From left: Kian Kelley-Chung, Bethelehem Yirga, Ty Hobson-Powell, Rahim at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. The Plaza was a major gathering space for protest all summer, but activists also associate it with the trauma of violent encounters with police.
Bethelehem Yirga was camped out in front of the wall of protest art along H St. at Black Lives Matter Plaza when she received a warning via text. A contingent of Proud Boys — an SPLC-designated white nationalist hate group — was coming in her direction. The heavy police presence that had surrounded the plaza all day had suddenly dwindled, and Yirga and her activist friends were suddenly facing the potential of a violent clash.
The small group decided to leave. Fifteen minutes later, she heard more news: a protester she knew from her months of organizing in D.C. had been stabbed in a confrontation with right-wing demonstrators.
The moment shocked her. It wasn't the brush with danger that bothered her, though, but a different realization.
"That's not even the most traumatic thing that's happened to me on the front lines this summer," she says.
Yirga, 35, has been organizing for racial justice in D.C. for months, motivated, she says, to make the world a more just place for her three-year-old daughter. In June, she founded The Palm Collective, one of several new activist groups that grew out of the swell of local protests following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. Since then, she's been leading marches, putting together mutual aid drives and creating protest art on the fence outside the White House. She quit her job as an educator to organize full time this fall.
In the process, she's seen friends get arrested, pepper sprayed, kettled and hit by rubber bullets fired by police. A lot of that has happened at Black Lives Matter Plaza, the stretch of 16th St between I St. and H St. near the White House, where the city painted "Black Lives Matter" in big yellow letters after protesters were violently cleared out of Lafayette Park in June.
The plaza has been a place of reckoning for the latest wave of racial justice protests in the District — and on that November Saturday, it was a place of personal reckoning for Yirga, too. She realized it was time to take stock of where she was in her journey as an organizer, and how sustainable the work was.
"You need to process this," she told herself. "You need to feel all these feelings and you need to reach out to yourself on why you're here in the movement and how you're going to continue to support it with a full cup."
She's not the only organizer pausing to assess.
As people poured into the streets to denounce police violence and racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans by police, a number of young Black locals like Yirga were moved to drop everything to start protesting and organizing full time.
Even after the large crowds and media attention of June and July waned, they continued to protest regularly, come up with demands for local officials and organize mutual aid efforts.
Now, nearly seven months later, this generation of activists is battling significant legal, financial and emotional consequences of their anti-police activism. Some have lost income or gone into debt. Some are facing criminal charges. And many say the months of organizing and backlash have taken a major toll on their mental health.
'The trauma you've been dealing with the whole summer'
"People think protesting is pretty," says Rahim, a 21-year-old who's involved with several activist groups, including Occupy DC, Migration Matters UDC and Earl's First Amendment Grill. "It's not pretty. It's not just a little picture and caption on Instagram. It's seeing your friends get thrown to the ground by police officers, it's seeing your friends get sprayed in the face with pepper spray. It's actually getting pepper sprayed in your face. It's actually having to sit overnight in a jail cell for no reason. Like, it's not pretty."
Rahim, a student at UDC, says he has been arrested twice; On one occasion, he was no-papered, which means that he was not charged with a crime after spending a night in jail. His charges in a separate incident have not been dropped. He says the arrests were the reason he lost a job he had lined up for this fall.
And, he adds, it's been "traumatizing" to see friends get arrested and injured at protests.
"Protesting does come with consequences when it comes to both your real life and your emotional health," says Rahim.
Bethelehem Yirga stands in front of the fence in Black Lives Matter Plaza. She was there earlier in the month when she heard that someone she knew had been stabbed in a confrontation with a group of Proud Boys.
The now-infamous image of protesters being pushed out of Lafayette Park on June 1 is just one of many examples of chaotic interactions between police and protesters in the vicinity of Black Lives Matter Plaza.
The Metropolitan Police Department has used rubber bullets and chemical irritants on protesters on multiple occasions since the Spring. The D.C. Council passed a bill outlawing the use of tear gas on First Amendment activities in June, but police have defended their use of chemical irritants by claiming that gatherings have devolved from First Amendment protests to "riots" or unlawful demonstrations. They used tear gas on protesters and medics to clear them from Black Lives Matter Plaza in June in an effort to break up an encampment that had formed there. Police also used the irritants at protests following the March on Washington in August — and more recently, at protests in Ward 4 over the death of Karon Hylton-Brown.
