Portraits From A Pandemic: Connecting With Riot Police Through A Fence Michael Blackson is graduating from high school during a pandemic, amid historic protests against police violence and racism.
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Portraits From A Pandemic: Connecting With Riot Police Through A Fence

Portraits From A Pandemic: Connecting With Riot Police Through A Fence

Portraits From A Pandemic: Connecting With Riot Police Through A Fence

Portraits From A Pandemic: Connecting With Riot Police Through A Fence

Michael Blackson tries on his cap and gown when he stopped by school to pick up the garments. His actual graduation will be online. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Among the thousands of people protesting racism and police brutality in front of the White House recently was Michael Blackson, a 17-year-old high school senior from Southeast D.C.

In the shaky video footage Michael took with his phone, you can see rows of federal police in riot gear, just on the other side of the black chain link fence. Beyond the police: Lafayette Square, and the White House. All along the fence protestors are yelling expletives at the stony-faced police. Then you can hear Michael's voice from behind the camera.

"Listen, you guys are human first," he says. Amid all the yelling — he tries to get through to the one officer closest to him.

"Sir! I respect you," Michael says through the fence. The officer is white. He's wearing khaki camouflage, helmet and sunglasses, and what appear to be canisters of tear gas dangling from his uniform. He turns to Michael, and nods, almost imperceptibly, before turning away.

Michael says that moment has stuck with him. He made a connection through the fence, however brief and silent.

"I just wanted to have a dialog, that's all I wanted. But he just like nodded, and that was enough for me."

A still from the video Michael took outside the White House. He called out to this federal law enforcement officer, "Sir! I respect you." Courtesy of/Michael Blackson hide caption

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Courtesy of/Michael Blackson

I first talked to Michael back in March. He had hardly left his apartment since the pandemic started — doing school work online on Google Classroom, playing Playstation 4, bored and waiting for graduation. So, it was a big deal to suddenly be downtown surrounded by a crowd — history in the making.

But things went downhill after that connection through the fence.

One of the friends Michael was with got pepper-sprayed.

"He was like, 'What the f***? What the f***? Like, what's going on?' And then he said, 'A little mace ain't never hurt nobody, they're not gonna stop me.'"

I asked Michael about the context — did his friend do anything to provoke it? But Michael took issue with my question. He said there was an assumption hidden within it.

"I ask you: why is that always the first question — for anybody, not just you. Police are behind gates, heavily armored. They have shields, batons, tasers, guns." His friend, and the rest of the crowd, were peaceful, he said.

After months of social distancing, protesters crowd together in front of the White House. Courtesy of/Michael Blackson hide caption

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Courtesy of/Michael Blackson

He said he hears the same kinds of questions about George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis Police.

"Was George Floyd a criminal? What did he do in the first place to get his neck get kneeled on?"

Michael said a better question would be: "What didn't the cop do to save his life? He didn't get off his neck. He didn't do that."

Michael said when he saw the video of George Floyd's killing it made him sick to his stomach. But he wasn't exactly surprised. He's spent almost 18 years as a black male in America. He said when he's in whiter parts of D.C., he can feel people's uneasiness — they will even cross the street.

The White House, from a protester's point of view. Courtesy of/Michael Blackson hide caption

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Courtesy of/Michael Blackson

"Most white people are intimidated by me and afraid of me, but they don't know me. It makes me feel like an antagonist in my own story." Like an invisible monster, he said. Michael is a big guy — he's 6'4". But he's also kind, and gentle and not someone to be afraid of.

"If you guys only knew who I am, if you guys just see me as a human first."

First Time Voting, And A Mini-Graduation

Michael went to protests a couple of days in that first week of June. On June 2, after participating in democracy on the streets, he participated in democracy in a voting booth.

That night he called me on FaceTime, excited.

"Yeah I usually don't FaceTime, but I got some good news!" he said. "Today, for the first time, I voted."

He pointed to the "I Voted" sticker on his shirt. His first one. "I'm just so excited I voted!" he said.

Some of the class of 2020 pose for a photo after picking up caps, gowns and diploma cases. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

On June 10, Michael marked another big milestone — sort of.

It was the day at Michael's high school for seniors to return textbooks, clear out their lockers and pick up caps and gowns. His mom, Meschel, lined up with a couple dozen other parents on the sidewalk in front of the school, Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia. One by one, the soon-to-be graduates emerged in their burgundy robes.

"When Michael and I pulled up, we kinda looked at each other, and just were like, 'Really, this is it?'" Meschel said.

The real graduation will be online this Friday. But the cap and gown pickup day turned into a mini-graduation of sorts — the only time to get together in person to celebrate. Some parents brought balloons; passing cars honked. Michael wore a yellow cord — he's graduating with honors.

One of Michael's teachers takes a photo of him and his mom, Meschel. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

"I don't even know what to say or think. This is crazy. It's amazing," Michael said, between cheers for classmates.

Michael's headed to college in August, to SUNY Cortland. But he still doesn't know if that will mean packing up a car and driving to New York, or if he'll be starting his college career on a laptop in his bedroom in D.C.

Music featured in this story: "Quit Bitching" and "Summer Spliffs" by Broke For Free.

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