It’s a story he tells, again and again, in front of crowds small and large as they march from the White House to the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, up highway exit ramps and past historic landmarks, decrying racial inequity and police use of force.
It’s a story that after nearly a month of nonstop protests in the District and around the country is both a tale of personal resolve — how one young man with no previous interest in activism or social justice has been transformed — and a window into how hundreds of people have been captivated by the demonstrations.
Scott, 21, is among a core group who have found purpose in protest and say they will not be deterred by growing tensions with police or distracted by tweets from the president.
“I come back every day to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves anymore,” Scott, who is black, told the crowd gathered in the middle of a downtown street Tuesday night, his voice booming through the megaphone in his hand. “People like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice.”
Like Scott, there are many who show up each evening to remind the crowd why they’re there. Others never leave, camping out overnight. Staying focused and on message has at times been a challenge amid increasingly frequent clashes with police and daily tweets from President Trump, who has called for demonstrators to be met with “serious force” and accused activists of being traitors, “wise guys, anarchists and looters.”
Black Lives Matter leader states, “If U.S. doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it”. This is Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2020
But, Scott said, the systemic racism at the core of protesters’ grievances has endured for centuries. To effect change, he said, will take time — and patience.
“There is no break from that, we don’t ever get a break,” he said. “And now that we’re here, now that we have an agenda and know what we’re fighting against, we can’t let that die down. We can’t let that go. If anything, I know I plan on staying out here as long as I need to until there is some real change made. However long that takes.”
The demonstrations have settled into a rhythm as the weeks have passed. During the day, small groups of protesters are joined by tourists and families taking pictures, filming videos and buying shirts, buttons and face masks from street vendors who have set up tables around Black Lives Matter Plaza. As the sun sets, the crowd swells — as dozens, sometimes hundreds, descend on the area around Lafayette Square.
Some, like Scott and a handful of others, have formed distinct organizations with names and social media followings that they use to advertise marches and organize events. Others have been drawn to aid work, arriving with trunkloads of food and bottled water to hand out to demonstrators.
Many live in the District, though large groups travel into D.C. from neighboring communities in Maryland and Virginia. Others have come from states near and far to witness the activism happening in the nation’s capital. Longtime Black Lives Matter activists say they have never before seen so many white people and nonblack people of color flock to their cause. They carry signs in different languages. Parents carry children on their shoulders and lift them up to see the front line of demonstrators facing off with police.
College students mingle with working professionals. On a recent march across the District, Erica Zimum, 32, kept pace in strappy heels and a business blazer, holding a Starbucks coffee cup in her left hand and a protest sign in her right. She had come straight from work at Georgetown University, she said, and she didn’t have time to change.
“My feet hurt, but you know what? George Floyd was hurting when that police officer had his knee on his neck for [8 minutes and 46 seconds],” she said. “To me, being here is more important than being comfortable.”
Doctors and nurses have arrived wearing white lab coats and scrubs. Some have volunteered to join a rotation of street medics, who have manned 24-hour triage stations, where they log and treat injuries that range from heat stroke and dehydration to burns, chemical inhalation and blunt-force trauma. A pop-up restaurant called Earl’s First Amendment Grill served hot dogs and snacks to anyone who asked. Homeless individuals driven from the now-fenced-in Lafayette Square have joined the throng.
“I think everyone has this desire to have a space where folks could literally just be free to express themselves, free of the reminders of neo-slavery all around us and that’s what a lot of people thought the purpose of Black Lives Matter Plaza would be when it was established in the first place by Mayor Bowser,” said Seun Babalola, 22, from Northern Virginia.
“There comes a time that you have to go from asking for things — like justice — to just demanding it,” said Babalola, who has been protesting regularly for weeks. “I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. People who have been asking the police to stop killing black folks, asking the police to stop using chokeholds, asking the city to let us protest peacefully. We’re tired of asking.”
On the 25th day of protests in the District, after weeks of peaceful demonstrations and a more relaxed law enforcement presence, Babalola and other members of a newly formed group dubbed “Concerned Citizens of D.C.” were standing vigil in Lafayette Square when a group of other demonstrators tossed ropes and chains around the statue of President Andrew Jackson and attempted to pull it down.