At least 41 people arrested at protests have reported injuries, according to MPD's website.
As a result of these tactics, protesters say their preparation and strategy for protests has evolved.
"It's a normal thing to come to a protest with a backpack that has ... equipment, just in case they take out rubber bullets or pepper spray," says Aniyah Vines, a junior at Howard University and the founder of The Live Movement, a group of activists at historically Black colleges pushing for education and criminal justice reform. "We have helmets, we have gas masks."
"We bring [those] as if we're bringing our phone, our wallets, our keys. It's regular, like it's accessories at this point," she says.
Street medics, who treat protesters who have been exposed to chemicals or hit with rubber bullets, are a regular presence at protests.
The ACLU is suing MPD and other law enforcement agencies for using tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bangs and rubber bullets on protesters. But the department denies that officers have gone overboard with arrests and use of force on protesters.
D.C. police say they've made 612 arrests related to protest activity since the end of May.
"The Metropolitan Police Department facilitates hundreds of peaceful First Amendment Assemblies in the District of Columbia every year," a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department wrote in an emailed statement. "However, those who engage in criminal and riotous behavior, or seek to cause harm to others, will be held accountable."
D.C. police chief Peter Newsham, who will leave his post at the beginning of next year, has said that it's not fair to imply that police officers have "indiscriminately used munitions" against peaceful protesters.
"Police officers are human beings too," Newsham said in August. "When you throw bricks and rocks and bottles and urine, and you set fires, there is going to be a police reaction."
Mahadi Lawal, a 26-year-old organizer with Occupy DC — a group that formed this summer to support local protesters and advocate against police brutality — has been to the hospital twice because of medical emergencies at protests.
The first time, he had a seizure that doctors told him was from dehydration and exhaustion. The second time, he started losing consciousness while he was being arrested in a manner he describes as violent.
"I was chased down by the police, choked, my hands and feet were shackled," says Lawal. He says he started losing consciousness and "had to beg and plead with the officers to call an ambulance." Videos of the arrest posted on Instagram show a police officer's arm around Lawal's neck as he tries to grab him. In a subsequent video, Lawal is laying on the ground, seemingly unable to move while surrounded by police. The Metropolitan Police Department has not responded to a request for comment on the arrest.
Lawal says he owes nearly 5,000 dollars for that second hospital visit (he is uninsured) — and he's facing charges for that arrest, which he says happened after he responded in a "less than peaceful manner" to a heckler who came to Black Lives Matter Plaza in blackface. (The sworn affidavit from police said "a white male who was dressed in black face, reported he was walking around BLM Plaza conducting interviews on peoples' opinions on racial equality. Lawal "struck him in the face with his fist" before being arrested, according to police. )
The pandemic has meant that many of the court proceedings for protesters have been pushed to next year.
The U.S. Attorney's Office and local D.C. officials have gone back and forth on whether police's protest-related arrests have been founded. After D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser sent an Aug. 31 letter to U.S. Attorney for D.C. Michael Sherwin, accusing him of lacking the "willingness" to prosecute protesters for crimes, Sherwin responded that D.C. police failed to provide enough evidence to back up the charges they were proposing — particularly in the case of the more than 40 protesters who were arrested after being kettled by D.C. police in Adams Morgan one night in mid-August. But later, after a meeting with D.C. police chief Peter Newsham, Sherwin walked the statement back. Sherwin said that after another review of the evidence, his office would be "charging a number of arrestees."
Even without charges or physical injury, other scars remain. Kian Kelley-Chung, 23, of Columbia, Maryland has been filming the protests for a documentary, spending long hours interviewing activists and following marches. He says he can't drive around D.C. anymore without thinking of the violence he has experienced — or his own arrest. He was among the 41 people jailed overnight after being kettled in Adams Morgan on August 13.
"It's very difficult, very, very, very difficult to get up and go back out, knowing that you're about to run into the trauma that you've been dealing with the whole summer," he says.
Movement filmmaker Kian Kelley-Chung in front of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The Church served as a safe haven for protesters during the summer of 2020 when they were being pepper sprayed, teargassed and shot with rubber bullets by police.
The pace of the months of organizing and arrests "has taken a toll on us physically, and our time and energy," says Saba Tshibaka, a senior at the University of Maryland and a founder of Black Terps Matter, a racial justice group at the university. She was arrested on October 16 outside of the Supreme Court and held overnight.
Tshibaka says she was released from jail in the late afternoon. Later that same night, she joined Aniyah Vines for a meeting to organize a protest outside of the U.S. Department of Education.
