Fists Up, Fight Back
An inside look at the growth of a Black liberation organization
“Whose streets? Our streets!” rings from Brittany Henderson-Fiestas’ megaphone as dozens of protesters turn from 15th Street Northwest on to U Street Northwest in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. Justin Daniels, sporting a camouflage bulletproof vest, swerves through the crowd on his long board. Local activist group D.C. Protests and marchers makes themselves heard as they stop traffic throughout D.C., as part of their efforts to demand racial equity in America.
The televised death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN on May 25, 2020, reignited nationwide outrage over police violence. In response, there were protests all over the United States, including Washington D.C.
Beginning on May 29, protesters gathered at Lafayette Square Park behind the White House and the surrounding streets, which were soon blocked off and renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. They came in solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, furious over Floyd’s death. When local and federal law enforcement descended on the area to restore order, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and non-lethal rounds rained down on hundreds of protesters.
D.C. Protests grew out of this collective anger. The group has quickly established itself as part of the local activist community. As part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement, they work for racial equity in America.
Until he saw Floyd’s death, D.C. Protests co-founder Justin Daniels was generally not interested in protesting or activism. Floyd’s death changed the views of this second year law student and Dumphries, VA native. He went to D.C. joining the hundreds of protesters gathered at Black Lives Matter Plaza. He remembered how hectic those times were and how law enforcement behaved.
“Those frontline days, when we were down at the plaza and they [law enforcement] gated off the church, and everybody was pissed. They made the riot line. Things were horrible,” Daniels said of the earliest days of protesting. “They were grabbing people. We had to grab them back.”
D.C. Protest’s began with seven co-founders, all residents of the DMV – D.C., Maryland and Virginia. They all 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 at protesters. Daniels and Boddie escorted this large crowd of protesters away and led a march around the city. On that hot, cloudless day, they led a large group of protesters from the White House, to the Capitol building, to Georgetown, to Trump International Hotel and finishing at the Capitol.
When the march disbanded, participants wondered if Daniels, Boddie and other soon-to-be co-founders were an organized group. They were not, yet. Daniels pulled out his iPhone and created D.C. Protests’ Instagram page on the spot. On that brick sidewalk along Constitution Avenue, D.C. Protests was born.
Co-founder Bella Raymond-Paez, a waitress and resident of Arlington, VA, felt that forming an organization and a social media account 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 begins all 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 1969. The following year, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense established their D.C. chapter 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.
D.C. Protests welcomes everybody in its fight for racial equity. Leaders make it clear, however, that D.C. Protests’ marches and other activist efforts are a Black space. White people and non-Black persons of color may join, but must know how to operate within it. To reinforce this, they incorporated an ally training which they adopted from another activist group – the They/Them Collective.
Brittany Henderson-Fiestas, D.C. Protests’ former communications director and march leader, both wrote and facilitated these sessions using her experience as an educator and Ph.D. student.
“It is important because white people don’t know what to do,” Henderson-Fiestas said. “I think, now, white, white-passing and non-Black people of color want to help and be part of the movement and elevate the voice of it. They don’t know how.”
Henderson-Fiestas addresses many issues in different ally training sessions, such as analyzing privilege and defining anti-racism, but 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 change requires people to both recognize and actively fight against racist and oppressive power structures.
Activist groups across the country, including D.C. Protests, view the police as America’s most racist and oppressive power structure. For D.C. Protests and other local activist organizations, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, or MPD, is largely the target of these frustrations. MPD is the U.S.’s sixth-largest police department with 3,819 sworn-in officers, over 60%of who is Black. According to their chief financial officer, MPD has proposed operating budget over $578 million for the 2021 fiscal year, a 3.3% increase from 2020. Defunding police departments is the goal of many activist organizations across the country, including D.C. Protests.
The idea of drastically changing law enforcement in the pursuit of racial equity is not new. Police abolition was a key philosophy of the Black Panther Party. They viewed the police as a colonizing force in Black and Brown communities.
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.”
