In 2017, I marched for women’s rights. In 2020, I march for Black Lives.
By Priya Hay-Chatterjee
Content warning: discussions of police violence.
In 2017, I attended the Women’s March on Washington alongside my family and some 400,000 other people. There were people of all walks of life in attendance, but mostly there were white women. If you looked around this protest, you’d see jumbotrons, stages, fences, and tens of thousands of pink pussy hats. Like millions of other Americans before us, we peacefully practiced our first amendment rights. But there was one element at this demonstration that easily faded into the background: cops. That’s not to say they weren’t in attendance — at any large-scale event in any metropolitan area, you’ll always see cops. What determines whether you’ll notice their presence is the demographics of the crowd.
The Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches took months to organize, and according to their GoFundMe page, raised over two million dollars for “logistics and expenses.” It was hailed as a formative and unifying moment in U.S. and world history, drawing millions to the streets to resist sex and gender discrimination across the country and around the world. Many racial and ethnic groups, however, took issue with the Women’s March for its failure to address and bring to the mainstream issues such as police brutality, LGBTQ+ issues, and the U.S. government’s violation of treaties with indigenous communities. At first glance, these issues might not seem directly relevant to sex and gender discrimination, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that women and trans victims of racist violence get less media coverage, white, cisgender gay men are usually the face of the LGBTQ+ community, and cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit go largely unsolved. It is our responsibility to be aware of these intersecting and compounding issues.
On Saturday, May 30, 2020, I attended a protest in Washington, D.C. against police violence for the first time in my life. The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, and George Floyd have brought both support and critique of the Black Lives Matter movement back to center stage in the news and on social media. I’ve seen increasing outrage from white people and from non-Black people of color (NBPOC). It took days of traumatizing images of Black people dead and dying circulating on social media for police to arrest the white supremacists and the cops who’d murdered these Americans. In a time where we have little to do aside from monitoring social media and the news, some of us are realizing we should have taken to the streets a long time ago.
The images you’ve seen in the news are probably riots, vandalism, and looting, but that’s not what I saw when I went to protest near the White House. Most of the people in attendance were Black, but there were white people and NBPOC in attendance too. We stood socially distanced near the intersection of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Say His Name: George Floyd,” and “Say Her Name: Sandra Bland.” All the protesters were wearing masks or face coverings, and many held up protest signs. Between chanting, clapping, and slamming street signs, we made a lot of noise. Aside from those moving metal barricades to get further down Pennsylvania Ave, I saw no disorderly or violent protesters.
The secret service police, however, were armed to the teeth with riot gear: helmets, bulletproof vests, shields, handguns, and semi-automatic weapons. Of the thirty or forty cops who stood in a line across Pennsylvania Ave, a small handful wore gas masks, but the vast majority wore no face coverings of any kind, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When one protester asked a cop why he wasn’t wearing a mask, the cop replied, “I ain’t scared of Coronavirus.”
In an attempt to gain ground on the protesters, the cops began shoving the crowd backwards and spraying the peaceful, unarmed protesters who stood in their way with mace. Because white people experience less violence at the hands of police, a protester called out, “White people to the front.” My sister and I, who are white-passing, moved further up in the crowd toward the cops until my sister was nearly face-to-face with the shields. We witnessed cops macing Black protesters, who ran back into the crowd screaming, “I can’t see.” We called out to other protesters with spray bottles for help and watched as they poured milk and water into the burning eyes of Americans who were doing just as we did three years ago: protesting.
The cops in riot gear continued to push back on the crowd, and one white male cop smirked as he shoved protesters with his shield. Behind this line of cops was a line of cops on horses. We saw more cops lining the street on the other side of Pennsylvania Ave and on 17th Street. If they all closed in on us, where could we go?
When you see images of riots and looting on your evening news shows, remember this: cops are instigating violence. Cops are using their power to injure, traumatize, and murder innocent Black people, and these violent acts are going unpunished. The protest I attended was peaceful until the cops began shoving and macing civilians. And if you’re upset about the people rioting and looting, think about this: we romanticize the American Revolution, in which patriots tarred and feathered British tax collectors. We romanticize the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the World Wars, in which we claim we established and preserved American democracy. Is state-sanctioned death better than civil disobedience and vandalism?
Corporations will recover from riots. Cops will shed their vests, shields, handguns, AR-15s, and AK-47s and leave their shifts unscathed. If we don’t create institutional change and charge murderers with murder, however, Black Americans will continue to die at the hands of cops and other white supremacists and will be left mourning countless other lives.
To close out this blog, I’ll echo a poster I once saw in a library: “We said, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ No one said, ‘Only Black Lives Matter’ or ‘White lives don’t matter.’ You might say ‘All lives matter,’ but that can never be true until Black Lives Matter.”
List of resources:
Black Lives Matter: What We Believe blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/
RollingStone: List of organizations and fundraisers you can donateto www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/george-floyd-protests-bail-funds-police-brutality-black-lives-matter-1008259/
Talking points for white allies: twitter.com/ifyouarewhite