The Protesters In Black Lives Matter Plaza Want You To Know They're Still There Numbers have dwindled, but a committed group remains. "We're doing this because we actually want change, and we are not afraid to get arrested," one activist said.
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NPR logo The Protesters In Black Lives Matter Plaza Want You To Know They're Still There

The Protesters In Black Lives Matter Plaza Want You To Know They're Still There

Mahadi Lowal (right) and other protesters sit outside the D.C. Superior Court building on July 8, waiting for their friends to get out of jail. Jenny Gathright/WAMU hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU

It's Wednesday, July 8, and the scene outside D.C. Superior Court is a mix of exhaustion and camaraderie. A group of about 15 protesters is doing what they call "jail support," waiting for fellow activists who were arrested and jailed overnight to be released.

When someone walks out of the concrete tunnel from the court building, the group erupts in cheers. They greet their weary friends with water and Subway sandwiches.

"They're my family," said Lindsay, referring to the friends she has made at the protests. "I would do anything for any one of these people that are over here."

Lindsay, who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, is originally from South Dakota but now lives in Germantown. The 21-year-old said she's been coming to protests in front of the White House since they began in D.C. at the end of May. At this point, Lindsay and others have been protesting and occupying the areas in front of Lafayette Park, in what is now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza, for nearly 50 days. But the friends who joined her for those first protests stopped coming, she said, "because shit is scary."

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Police have arrested at least 470 people in connection with protests in D.C. since the end of May. Many of those arrests came during the first week of demonstrations. On the night of Monday, June 1 and the early morning hours of June 2, police arrested 289 people. That was the same night that the city strictly enforced a 7 p.m. curfew, military planes flew low over protesters in what aviators have called a "show of force," and the Metropolitan Police Department boxed in hundreds of protesters on Swann Street Northwest, arresting some and forcing others to flee into the homes of strangers who offered to shelter them.

Protesters said that aggressive policing has continued since those first volatile days, as police have cleared their encampments along H Street and the city has imposed new restrictions on where they can exercise their First Amendment rights. As they have continued their weeks-long demonstration, the protesters have bonded over a shared commitment to persist in the face of what they interpret as concerted police intimidation.

"I just can't sit back and let them win like that," Lindsay said. "All of the people that are here [outside D.C. Central Cell Block] felt the same way, and we've all sort of formed a family around that."

"It's important that we stay out there, because they think this generation is just doing it for clout, doing it for the trend," said Heem, a 23-year-old activist who has been protesting nightly since the end of May. "Oh, no. We're doing this because we actually want change, and we are not afraid to get arrested."

Heem, who also declined to share his full name for privacy reasons, spoke with WAMU/DCist right after he was released from jail on July 8. He was among 11 people arrested the night before — and he was "no-papered," which means that his charges were dropped. Four of the 11 people police arrested that day in connection with protests were ultimately charged with crimes, the Washington Post reported.

Heem said the altercation that led to his arrest centered around H Street, in front of Lafayette Park.

H Street, in particular, has been a flashpoint in recent weeks as police have cleared protester encampments in an effort to keep the street clear for traffic. Street medics said they lost thousands of dollars worth of supplies when police used pepper spray to aggressively clear their setup in front of St. John's Episcopal Church at the end of June. A group of activists who ran a free cafe for protesters said they have been repeatedly targeted by police efforts to clear them from the streets. The activists, who call themselves Earl's First Amendment Grill, reported serving up to 500 free meals a day to people in the plaza at their peak.

MPD has confirmed its use of pepper spray to clear encampments. Wayne Turnage, D.C.'s deputy mayor for health and human services, told DCist at the end of June that it was a "serious concern if [people] are staying in tents in the middle of the road," so his office deployed their interagency team to clear them.

Earl's First Amendment Grill has been grilling and handing out free food during protests in D.C. They have also been camping in Black Lives Matter Plaza, and say they have lost many supplies as police have cleared their encampment in front of the White House. Jenny Gathright/WAMU hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU

In a video he sent WAMU/DCist of his arrest last Tuesday, Heem speaks to a lieutenant at the corner of 16th and H streets Northwest, asking why he can't protest in the street like people have been across the country. Suddenly, the officer Heem is speaking with and another officer behind him grab him. Soon after that, a group of about eight officers tackles Heem, pulling him over a concrete barrier before pinning him to the ground.

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"I'm limping a little bit, but I'm alright," Heem said. "I'm a boss. But yeah, they just threw me over the little concrete barriers."

While Heem may be alright, the group of long-haul activists are growing increasingly frustrated with their treatment by police.

Mahadi Lowal, a 26-year-old protester, said he felt like MPD was using tactics of intimidation against them "to make us feel defeated and just keep attacking us and picking us off one by one."

"It's really frustrating and it's just a little demoralizing, watching my colleagues just get arrested and taken away and just almost outright kidnapped by the police, held overnight," Lowal said. "They are held overnight and released with no charges, which just begs the question of why they were arrested in the first place and why we have to go through this process."

Lowal, who has been helping organize protests throughout the summer, regrets not being at the plaza for more of the night of those 11 arrests. He feels like he could have prevented some of them from happening. There is often tension in the plaza between protesters who tend to antagonize police more, and others who want to keep the peace.

"I try to stress as much as I can to my fellow protesters that we should not antagonize the police," Lowal said. "We can not give them excuses to pick us out and attack us."

Lowal was himself arrested on June 24 and jailed overnight. He was charged with assaulting a police officer, though he said the only thing he was doing when he was arrested was filming a fellow protester's arrest on his phone. In a video Lowal shared, he repeatedly asks police why they are detaining the other protester. An officer in the shot tells Lowal to step back, and then the video gets cut off as his phone falls and the arrest proceeds (Lowal said he was pushed to the ground). Lowal said he is scheduled to appear in court in September.