Organizers have been promoting the idea of defunding police, which has become highly controversial in the last six months, since being reintroduced into the U.S. national dialogue about civil rights. Former U.S. President Barack Obama (D) described, “defund the police” as a “snappy slogan” in a December 2020 interviewwith Vanity Fair. He argued that it could distract from organizers’ core arguments. In mid-June, analysts from FiveThirtyEight looked at four different polls and found only 31% of those polled approve of defunding the police, versus 58% disapproval.
Some of these critics argue that the police are a necessary component of society, even if they do need significant reform, and defunding police departments entirely will lead to more crime. These critics often cite CHAZ – the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone – a police-free zone in Seattle, WA, as an example of why defunding the police is bad policy.
The Zone was created on June 8, when Seattle police officers abandoned the East Precinct building in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood during the protests after George Floyd’s death. Community members attempted to sustain the Zone, which spanned several city blocks, with mutual aid and community policing. After incidents of violence in late June, including four shootings and alleged sexual assaults, Seattle mayor Jenny Durken ordered the Zone cleared, ending this modern experiment in community policing.
Despite concerns about defunding the police, the seeds of mistrust have already been sewn for many; including D.C. Protests co-founder Drew Boddie. The Morehouse University senior and Northwest D.C native admits that he has become increasingly suspicious of police in the last six months.
“I have a church that is close to where I live. In this church’s parking lot there are no cars, ever. Now, there is always a police car in the parking lot, which is weird to me,” Boddie said. “I don’t want to say that they’re keeping an eye on me, but it’s close enough that, if they wanted to, they could.”
After numerous interactions with MPD, Boddie wonders why people would even want to be police officers, especially since their malfeasance is becoming increasingly 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.
After direct contact via email, MPD declined a request for comment.
The number of MPD officers present at each march has increased in recent months. Raymond-Paez sees this as a sign that D.C. Protests is being heard.
“They are on edge. They’re targeting people. They’re trying to find ways to target more people. They’re just being so annoying!” Raymond-Paez said with a frustrated laugh. “They feel threatened. That’s how we know we’re being heard. I feel like, even though the reaction isn’t the best reaction, it’s areaction.”
The ongoing protests and increasing number of police at these protests has fueled what the marches are fighting against – more funding to the MPD. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) is “requesting permission” from the D.C. City Council to transfer $43 million from three other government departments to cover police overtime, according to WAMU, D.C.’s National Public Radio affiliate.
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, 2020, 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.”
Local activist organizations, including D.C. Protests, face another crossroads. As temperatures drop and winter approaches, local leaders and organizers are trying to figure out their next moves to stabilize the movement.
Like with many movements, D.C. Protests’ marches were large at the beginning when the weather was warm and the days were longer. This was also fueled by more national attention on racial inequity over the summer, which has since faded.
One comparable movement, the protests in Ferguson, MO that occurred after the death of Michael Brown, came in three separate wavesover a year from August 2014 to August 2015. Each wave lasted from a week to a month. D.C. Protests has been active for roughly eight months.
Fran Buntman, 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.
These changes and challenges also include the departure of members. Ella Azoulay joined D.C. Protests in the summer as a participant. Eventually she became a volunteer. Azoulay, native of Long Island, NY and resident of Northeast D.C., departed the organization in early November after professional and personal disagreements with organization leaders.
“The work that the group accomplishes is incredible. It’s just weird that there is tension, fractures and drama,” Azoulay said, reflecting on the recent changes.
D.C. Protests has not marched since the beginning of November. In the coming months, they are focusing on more tangible efforts, helping at-risk populations in the area through mutual aid – providing food, clothing, tents, blankets and other necessities to those who need it.
Thinking back to their first march in June, Boddie is struck by the change - or lack thereof - that he has seen between then and now.
“It’s been a whirlwind of events. It’s kind of wild to think that we’re coming to the close of the year and, for the majority of the year, we’ve been outside protesting,” Boddie said.
“It’s wild to see the colors on the leaves change and still be out here speaking about the same things.”