Arrests are a fact of life for these young organizers, so much so that activists have a routine for "jail support," when they gather outside D.C. Superior Court to offer their comrades snacks, new clothes and support after a night spent in jail.
For Rahim, seeing protesters come together in this way has been a high point of his activism.
"Getting out of a cold, roach-filled cell and seeing all your literal new friends, people who you just met, people you barely know — they're literally waiting for you outside of Central Cell Block with coffee, donuts, anything you need, blankets, new clothes, a ride to wherever you've got to go — I think that's the best part," says Rahim. "The best part is the community."
Rahim at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.
'We may need to talk to somebody'
Groups like Occupy DC and The Palm Collective have organized midnight yoga, movie nights and protest and paint sessions in an effort to inject good memories back into Black Lives Matter Plaza.
But many participants say they can't forget the trauma they've experienced there, or the exhaustion they face now. By the fall, Lawal says the space had lost much of its positive meaning for him and other organizers with Occupy DC.
"We realized that there was no there really was no reason for us to keep returning there, and, you know, and uplifting this place that is is filled with so many terrible memories and brutality," says Lawal.
Zeus X, an organizer with the group Freedom Fighters DC, says they've started talking with others in the movement about how to manage the stress and strain of the constant protests. (Zeus goes by a pseudonym because they're worried about being targeted for being a Black activist.)
"We may need to talk to somebody, you know, we may need to do some type of therapy session and talking to each other and journaling and having downtime," they say.
But at the end of the day, Zeus and other protesters recognize they are going to continue to be exposed to situations that threaten their mental health.
"It's never enough because we're still going to come back out and be triggered," they say. "It's like, how do you heal from something that's going to constantly happen?"
Saba Tshibaka, left, and Aniyah Vines, right, stand in front of the fence at Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the White House. The fence includes art, photos and signs created by people who are on the front lines fighting for justice for Black people — including Karon Hylton and Deon Kay, both young Black Washingtonians killed in encounters with police.
'How do you reform this?'
Protesters say these experiences with police have only strengthened their commitment to a central demand: that the city cut money from the police budget and put it towards housing, mental health and other social services.
Ty Hobson-Powell, a native Washingtonian and a leader with Concerned Citizens of D.C., says after the events of this summer, he no longer thinks police reform is adequate.
"I watched people bleeding... because of rubber bullets and they didn't do anything except speak their mind," said Hobson-Powell. "And it's like, how do you reform this?"
In the near term, Hobson-Powell says Concerned Citizens will be pushing the D.C. Council to consider a set of policy proposals he calls "Karon's Law," after Karon Hylton-Brown, the 20-year-old killed in a crash following a police chase in October. Karon's Law would eliminate qualified immunity, create criminal liability and joint liability for officers who violate public safety rules and others who stand by while it happens, and prevent police from arresting people for resisting arrest when there is no underlying cause, among other things.
So far, D.C. has taken the path of reform: The D.C. Council passed police reform legislation in June that included new limits on the use of deadly force, a ban the department from buying certain equipment and new requirements on the release of body camera footage after an officer uses serious force or is involved in someone's death. The legislation also created a police reform commission, which is currently coming up with additional recommendations for local legislators. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has consistently opposed cutting the police budget.
And recently, the city allocated an additional $43 million to the police department to pay for overtime costs incurred as a result of the summer's numerous protests. (Congress typically reimburses D.C. for costs associated with policing certain demonstrations, but in this case it has refused to pay.)
As the city braces for winter, many organizers say they're planning to focus on mutual aid — organizing coat drives, handing out food and supplies to people in need and also doing political education, trying to build support for their goals of one day abolishing the police.
Ty Hobson-Powell stands in front of the H St. fence in Black Lives Matter Plaza. In addition to his work as a racial justice activist, Hobson-Powell is a native Washingtonian and a statehood advocate.
Ty Hobson-Powell uses the metaphor of an airplane ride to talk about the trajectory of the movement and his experiences in it so far.
"I take off May, early June — the most exciting parts of it," he says. "The media is there all the time. There are these massive crowds. It's a lot of excitement."
Now, the early exhilaration of the summer of organizing is gone.
"I think right now this movement is in the air in a literal sense. When you're in the air, absent turbulence, a quick little bump every now and then, it's pretty calm," Hobson-Powell says. "The pilot is figuring out how you're going to try to land."
"I think for us as a collective movement, we're waiting to see where we're going to land."