Babalola ran from the park as police launched chemical irritants into the crowd. He pulled out his phone and captured shaky video of the chaos around him. As he ran, he said, he saw officers grab a man and pin him to the ground as the man gasped and uttered the same words George Floyd spoke before he died: “I can’t breathe.”
Babalola, a longtime youth organizer who began leading social justice movements as a student, said it feels imperative as a black man to continue to show up to demonstrate to public officials that issues of racism and policing matter enough to people that they will continue to put their bodies on the line in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
He and other members of the Concerned Citizens group have tried to leverage their presence at the protests to garner support for a list of demands that include criminal justice reform, decriminalizing marijuana, statehood for D.C. and charges to be brought against those responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old aspiring nurse who was killed in her apartment, shot eight times by Louisville police officers.
“It’s crazy to be out here every day calling for an end to police violence only to see it happen right in front of you,” Babalola said. “The [police are] still out here using excessive force on folks who are running away and unarmed.”
D.C. police said 23 people arrested have reported injuries to law enforcement since the protests began. Park Police, who have jurisdiction over the park and the District’s monuments on federal land, have not responded to requests for comment.
Still, the protesters keep coming. Often the show of force by law enforcement has spurred more of them to come out. That’s what happened earlier this month when police launched tear gas at peaceful protesters ahead of Trump’s June 1 visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“I’ve been going to protests for years — in the LGBT community and others — and I have never been tear gassed before until I came out here to say black lives matter, my life matters,” said Dominique Haralson, 31, as she marched past the National Museum of African American History and Culture after leading a protest down Interstate 395 on Tuesday. “But if they think that’s going to stop people, they haven’t been paying attention.”
Haralson, a stagehand from Fairfax City who has been out of work since the pandemic began, said she has found herself at Black Lives Matter Plaza “almost every day.” Though she’s not a part of any one group, Haralson said, she has found renewed purpose in the demonstrations.
She was convicted of possessing a controlled substance when she was 18. More than a decade later, she said, having a felony on her record has prevented her from voting. Every day she attends a march is her chance to exercise a voice she has long felt denied.
“If I can start by changing a couple people’s minds on a daily basis, that’s where it has to start. Then they can go and cast their votes and I’ll have made a difference,” she said. “I feel this particular obligation to get up, get dressed, go back out, stand in the sun, possibly be brutalized and yell until I don’t have a voice because I think about my future son or daughter and I want to do what I can to create a world where they don’t have to do what I’m doing.”
Street medics, who had erected a treatment site on the front steps of St. John’s church called the D.C. Aid Station, lost thousands of dollars worth of supplies when D.C. police swept the area early Tuesday, citing a safety hazard created by tents and open grills on H Street in an area some had dubbed the “Black House Autonomous Zone” or BHAZ.
Leigh McAlpin, a professional fundraiser with combat medic training who helped run the aid station, said in the chaos of that morning — approaching officers shouting “move back” and protesters running down the street shouting warnings of “riot gear” and “cops” — her medics grabbed only what they could carry, losing phones, wallets and, in some cases, their own bicycles.
By the end of the day, the medics had received donations and supplies from supporters. Officials at St. John’s church offered to help replace some of what had been lost.
Several volunteers, like McAlpin, said the interaction has only hardened their resolve to return. A longtime activist, McAlpin said friends persuaded her to join the medic team and put her fundraising abilities to use by collecting donations to bring in medical supplies, food and water.
After days of watching aggressive clashes between protesters and police, McAlpin said, the D.C. Aid Station grew. More volunteers signed up for shifts. Doctors and nurses came down to work for hours after leaving their posts at nearby hospitals.
Three weeks in, McAlpin said, she found herself sleeping in a tent outside Lafayette Square — taking her turn in a rotation that kept the aid station staffed 24 hours a day.
“We started this with two coolers on a street corner and it grew into this big project that we’re now 100 percent invested in and we want to support this community as best we can for as long as this movement lasts,” she said. “If that means we need to figure out another place for the D.C. Aid Station or keep it mobile — walking around the crowd with our supplies on carts — then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Demonstrators say they don’t know when — or how — the protests will end. Rallies and marches have been planned through the rest of the week. Many protesters are already planning for even larger demonstrations during the Fourth of July weekend.
What they do know is for as long as the demonstrations continue, they will be there.