Arianna Evans, then 23, one of many first-time protesters who marched last year, crouched in the middle of H Street NW. Her long red braids poured down her back, a bullhorn resting on her knee, as she cleared her throat and began to speak:
“Why should we be afraid of you?” she demanded of the police. “You’re supposed to protect us.”
“Move back,” the officers shouted together.
She tried again: “Why won’t you take a knee?”
Less than three blocks away, Jorryn Campfield, 21, rounded the corner of St. John’s Church, scouring the area for roving packs of protesters and vandals who had broken off from the larger group.
A rookie protester, Campfield had wanted to see the looting up close, wanted to feel the crunch of broken glass under her feet.
Instead, she found medics and other volunteers treating injured demonstrators — a triage unit set up on the sidewalk.
She recognized one of them. Rahim, bent over a young man, pouring water into his open, blinking eyes. The young man had gotten a face full of pepper spray as police officers cleared demonstrators from Lafayette Square.
“D--n, bruh,” Campfield observed. “They got you.”
Rahim looked as angry as Campfield felt, his green eyes ablaze even in the darkness.
They decided to return the next night. She and Rahim, who asked that his last name be withheld out of concerns for his privacy, came back nearly every night for three months straight.
One year later, little has changed on a macro level. In Minneapolis, a jury convicted Floyd’s killer, former police officer Derek Chauvin, of murder, but cities around the country have implemented few of the policy changes that demonstrators demanded. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would create a national registry of police misconduct, ban racial profiling and weaken the rules that shield officers from civil lawsuits, remains stalled in the Senate. More than 1,100 people were killed by police last year, according to data collected by the Mapping Police Violence research initiative. Nearly half were Black or Latino.
But zoom in closer on the people at the center of protests, like Evans and Campfield, and the shifts are radical.
Shy kids grew into movement leaders. Disillusioned college students dropped out. Hardcore protesters stopped marching because of traumatic stress and physical injuries. Countless others were arrested for the first time. Some took new names that better reflect their radicalized ideology. Some fell in love.
“Going to these marches all the time changes you — it changes everyone,” said Shon Simpson, 27, who joined the movement last summer. “It forces you to use your voice and speak on these issues, it forces you to think about others, about helping people, about how we’re all in this together. You realize it’s not just about you, that you need the people around you to be good, too. It’s amazing how many of us are different people than we were when we started.”
The peace police
At 5-foot-1, Evans crackles with an energy that seems too large for her small frame. She’s a fast talker and a fast thinker, quick to laugh at herself or crack a joke to make others smile. She’s known for her signature bright red hair — sometimes braided, sometimes a cloud of natural curls on top of her head.
She grew up in a military family — her grandparents served, her parents served, and she enlisted in the Army at the age of 19. She bounced around a lot as a kid, from Germany to Kansas to Kentucky, before settling at her mom’s house in Bowie, Md.
Evans was surrounded by Black people who would go on to serve in the military or join police departments. She didn’t think all police officers were bad because she knew some of the good people who put on the uniform.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the D.C. region last year, Evans was making plans for her future, preparing to pursue a prelaw track at Howard University in the fall and major in political science.
She had a job at an AT&T branch in Maryland selling cellphones. It was there, scrolling through her social media feed while she waited for curbside customers at a booth outside the store, that Evans came across a video of a White police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd.
She pressed play, then pause. Each minute was more excruciating than the last. She took a breath, scanned the empty parking lot for customers, hit play again.
When Floyd called out for his mother, she said, she began to cry.
“That video changed a lot for me,” she said. “That’s why I decided to go down to the protest that night.”
Hours later, she stood at the front of a crowd and invited police officers to stand with protesters, to take a knee to declare that Black lives, like hers, matter.
She gave interviews to journalists from around the world denouncing the violence and looting of those first few nights. When other protesters began to shake the fence or set off fireworks or throw water bottles, Evans would turn her megaphone toward them and tell them to stop.
They were hurting the movement, she said then, and angering the police for no reason.
