WASHINGTON — Three miles of black chain-link fence wrapped around the perimeters of the White House, designed to keep Americans away from the seat of U.S. power, were transformed into a memorial of their grief and anguish.
“8 min 46 sec. How many aren’t filmed?” read a message Tuesday woven into the fencing that faced the back of the White House, which sits adjacent to Lafayette Square, a scene of aggravation and escalated violence over the last two weeks following the murder of 46-year-old black man George Floyd, whose death inspired intersectional outrage around the world and kicked off renewed conversations about racial disparities and broken systems of policing.
Now that the National Guard, which rattled down D.C. streets in armored cars, has been shooed off, fears of dodging tear gas and pepper spray have abated and hostility in the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza — the teeming ground zero of Washington’s protests — has eased considerably, according to a half-dozen protesters who spoke to Yahoo News.
“I don’t feel the tension,” said Terry Evans, a 31-year-old black protester who’s been participating in demonstrations for the past week. Evans credited the dynamic shift in part to the eased police presence as well as to Floyd’s funeral, which was happening live at the time. “I feel like [the burial] resonates, especially with people of color, so we do feel a sense of calm, totally out of respect for him and his family.”
Evans went to the White House to pay his respects and get a photo in front of the fence-turned-memorial’s centerpiece: a sprawling black flag with “Black lives matter” emblazoned in block letters.
He’s not the only one — several dozen demonstrators and lookie-loos alike snapped photos in front of the flag, which almost totally obscured what little of the White House can be seen behind the fence, the typical tourist photo taking on new meaning.
“This is the thing that everyone has been avoiding talking about,” said Evans. “The fact that everybody’s talking about it, that makes me happy. I’m still in shock.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Lawrence Waters made his first appearance Tuesday, motivated by his own conflicting identities: a relative to those in law enforcement and a friend of someone who was killed by police brutality. Something about the energy following Floyd’s death settled differently with him, in a sort of hard-to-explain way. He plans to show up and out as long as he can.
“I feel like it’s easing up now, but we’re going to wait for the conviction. If [the cops] aren’t convicted, then I think unfortunately we’re going to see a different outcome on the streets. America may be turned upside down,” said Waters.
He, too, took a photo in front of the flag.
“I’ll tell my kids and grandkids that I was down here marching in front of the White House, making our voices known. It’s really powerful.”
Yet the revolution doesn’t end with a well-lit photo op: For the groups remaining outside the White House, advocacy is entering a new stage.
Daniel Nelson, a 48-year-old black man from Berryville, Va., wants to turn his combined feelings of anger, hope and frustration into something productive. He hopes the next phase of protests is boycotts, though he isn’t sure where exactly to start.
“I think it’s necessary to show your presence and support for what I believe to be a tipping point for America,” said Nelson. “It’s judgment day. Whose side are you on: justice, or just us?”
He’s less enthused with the idea that change begins and ends at the ballot box, pointing toward police brutality under former President Barack Obama, the first and only black president.
Striking to Nelson, and reflective of recent movements outside D.C., is the diverse racial makeup of the crowd. He finds this not only personally uplifting but instrumental to change happening at systemic levels.
“I know we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, because then we’re going to be getting what we’ve been getting: nothing. What really gives me hope is that this is the first time that white America has jumped on board to say enough is enough,” said Nelson.
Waters was similarly moved.
“They’re going to have to speak up in order for things to get changed. That’s just the way privilege works. That’s just the way politics works. We can’t do it alone, because [black] voices have already been silenced,” explained Waters. “But when you have white people speaking out loudly, it’s quite difficult to ignore.”
This is an argument held by some activists online too, who have encouraged those who aren’t black to amplify black voices and shoulder some of the burden of explaining race relations that is often projected onto black people in workplaces and social circles. Such was the intention of #ShareTheMicNow, a social media initiative that paired black activists and creators with high-profile white celebrities, politicians and influencers. On Wednesday, those black activists took over the Twitter and Instagram accounts of non-black counterparts like actress Hilary Swank, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And, at least anecdotally, that message was being heard by white protesters outside the White House. Some were handing out first-aid supplies, water and Gatorade, while one went a sweeter route. Cornelia Smith, a 23-year-old recent Columbia graduate who’s been at the protests for about two weeks, was giving banana bread to strangers. She doesn’t always bring snacks, though she finds it a way to offer some sustenance, and maybe a little joy, too, during a painful time.
She said she has a responsibility as a white person who is afforded a certain amount of privilege to educate her own possibly ignorant communities, and has tried to kick-start those hard-to-navigate conversations while she’s been forced back home to Georgetown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Friends of mine are doing similar things in their predominantly white communities,” said Smith. “Maybe it’s just the people I surround myself with, but a lot of people, at least my age, understand that there’s a big reckoning that we have to make with the history of this country, and a lot of us have reflections on the education that we’ve had thus far and what’s absent from that.”
But where does that go from here? Smith doesn’t think protests will stop, even if they’re not carried nonstop on cable news.
“No matter what happens, people are going to keep showing up until there is definite change that happens, and that’s not just going to be with police budgets and not just going to be getting certain officials elected,” said Smith. “It’s going to take a lot of time.”
Thirty-two-year-old Heather, who asked that her full name not be used, said she was turning online and to Netflix to educate herself about her whiteness so her community did not have to. After losing her voice from protesting for six days straight, Heather began watching “LA 92” and “13th,” two popular documentaries about race riots and black history. She wants other white activists to follow suit and “do a little education as they come into their homes and off the street.”
“I think there is a lot of reflection going on,” said Heather. “I’ve taken time to read all the posters, the graffiti. I think a lot of people are not protesting [today]. I think they’re taking a moment to pause and celebrate black culture itself and reflect on the movement.”
Joanne Horn, a 65-year-old who works on K Street, Washington, D.C.’s lobbying hub, passed by to do just that. She’s white, too, and said she feels some responsibility to educate her friends and push for change, which to her begins and ends at the ballot box.
“Turnout is going to be insanely important,” said Horn. “We got millions of people turning out [to the protests]. I damn well hope they turn out in November. They need to.”
Horn eagerly wanted to snap a photo of the White House shrouded by layers of fencing; she had to maneuver around dozens of posters to get the perfect shot.
“Isn’t it insane?” she mused, gesturing through one of the chain-link holes to the White House. “I mean, wow, what a statement. He finally got his damn wall.”
Thumbnail cover photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
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