WASHINGTON, DC — The American capital had its largest Black Lives Matter protest yet on Saturday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington to call for an end to systemic racism after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer.
The mood, however, was nothing like the images that have dominated the news for the last two weeks. There was no looting or violence; Saturday’s rally, in fact, was emphatically peaceful.
“All of that stuff distracts from the real point of these protests,” said Danielle Greene, a nurse practitioner from the Maryland suburbs. “What we want is to make everyone realize what’s been going on and to demand better.”
Just a few blocks from the White House, in the nearly 90 degree heat — on the strip of 16th Street that Mayor Muriel Bowser recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza — people were handing out free water bottles and snacks to the crowd. They were holding up signs deploring racism, and many were taking friendly pictures with the cops and military personnel assigned to the area.
The scene marked a stark contrast to last Monday evening, when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters on that same block so that US President Donald Trump could have a photo op at a nearby church.
While the mass protests across the country have been mostly peaceful, some people involved have resorted to rioting. At the same time, police officers have been caught on camera brutalizing demonstrators, like in Buffalo, NY, where two cops shoved a 75-year-old man and then watched him lay on the ground bleeding.
For many of the protesters Saturday, their participation was part of a personal plea to public officials and lawmakers to enact reforms so that people of color no longer have to live in fear of the police. In some cases, their own experiences galvanized them to be there.
Noel Karl Lebondzo, an entrepreneur and activist originally from the Congo, recalled an incident two years ago when he was walking to his car in Northeast DC and cops approached him at gunpoint and searched him. After one of the officers pinned Lebondzo against the car, they let him go.
“They told me the guy they were looking for had longer hair,” Lebondzo, 35, told The Times of Israel. “It was scary. I know what it’s like, as they say, to be pulled over for being black. That’s why I’m here, because that needs to end.”
Since Floyd’s May 25 death ignited widespread outrage and unrest, there have been some tangible steps taken at the state and city level to improve policing.
Officials in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, agreed to ban the police from using chokeholds and neck restraints and to require officers to try to stop other officers they see using improper force. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s police training program to stop teaching a neck hold that blocks the flow of blood to the brain.
Congressional Democrats are also preparing a sweeping package of police reforms, which are expected to include changes to police accountability laws and to mandate new training.
Greene also described living with unfair police treatment because of the color of her skin. She told a story of cops asking her and her boyfriend to move where they were seated for a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, when white people were allowed to stay where they were.
“I was arguing with them, but then my boyfriend whispered into my ear, ‘I’m a black male and this doesn’t end well for me,'” Greene, 36, told The Times of Israel. “So we just moved.”
Saturday’s rally came the same day that Floyd’s family held a private memorial service for him in Raeford, North Carolina, near his birthplace of Fayetteville. Earlier in the day, a long line of people gathered outside the Free Will Baptist Church, waiting to enter in small groups for a chance to look at his coffin before the ceremony.
Overall, the demonstrations across the US have been calmer in recent days after initial spurts of violence and vandalism — and clashes between the police and protesters.
Meanwhile, more and more people continued to be inspired to take to the streets after the outpouring of the last two weeks.
Greene said she wanted to come into DC from Howard County, Maryland, after she saw that Bowser had put a giant “Black Lives Matter” painting on the street leading up the White House. So she came with her small dog in a stroller.
She said it was fulfilling to take part in the historic mass uprising — now heading into its third week — and insisted that it shouldn’t stop any time soon.
“I think this needs to continue,” Greene said. “There’s a lot of momentum right now and we have to keep this up. Otherwise, things are just going to stay the same and the next time a black man gets killed by the police for no reason, we’ll have to do this all over again.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.