“I was the peace police,” she said recently. “I genuinely thought we’re agitating the police and that’s why they’re being weirdly aggressive, that’s why they were tear-gassing us, that’s why they were charging us with their batons out — because of these water bottles and fireworks or whatever. Like they had to be provoked.”
She knew the First Amendment protected her ability to speak and assemble, to march through the public square. She felt confident that as long as she wasn’t doing anything wrong, wasn’t doing anything illegal, she was safe.
Even as demonstrators around her were snatched up by the police at marches throughout the summer and fall, Evans kept coming back. She was stalwart in the belief that as long as she used her words instead of her fists, the police couldn’t touch her.
Evans was still feeling invincible in late October when she went to the D.C. police’s 4th District station. It had become the scene of nightly and at times volatile protests over the death of Karon Hylton, a 20-year-old man who was struck and killed by a van while riding a moped and being pursued by police.
As Evans was leaving a protest one night, she said, she swore at an officer on a bike. Within seconds, she was surrounded, according to Evans and several witnesses at the scene. The police grabbed hold of her backpack and slammed her to the ground. Then someone’s knee was on her back, pinning her down. She spent nearly 20 hours in police custody — her first night in jail. Prosecutors later declined to pursue charges, but the ordeal rattled her.
“I had this realization that no matter what you do, no matter how slow we walk, no matter how many hymns we sing, no matter how many times we say, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ they’re going to target us regardless,” Evans said. “Police are trained to control situations through fear and not by actually de-escalating violence in any way. So once you realize that, you realize it’s not something you can provoke. It’s just what they do, naturally.”
Campfield’s mother was watching the news when broadcasters began to discuss the police killing of a man in Minneapolis. Campfield felt that familiar pang of anguish and rage. Another death. Another Black body lying in the street.
“Seeing everything that happens in this city on a daily basis to Black people is traumatizing,” she said. “The way Black people die in this country is disturbing. I don’t even know how to describe how it feels to see that all the time. It’s just so much.”
Campfield has lived in D.C. her entire life. She was in middle school when her classmates started to disappear. Some were killed by law enforcement, others in shootings around town. Weeks before she would graduate high school in 2017, one of her childhood friends was shot. The two had gotten into Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically Black university in Tallahassee. They planned to go together, to have each other’s back in an unfamiliar state.
But the girl died, and so Campfield went to Florida alone.
She struggled at school, struggled with grades. She ended up returning home and enrolling at the University of the District of Columbia, where she majored in early-childhood education. Then the pandemic hit, and classes moved online. Campfield said she knew she wouldn’t be able to pay attention through hours of videoconferences, so she dropped out.
After Floyd’s death, she watched videos of the protests and riots that swept Minneapolis. The day after the first night of protests in D.C., Campfield went downtown to see what was happening for herself.
She watched as protesters smashed windows and kicked in doors of buildings like the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, where some had spray painted “f--- Reagan” and “Black Lives Matter” on the walls. When she saw a thick black cloud of smoke rising from the corner of 16th and I streets, she ran toward the flames. A car had been set on fire outside the AFL-CIO building. A year later, the sidewalk there still looks melted and warped.
She settled into a daily rhythm. Every day around the same time, Campfield would text Rahim to see whether he wanted to bike down to the protests. She found community at Black Lives Matter Plaza. After years of feeling alone in her anguish and grief, Campfield felt like she was part of something bigger, something that could change the things she hated so much about the world.
She became what demonstrators called a “front-liner,” someone who would stand toe to toe with the police line. She got to know the other regulars — the guys who served hot meals at Earl’s First Amendment Grill, the girls who pulled up with coolers full of water and dry clothes when it rained.
She was arrested in late June, when U.S. Park Police picked her up after a demonstration in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood over the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park — a statue that shows Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation as an African American man in a loincloth kneels at his feet.
Campfield was charged with destruction of property, accused of setting fire to bushes near the base of the statue and held for 12 hours. She denies the charges and is still fighting them.
She stepped back a little after that, she said, became more of an observer, someone who took off before things got out of hand.
“I’m not about to do that again,” she said, referring to her night in lockup.
