonstrator.
In the dream, the two young black men were fighting each other when a police officer came up and killed them.
The nightmare was still on his mind three days later, as Thomas headed to another rally.
“What life experiences put somebody in that mind-set where they have that much anger?” he said as he walked through Dupont Circle, where mostly white diners drank wine on restaurant patios. “Who am I to tell this dude not to throw water bottles at the police?”
At Lafayette Square, the crowd of a few hundred was quiet until a young black woman began screaming, “No Justice, No Peace,” sweat blurring the message she had inked on her face mask.
Hilda Jordan was a year out of Harvard University, where she had begun protesting after Cambridge police officers beat an intoxicated black student. Like Thomas, she had had her own brush with police harassment, getting pulled over once, only to be let go after the officers learned where she went to school.
And like Thomas, she felt the protests were about far more than George Floyd. As thunderclouds gathered overhead, she asked Thomas and another young black man to help get everyone to take a knee.
They knelt in the intersection, where traffic lights endlessly blinked red.
“Do your knees hurt?” Jordan asked after a few minutes. “That officer was on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.”
After almost nine minutes, the crowd quit kneeling. But Jordan kept talking.
“George Floyd was not the first black man to be killed by police,” she said, as Thomas nodded. “And he won’t be the last black man to be killed by police.”
Jordan urged the crowd to vote Trump out of the White House in November. But Thomas wasn’t sure former vice president Joe Biden would do anything to break the system that arrests black boys for doing nothing wrong, that imprisons black men until they lose hope.
Of the two Hughes poems he had performed for his father, one ended with the uplifting line: “I, too, am America.”
But it was the other one Thomas had helped his mother recite before heading to the protest.
“What happens to a dream deferred?” his mother had begun. “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore — / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over — / like a syrupy sweet?”
Monica Thomas had paused, searching for the final words.
“Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load,” Langston had said. “Or does it explode?”
Paul Schwartzman, Rachel Weiner and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.