Despite all the years President Trump has spent sowing racial discord for political gain, nearly 1,000 demonstrators of all races showed up at the White House gates Sunday and Monday — their very presence making for a sharp rebuke of the man and his methods.
Trump was reportedly so concerned about the ferocity of the demonstrations that started in the city Friday that he was taken to a bunker in the basement of the White House as a safety precaution.
Bronze that moment.
Among veterans of civil rights protests, there is appreciation for the amount of work it takes to create and sustain interracial alliances. Do not take them for granted, nor allow the smoke and flame of riots instigated by others to obscure the importance of what has been achieved.
If we ever get focused on making systemic changes to what ails this country, the alliances will be indispensable.
“The fact that people of all races, creeds and colors came out to say, ‘We are not going to be silent, we are not going to stand down,’ inspires hope,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, which is organizing low-income people to fight economic oppression. “It matters that people have not become numb to the suffering of others. Even if they can’t make immediate change, they are refusing to give up their humanity.”
Timothy Jenkins, a civil rights activist and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, also applauded the protesters. The D.C. resident and Howard Law School graduate was in the city during the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“I’m encouraged that a large number of white youngsters are participating in the demonstrations,” he said. “It’s not the burden of black people alone to fight to end oppression. Poor whites are being affected along with poor blacks. And we need all the help we can get.”
Parisa Norouzi, co-founder of Empower DC, which organizes low-income residents in their fight to keep from being displaced by gentrification, concurred.
“I’m hopeful, in the sense that inaction is one of our biggest problems,” she said. “Whenever people are moved to take action, that is very positive.”
And yet, when it comes to stopping police and vigilantes from killing unarmed black people, we appear to be no closer to answering the question than we were after Trayvon Martin’s death near Orlando in 2012 or Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
In recent weeks there have been two police killings of unarmed black people — Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ahmaud Arbery, also black, was shot and killed in February as he jogged down a residential street in Brunswick, Ga., by a white man who said he thought Arbery was a burglar. And, adding insult to injury, a white woman in New York recently called 911 and lied to police that a black man was threatening her after he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Fortunately, he recorded the incident on his cellphone.
It’s a wonder that black and white people have been able to come together at all.
And still, what happens after such incidents has become all too predictable.
If it happens to be caught on video, the killing is posted on social media and goes viral. Protests ensue. Politicians quell the anger with promises. On rare occasions, the bad cop goes to jail.
However, not much generally happens in these cases unless there is video evidence. Which means that unless we are shocked, fueled by high doses of anger and outrage, we seem incapable of staying focused on the problem.
Barber believes that is changing. More people are becoming aware of the corrosive effects of injustice, racism and greed on American society, he says.
“They recognize that the Trump administration couldn’t care less that front-line health-care workers don’t have personal protection equipment — whether they are black or white,” Barber said. “They see people becoming poor overnight, black and white, after losing their jobs because 80 percent of the [coronavirus] rescue money went to corporations.”
Worst of all are the police killings.
“They saw a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man even after he was unconscious,” Barber said. “It reminded me of how hunters pose with a bear that they have killed, knelt down on the prey and posed for a picture. People saw that, and they were rightly appalled.”
Jenkins, who is a lawyer, says the best way to make the systemic changes that are needed is through education — a system that he acknowledges needs changing as much as any,
“It’s critically important that our American history curriculum be modified, starting with primary- and secondary-school students,” he said. (He serves on the board of Teaching for Change, a national nonprofit based in the District that promotes social change through education.)
“Our youth must be exposed to the facts about America instead of the myths,” he said. “They need to put law enforcement in context and understand that police are doing nothing more than following the diktats of society — which is to protect privilege and property, not individual rights. You have to know what you’re dealing with before you can change it.”
An election is just months away, and there is no legislation to speak of that addresses state-sponsored killings. No plan, just sporadic protests, more vows to restore “law and order,” and then silence.
Until the next video. Unless the coronavirus comes roaring back.
Norouzi said it helps to take a long view — systemic change never happens overnight.
“The protests are just punctuation marks in a long run-on sentence,” she said. “It may take a lifetime to address these problems, maybe longer. But that’s how changes are made — people working hard for a long time.”
Hopefully this diverse new generation of activists will have more success.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.