A new name
After her arrest in October, Evans was picked up by police at protests twice more in the next three months, including during a street brawl between the far-right Proud Boys and counterprotesters. She was charged with simple assault and resisting arrest.
In December, fellow activists who monitor online posts from far-right extremists found Evans’s mother’s address posted online alongside violent threats. That was it for her mother, Evans recalled. She had had enough. She told Evans to pack and get out.
Evans was doxed again in January and March. She ended up moving three times in as many months. She lost her job. She never showed up for those classes at Howard.
Sometimes, she said, she felt so anxious, she could barely keep food down. She struggled with sleeplessness and panic attacks. At her lowest, she said, she wondered whether the price of protesting was worth it.
She started to read the work of linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky in her spare time. She began calling herself an anti-fascist and an abolitionist.
She organized teach-ins and mutual-aid gatherings, where protesters doled out food and other essentials to community members in need, with the group Freedom Fighters — a D.C. organization that advocates for racial justice and abolishing the police.
She even changed her name, adopting Afeni, the moniker of a former Black Panther member and the mother of the rapper Tupac Shakur.
She talks about her former self like an old friend with whom she’s lost touch.
“If Arianna could see me now, boy, she wouldn’t know what to think,” she mused.
In March, she started working as an organizer for the Working Families Party, helping to shape the organization’s platform on defunding the police.
Out in the street, she never tells anyone to stop throwing stuff at the police anymore.
A new life
Campfield kept going to protests despite having a pending court date for her Lincoln Park arrest. At one in late summer, she struck up a conversation with a guy near Earl’s, the food station that cooked up hot meals for protesters. Soon, she said, they were spending every day together. (He did not want to participate in this story.)
As demonstrators began to disband following a march through Adams Morgan on Sept. 5, police officers on bikes descended. Her boyfriend, who had been riding ahead of the march as part of the group’s bike patrol, was arrested. While he sat in jail, Campfield learned she was pregnant.
Fellow protesters set up online fundraisers to help pay for Campfield’s doctor visits, to help her find housing and to make sure there was enough cash in her boyfriend’s account so she could talk to him in jail.
She quit the protests cold turkey in October, found a spiritual adviser, started to channel her desire to burn the system down into building up her community. She attended mutual-aid gatherings and gave out food to those in need.
When Karon Hylton died, she said, she felt that familiar pang in her chest. She knew him. They had grown up in the same part of town.
But she knew she couldn’t put her body on the line, not like before.
From her mother’s front porch, she could hear the explosions of stun grenades and the cries of demonstrators crowded around the police station.
For hours, she sat there, listening.
Two weeks ago, Campfield gave birth to a healthy baby boy with a full head of curly black hair. She brought him home, cradled him in her arms and looked down at his tiny form.
The weight of motherhood has started to sink in.
“My world right now is 7 pounds, 2 ounces,” she said. “The fact that I’m still here, with him, is a protest. And if the revolution starts with you, then the only way to change the world is to change yourself.”
Afeni, meanwhile, is still out in the streets.
Last month, she hopped out the back of a box truck parked in the middle of the interstate on a Friday afternoon and unfurled a banner in the face of honking cars and shouting drivers. The plan had been for a small group of about 10 protesters split among two U-Haul trucks to meet a larger group of marchers on foot and take over the highway together. But something was wrong. The march was nowhere to be seen.
Seconds later, a D.C. police car pulled up. Lt. Jason Bagshaw had barely stepped all the way out of his vehicle before Afeni began to curse him out. When he moved closer, she raised her hand and shoved her open palm toward his face.
“I don’t have to talk to you,” she spat.
More officers followed. Soon, they outnumbered protesters 2 to 1. As they closed in around them, Afeni’s mind began to race. She had just started her new job, she thought, and moved into a new apartment.
“I can’t get arrested again,” she whispered. “No, no, no.”
She looked both ways before hopping the highway median. As a female officer called out to her — “Don’t do this!” — Afeni sprinted toward the Maine Avenue exit ramp.
She never once looked back.