Protester signs along the fence in front of Lafayette Park. Jenny Gathright/WAMU hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU

In response to a WAMU/DCist's question about whether it considered its tactics with protesters to be overly aggressive, an MPD spokesperson wrote that "if anyone has concerns regarding the way they were treated by an MPD Officer, we ask that they file a complaint with MPD or the independent Office of Police Complaints."

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham and other unnamed MPD officers were recently added to a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups against the Trump administration over the use of tear gas on protesters in front of Lafayette Park.

But the activists who remain have critiqued more than just MPD as their nightly protests in front of the White House stretch on. As the large crowds of protesters — which drew thousands of people at their peak — have faded, so too, they said, has the media presence.

In a video posted on Twitter by the journalist Chuck Modi, one protester listed several events they considered "completely newsworthy": a liberation library protesters organized to hand out books, continued arrests of protesters, a dance troupe of young Black girls who performs at Black Lives Matter Plaza, and the diligence of activists who have provided free food, water and supplies throughout the weeks of protests.

"But there's no WUSA, there's no CNN, there's no WashPo, there's no Associated Press, there's no DCist," the protester said. "Nobody is out here except for street journalists ... the more that they don't spread what's going on, the more that people are going to believe that people aren't out here. But we are out here, every day."

Kian Kelley-Chung, a 23-year-old filmmaker and photographer from Columbia, Md., joins people from Earl's Amendment Grill several times a week. He said that as someone who believes in ending police brutality and dismantling white supremacy, he felt it was important to capture the movement on camera.

"I know that there will be people who won't try to portray the people who are involved in the movement in the positive light that they deserve to be portrayed in," Kelley Chung said. "I felt compelled to come out and document what was happening from the perspective of the people. Art is the best way I can get involved."

The protests have brought people together from various backgrounds. Most are in their late teens and twenties, though some are older. Some are students. Others work in the service industry and have been laid off in the pandemic. (Lowal, who was laid off from his restaurant job in the spring, said he has been using his unemployment money to pay for protest supplies.)

A 19-year-old who goes by Cali told WAMU/DCist that as a Black person, he felt it was important for him to support the protests. He said he spent much of his adolescence in the juvenile justice system, and he was also arrested at protests last week. When he was "no-papered," he was relieved, particularly because of his past experiences with the legal system.

"I'm not gonna say I'm completely lost, cause I'm not," he said. "I'm just finding myself, you get me? That's all it is."

Javonna, 19, has been part of the occupation of Black Lives Matter Plaza at night. She's currently experiencing homelessness, and preferred not to share her last name.

"Out here there's many homeless men and women, boys and girls, that are coming out here supporting," Javonna said as she sat in a folding chair in Black Lives Matter Plaza on Tuesday afternoon.

It was the emptiest the plaza had been in weeks because the city began enforcing vending regulations in the area on Monday. The tents carrying Black Lives Matter T-shirts, masks, art and supplies along the streets — and the people who had been selling them — were gone.

Small groups of protesters remained, though their supplies and accommodations had dwindled, too. Javonna said police had taken the tent she was staying in — and that in the process, she lost her birth certificate, her ID, clothes and baby pictures of her son. She said when she called 311 to retrieve her stuff, she was told it was in the trash. WAMU/DCist reached out to D.C.'s Department of Public Works to clarify what happened to protester belongings, but did not hear back by publication.

As she sat and ate pizza with a small group of fellow protesters, Javonna reflected on how much her new community means to her.

"I've made some great, great, great, great, great friends. I love these people. These people helped me through a lot of stuff," she said, getting visibly emotional. "It's like home. I have nowhere else to go."

The scene at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Tuesday, July 14, a day after the city began enforcing vending regulations and people selling masks, T-shirts and other goods were told to leave. Jenny Gathright/WAMU hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU

Nahom Demoz, who has been volunteering with Earl's First Amendment Grill for weeks, said he and his fellow activists were at a "crossroads" about how to move forward on Tuesday after being repeatedly forced to move over the past several weeks. Originally, they were set up on H Street, next to St. Johns church, in an area that is now surrounded by black fencing.

"They're going to keep the walls up as long as they can until they drive us out," Demoz said, but "we still have a common purpose and we're going to still peacefully protest."

In many ways, the lifestyle of the most committed protesters might seem unsustainable. Since they protest overnight, Heem said he and other activists get sleep by taking "a whole rack of cat naps" during the day.

Lowal recently had a seizure — the first he has ever experienced. He said doctors at George Washington University Hospital told him it was the result of exhaustion and dehydration.

"I do make sure I get rest and nutrition," Lowal said. "I did let it get past me for a little bit, and that's why I had those issues. But I make sure that I get enough rest and drink a lot of water and just take care of myself."

But recently, activists seem to be focused on longevity: They have been holding midnight yoga in an effort to destress and re-energize the space. On Thursday night, they held a sign-making party in the plaza with a DJ in advance of another planned demonstration. At this point, they foresee no end date for their protests.

The activists do talk about specific demands: Defunding MPD, for example. But when asked about the changes they want to see, they also don't shy away from emphasizing that their protests are about the way that anti-Black racism seems to infiltrate every institution in society, and every Black person's life.

Lindsay said she would only stop coming out to protest when the world became safe for her and her family.

"When I can walk down the street, my little sister and my older sister can walk down the street, my Dad can walk down the street being treated as an equal, period," she said. "Where I don't have to fear for my life or my future kid's life. Where I don't have to fear for my friend's life anymore. That's what would make me stop coming out here. Until that happens, I'mma be out here."

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