“I was just in pieces,” she recalls. “That hurt my heart because I didn’t know. I didn’t know he couldn’t read, because the teacher never called on him.”
Davis was born and raised in the nation’s capital. Most of her life has played out within a short drive from the White House.
But when historians scrutinize photos of the protests that have been occurring daily for more than a week across the city — her city — they won’t see Davis’s face in any crowd. They won’t catch a glimpse of her waving any signs or kneeling in front of any law enforcement officers.
That’s not because she doesn’t believe in the causes that have pushed a diverse crowd to march day after day, risking injury, arrest or worse. (We are still, after all, in a pandemic.)
It’s also not because she didn’t want to stand with those protesters, pushing against the institutionalized racism that left a man dying on the street with a knee on his neck and allowed another man to go through public school without learning to read.
The reason she won’t appear in any of those photos is that the reality for her and others in this segregated city is this: Many black people can’t march for justice, because they’re too busy trying to survive the lack of it.
On the afternoon that a crowd was marching from Howard University to the White House, Davis was waiting for a woman to drop off two donated bikes for children who live in the Southeast Washington neighborhood where she grew up.
When schools shut down across the country because of the novel coronavirus, children elsewhere found themselves shut in homes with stocked refrigerators, enough electronic devices for them and their siblings to do their schoolwork, and plenty of toys and outdoor gear to keep their minds and bodies active. But many of the children who live near Davis don’t have computers or tablets to log on to learning apps, or bikes to ride out the monotony of their days.
As a result, an informal network of exchange has grown between a woman who lives in Bethesda surrounded by families who have items to spare, and women in Southeast Washington who know how to get those items to families who need them.
“I finally got a bike! I finally got a bike!” one of those women, Sabrina Carter, recalls hearing a 9-year-old boy yell down the street on a recent day.
“Sometimes I go out there and talk to them,” she says of the children in her Ward 8 neighborhood. “ ‘We bored,’ they say. I say, ‘I know, and I’m so sorry.’ ”
Carter, who has lived in her neighborhood since the 1980s, says she has seen the city consistently neglect Ward 8.
“Our kids over here are very smart,” she says. “You sit there and talk to all of them, and they will tell you what they want out of life. But if a young lady wants to be a designer, what do they have at the library right here to help her pursue her goal? What can you tell her that’s going to help her? I just want them to do better for Ward 8.”
As people marched several miles away, Carter handed out 300 boxed meals to her neighbors.
The woman from Bethesda, Niki Mock, brought them. Mock, a freelance video producer who works with nonprofits, says she arranged to get meals through Food Rescue after she realized, while dropping off bikes and other items, that meals were also needed.
This week, the boxes she brought contained chicken and zucchini. The week before, they held sandwiches and cookies. Before that, they were filled with salads.
None of the boxes, Carter says, went unclaimed.
If you’re still struggling to figure out what these protests are all about, you might be zooming in too closely. You might be so focused on shattered windows that you can’t see shattered potential.
Pull back the lens, look across the District at any moment during the marching and shouting and singing, and it’s impossible to not notice the wide chasm between the comfortable and the struggling. It’s also impossible to not recognize that the divide falls along racial lines.
The mortality rate for black infants is four times higher than for white infants. The median household income for black residents is about $43,500, less than one-third of the median for white residents. In Ward 8, which is home to primarily black residents, the life expectancy is 72 years. In Ward 3, which is made up of mostly white residents, it is 87 years.
That’s 15 fewer years of meals shared, books read, movies watched. That’s 15 fewer years of hugs received from children and grandchildren.
All of those figures appear in a Georgetown University report that was released Tuesday with the subtitle, “An Imperative for Racial Equity in the District of Columbia.” The report links the disproportionately high toll of covid-19 on the black community to “a legacy of inequality.”
A legacy of inequality. That’s what so many protesters are pushing to change. George Floyd’s death was heartbreaking and infuriating. It was also one stone too many tossed on a mountain built from boulders and pebbles.
Brian White, a 25-year-old native Washingtonian, has spent the last week marching. He has also spent it discussing how to move forward when the protests end, because they will eventually end.
“I think what people need to realize is that right now is the time to step up,” says White, who is a member of the D.C. Education Coalition for Change. “I definitely know if we see nothing change, it’s not going to be a good situation for anybody. The young people in this country deserve better. The young people in this city deserve better.”
He is a black man who has seen the color of the faces of the children who fill the hotels on New York Avenue that the city uses as family shelters. When the city tried to abruptly stop a shuttle service that was created to help those children get to and from school safely and on time, White went to those hotels and talked to those families. He then advocated for them.
He is now working on a project that will help more people advocate for themselves. It aims to take young people who live in neighborhoods where civic engagement isn’t the norm and place them in front of lawmakers.
“If you’re visiting a place like the city council for the first time and you’re in your 40s, then we’ve done a disservice,” White says.
He says the protests leave him hopeful that a shift is coming. “Maybe we will even get to a point, “he says, “where local officials say, ‘We can wait to get new squad cars because we know these kids in our jurisdiction need computers.’ ”
Mock, who is white and recognizes that her background is vastly different from the women she now meets with regularly to coordinate donations, says she is reminded of the region’s many layers of inequities each time she stops to visit them.
She met Kiesha Davis at a Toys for Tots Christmas event. They were both volunteering and felt upset that only some of the children got bikes. They exchanged numbers and decided to figure out a way to get more to the children who left disappointed. Mock describes Davis as spending her days volunteering with organizations and helping people in her community — even as she struggles to find housing after she and her mother were “wrongfully evicted” for standing up to their landlord.
“That would never happen to a white woman,” Mock says.
On the day Davis waited at a relative’s house for Mock to drop off two bikes for neighborhood children, she was relieved to see Mock also brought a few meals for her and her 76-year-old mother. The car they have depended on to get food is no longer working.
Davis, who used to work for the airport authority and is on the board of directors for The Douglas Community Land Trust, says her mom has never been homeless. Now, she says, their address is technically wherever they park that broken car.
“The world isn’t right,” Davis says. “It hasn’t been for a while.”
She says she has been watching the protests closely — just from afar.
“I would love to be out there,” she says. “But I’m living in fear of my frail mother dying before we get safe housing.”
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