What does liberation look like?
D.C. Protests leaders, Virginia avenue NW Bridge August 8, 2020
“Say his name!” rings from Drew Boddie’s megaphone on a sunny Saturday afternoon on U street NW in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. Dozens of protesters yelled back “George Floyd!” while marching with D.C. Protests, a Black liberation organization formed in Washington, D.C. in early June 2020.
The murder of George Perry Floyd, Jr. in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25, 2020 reignited nationwide outrage over police violence and systemic racism, an issue that has been stewing in America for decades, if not centuries. That day, Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin fatally knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed on the ground during a traffic stop.
Chauvin went on trial in late March of 2021 for Floyd’s death, charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. On April 20, 2021, Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges. He was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison, including 199 days time served, on June 25, 2021.
Floyd’s murder was filmed by bystanders and spread nationwide over social media and television. In response, large scale protests spread from Minneapolis outwards across the United States, and the world, including Washington, D.C.
Beginning on May 29, 2020 protesters gathered at Lafayette Square Park behind the White House and the surrounding streets, protesting police brutality and racism. When local and federal law enforcement descended on the area, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and non-lethal rounds rained down on hundreds of protesters in an attempt to restore order.
The street where people gathered, 16th street northwest, which runs to Lafayette Square Park, was soon blocked off and renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser. It was a decision that many people called performative.
D.C. Protests grew out of this collective anger. In the summer of 2020, the group established itself as part of the local activist community. Like many grassroots organizations across the nation, they work for the liberation of Black people in America.
When D.C. Protests’ co-founder Justin Daniels saw what happened to Floyd, this Dumphries, Va. resident, drove to D.C. joining the hundreds of protesters gathered at Black Lives Matter Plaza.
“Those front line days, when we were down at the plaza and they gated off the church, and everybody was pissed. They made the riot line. Things were horrible,” Daniels recalled.
D.C. Protests began with seven co-founders, all residents or natives of the DMV – D.C., Maryland and Virginia. They first met on June 3 when co-founders Daniels and Drew Boddie noticed officers around the White House getting in the three-line formation typically used to fire chemical dispersants. On that hot, cloudless day, Daniels, Boddie and other co-founders led a large group of protesters around downtown, finishing in front of Trump International Hotel.
Justin Daniels, 2020
When the march disbanded, participants wondered if Daniels, Boddie and other soon-to-be co-founders were an organized group. They were not. Daniels pulled out his iPhone and created D.C. Protests’ Instagram page. On that brick sidewalk along Constitution Avenue, D.C. Protests was born.
Co-founder Bella Raymond-Paez felt that forming an organization and a social media presence were necessary to help people find planned marches.
“We wanted to encourage people to keep coming out. We knew that people didn’t have a way to find out where the action was and where we were doing these marches,” Raymond-Paez recalled. “We figured we might as well give people easy access and know where to find all of it.”
D.C. Protests began their marches in the Adams Morgan neighborhood at Malcolm X Park. Former Black Panther Angela Davis dedicated the 12-acre, oak tree-lined park to Malcolm at a political rally in 1970. That year, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense established their D.C. chapter over a half-mile away. Daniels admires the work and ideologies of both the Panthers and Malcolm X.
“The reason we picked Malcolm X Park is because of the history behind it and the Black Panthers, the history of them planning here and meeting here. We want to emulate that and be just like them, the Black Panthers,” Daniels said.
Brittney Henderson-Fiestas, D.C. Protests’ former march leader and communications coordinator is inspired by Malcolm X’s ability to speak directly to the Black community.
“He (Malcolm X) has that strong, educated Black voice that was really committed to helping his people,” Henderson-Fiestas said. “He talks a lot about Black love and loving who you are, loving your hair, things like that.”
D.C. Protests welcomes everybody in its fight for Black liberation. Leaders make it clear, however, that D.C. Protests’ marches and other activist efforts are a Black space. White people and non-Black people of color must know how to operate within it. To reinforce this, they incorporated an ally training before marches. Henderson-Fiestas wrote and facilitated these sessions using her experience as an educator.
Bella Raymond-Paez, 2020
Henderson-Fiestas addresses many issues in different ally training sessions, such as analyzing privilege, defining anti-racism and understanding white, and non-black people of color’s role in elevating Black voices.
A point she repeatedly stresses is the importance for white people and non-Black persons of color to go beyond allyship and become “co-conspirators.” This extra step requires people to recognize and actively fight against internalized racism as well as racist and oppressive power structures.
Brittney Henderson-Fiestas, 2020
Activist groups across the country, including D.C. Protests, view law enforcement as one of America’s most racist and oppressive power structures. Locally, the D.C. Metro Police Department, or MPD, is the target of this outrage. MPD is the U.S.’s sixth-largest police department with over 3,700 officers and a proposed operating budget of over $578 million for the 2021 fiscal year, a 3.3% increase from the year before. Over 60% of these officers are Black. De-funding, and eventually abolishing, police departments is the long-term goal of many Black liberation organizations across the country, including D.C. Protests.
Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing” and sociology professor from Brooklyn College, argues that American policing is corrupt beyond reformation.
“Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive and invasive policing,” Vitale wrote. “They are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”
The idea of defunding the police has become controversial after Floyd's murder. Former U.S. President Barack Obama called, “defund the police” as a “snappy slogan” in a December interview with Vanity Fair, arguing that it turns people away from activists’ core arguments. In mid-June 2020, at the height of these nationwide protests, analysts from FiveThirtyEight looked at four different polls and found only 31% of those polled approve of defunding the police, versus 58% disapproval.
The idea of defunding police is becoming more organized and formalized. In early 2021, civil rights organizations joined forces to create defundthepolice.org. The website provides a central location for activists to gather information and push for defunding the police in their communities.
Henderson-Fiestas, who now describes herself as an abolitionist, was not always on board with defunding the police. After hashing it out with her wife, she became more supportive of the idea. Her four-year tenure teaching at an underfunded D.C. public school also influenced this change of heart.
Black Lives Matter Plaza, June 24, 2020
“Looking around at the budget of the police and comparing it to what I'm seeing in our school system. Like, how the f--- does this happen?” Henderson-Fiestas recalled with frustration. “How can you look at that and say ‘yea, I know that’s happening, but the police need more’?”
Despite public concerns about the feasibility of defunding the police, D.C. Protests’ cofounder Drew Boddie does not trust them. Boddie, a Northwest D.C. native, admits that he has become increasingly suspicious of police. He wonders why someone would want to become a police officer, especially since police violence, in all its forms, is extremely visible.
“Why would you want to be oppressing groups of people? Which is what they have been doing and I think this year has shown people that that is what they do. They oppress people,” Boddie said.
The ongoing protests and growing police presence at them has had an inverse effect on activists’ ultimate goal. In October 2020, D.C.’s mayor Muriel Bowser (D) “requested permission” from the D.C. City Council to transfer $43 million from three other government departments to cover police overtime, according to WAMU.
Drew Boddie, 2020
Bowser’s proposal would take $28.3 million from the Department of Healthcare Finance. In a letter to interim city administrator Kevin Donahue on October 23, nine of D.C. City Council’s 14 members objected to this proposal and expressed concern over what this would do to the future of healthcare in the District.
“We are concerned about this reprogramming for several reasons,” the letter read. “Namely, there is little accompanying rationale for the proposed uses and the $28.3 million being swept from the Department of Healthcare Finance could have been swept to the FY 2021 and used to permanently modernize the D.C. Healthcare Alliance Program.”
MPD came under scrutiny once again in February 2021. D.C. Councilmember At-Large Robert C. White Jr. introduced the “Bias in Threat Assessments Evaluation Act of 2021.” According to reporting by the DCist, White’s legislation would require the Attorney General to study what role discrimination based on “race, religion, sex, national origin, or gender of those involved” played in arrests made during “first amendment demonstrations” from Jan. 2017 to Jan. 2021. Five other councilmembers signed on to White’s proposed legislation.
Members of D.C. Protests directly felt this excessive force, specifically mass arrest. Three members were among the 42 demonstrators and media arrested during a direct action in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood on August 13, 2020. Most were arrested on charges of felony rioting, which carries anywhere from 180 days up to a 10-year prison sentence. Those members of D.C. Protests, and most of those arrested, had their charges dropped within 24 to 48 hours.
Black Lives Matter Plaza, June 3, 2020
Beginning in December, most groups, including D.C. Protests, halted regular marches. All organizations found different ways to help the community and keep fighting for Black lives.
Fran Buntman, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at George Washington University who specializes in race, resistance and social change, asserts slow periods like these are critical for social movements.
“One of the things that makes resistance movements fail is their inability to adapt to changing circumstances,” Buntman said.
Most organizations, including D.C. Protests, have turned to different kinds of mutual aid throughout the district, helping communities materially and directly. In December of 2020 and January of 2021, D.C. Protests collaborated with other organizations to build winter kits – plywood wrapped in padding and carpet – to give to those in need at DuPont Circle in Northwest D.C. They also cooked meals and distributed them at DuPont.
Mutual aid has been used repeatedly in liberation movements throughout history to help communities who are left out and in need of basic resources. The Black Panther Party was known for their mutual aid efforts, offering 60 different kinds of community assistance nationwide. At its height their most notable program, “Free Breakfast for School Children”, fed over 10,000 children nationwide every day.
Drew and Justin building winter kits at DuPont Circle, Dec. 19, 2020
These challenges also include the departure of members. Henderson-Fiestas, who lead marches beginning in June, left the organization on November 6 after about a month of consideration and deliberation over repeated patterns of alleged misogynist and manipulative behavior by one of the co-founders. Part of her hesitation about leaving was a concern over feeding into racist stereotypes.
“And so what you do, though, as a Black woman, especially in a Black liberation movement? You don't want to draw attention to that (behavior), because then from the outside that feeds into all the stereotypes, right?” Henderson-Fiestas asked rhetorically. “Black people won’t stick together and they're fighting each other and all this stuff and, and also like to preserve the Black liberation movement. It's like, sometimes we ignore the bad.”
Black women have been discriminated against in liberation movements throughout U.S. history, including the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. This pattern continued through Black Liberation movements in the 1960s and 70s and various waves of the feminist movement. In a 1962 speech, Malcolm X, described the Black woman as "the most disrespected..the most unprotected...and the most neglected person in America."
D.C. Protests was noted early on for being very young. They are one of the foundational organizations in the movement for Black liberation that developed in the summer of 2020 in Washington, D.C. The organization now goes by Radicalize the People, and continues their focus on mutual aid.