FEATURE: I Went to a Black Lives Matter Rally

Here’s what I saw

(Twitter user)
August 27, 2015

I arrive just in time to see a white man slip something that looks like a bag of powder to a black man wearing a green Red Sox cap. The hands part and go into the respective pockets, no need to double check the cash or product. Behind them a group of three dozen yuppies play bocce ball. A normal Tuesday evening at Franklin Square’s I Street entrance.

The real action is on the K Street side. About 100 activists supporting Black Lives Matter gather in front of two out-of-service fountains stained dark green from urban algae. A banner boldly declares "Unapologetically Black" to the mostly white audience. The crowd isn’t there to protest the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man. Jess, a 22-year-old American University student with hair dyed green a shade lighter than the stagnant water, says she is sick of seeing her people brutalized, which is why she is holding a sign with a black power fist in the middle of a transgender sign.

"I came out here because I’m trans and I’m tired of seeing trans brutalized," she says. "I’ve been harassed both physically and sexually, but I’m white, so I’m much less susceptible to murder than black trans women."

Black Lives Matter has partnered with gay group Get Equal and the feminist Black Youth Project 100 to raise awareness of the murder of black men who identify as women (trans women) in cities across the country.

The movement’s yellow sign has to make room for the protest’s new slogan: Black Trans Lives Matter. The transgender focus does not generate the turnout that jammed the Brooklyn Bridge, but it brings plenty of diversity.

The protest opens just after 6:45 with traditional Black Lives Matter hymns. "What side are you on my people? A. We on the freedom side," segueing to, "I believe that we will win." Organizers update an old BLM responsorial psalm to accommodate their newfound allies: V1: Black Lives are under attack what do you do? V2: Trans lives are under attack what do you do? R. Stand up, fight back."

Emcee Patty Shabazz begins to explain the "hetero-cis-normative" nature of the United States of America before turning to Elle Hearns. Hearns, an activist with both BLM and GetEqual, lays out the case for why the movement should pay special attention to black trans individuals. Hearns is sheepish, mumbling into the megaphone before finding her voice.

"We cannot pursue any liberation or any dismantling of any system until we dismantle [barriers] for all of us," she says.

The dismantling may be for everyone, but organizer Aarons Goggans is dissatisfied with those in the community who are not pulling their weight.

"Not a lot of black cis men [here]. The people who did 90 percent of the work are black women and black trans women. We can’t let that go without being said … I’m here to apologize," he says to cheers from organizers and somewhat awkward applause.

Gay activist Jonathan Lykes paces the stage lamenting that cis men did not turn out in larger numbers.

"We’re calling out specifically—specifically, specifically we’re calling out black cis men to say stand up," he says.

Lykes is a master rhetorician, emotive without being sentimental, emphatic without seeming fanatic. He is fueled entirely by rage. He opens by asking attendees to turn to their neighbors and ask, "Are you angry?" The guy to my right leans on a light pole, texting, but the vast majority chant "yes."

"I’m here because I’m angry and if you’re not angry with me, then I’m here to start a fire and an anger inside you," he says.

The crowd at Franklin Square is friendly, good-natured, and hoping to save lives at the outset of the protest. There’s George M. Johnson, a manager at the HIV prevention group Us Helping Us.

"I’m a gay cis black man and I work in particular with trans people. I supervise a trans person … their voice is so erased in media," he says.

That’s a common refrain in the Black Liven Matter movement. People are invisible, erased. By what? By racism or cis-normatism, by personal, interpersonal, structural, and systemic forces. The media. The police. Academia. Shabazz assures the crowd that this message is not mere feeling; it’s science. She tells them BLM has performed "structural analysis" in addition to "systemic analysis" each of which point to racism and cis-hetero-norms for the ills of society. With the science settled it’s time to act, according to Lykes.

"It’s not an academic study … it’s action you take every day," he says. "There are folks on the other side who want to see us dead."

Organizers invite any non-cis attendees, black or white, to take the stage. After a few seconds, Venus volunteers. Slender Venus with dark blue fingernails, tasteful hoop earrings, skinny jeans, and spring sweater. A newsboy hat shades over her thin mustache and short beard. "Venus!" the organizers call out in excitement as she takes the bullhorn.

Venus has come to D.C. to escape Louisiana, affecting a falsetto that obviates any trace of backwater accent. She came to transition to womanhood among civilized progressives, but now finds herself carrying a weapon at all times.

"I’ve been harassed on the street, on the metro. I had to start carrying a knife in my purse." Here she chokes up to a chorus of "love you."

"There’s a genocide and I feel like I’m walking into a minefield," Venus says, inspiring cries of love, of sympathy from his tearful listeners, who declare "we are with you."

"Every time a trans women has been murdered I have fallen on my bedroom floor in tears," Venus says.

She has dropped to the floor 19 times this year, according to organizers. If the killings keep at their current rate through the fall and winter—when murders take a steep dive—the U.S. could see up to 29 murders in the community by January.

Transgender individuals represent about 0.3 percent of the population, putting the murder rate at less than 3 per 100,000 inhabitants—about half the national average. The black community saw 19 murders per 100,000 between 2010 and 2012, according to the United Nations.

Hearns is back on the bullhorn telling people that trans murder is "a consistent epidemic in this country."

"There’s nothing new about my rage. There’s nothing new about Venus carrying around a motherfucking knife … [scared] that she’ll be next on a list," she says before taking aim at Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic frontrunner told several BLM activists recently that she wanted to discuss policy rather than rhetoric. When the activists demurred the former Secretary of State said, "If that is your position then I will talk only to white people."

"I don’t care about your policy. I don’t care about the White House," Hearns says to laughter from the crowd. "From the looks of things we will continue to shut shit down."

"Fuck respectability politics," an activist shouts.

The grand finale is a collection of blue, pink, black, and gold balloons, one for each trans individual murdered this year at the hands of mostly unsolved, gang, or hooker related enterprises; one trans male was shot by Maryland police after ramming the barrier at the National Security Agency.

"Mercedes Williamson," Hearns says. "Mercedes Williamson, say her name" the crowd responds three times, fists raised high. On it goes through London Chanel and Kristina Grant Infiniti. Organizers shuffle around after the first two balloons get caught in trees.

A voice cries out, "Let’s go shut down the streets." She says it again louder. Murmurs sweep through the crowd. "Are we going? Are we going? Okay, let’s go," a woman in a BYP100 shirt says. It starts with a trickle, instigators walking in twos toward 14 and K, but the reluctant hangers-on get fired up when the chants of "Stand Up, fight back" and "We shut shit down" start up again. Soon they’re five abreast pouring into the busy intersection, living, breathing gridlock.

"I need help here," a white woman in pink says as she tries to block a Nissan SUV from making the right at the northern intersection. The driver, John, an Ethiopian immigrant who has been in D.C. for 10 years, is puzzled that the young woman is obstructing his commute in the name of saving black lives.

"They don’t have to block the street. We should conduct ourselves in an orderly manner," he tells the Washington Free Beacon. A black activist quietly ushers the white woman out of the way.

Kareem Yancey, 42, is three cars back at the southern end of the intersection and doesn’t have the luxury of U-turning. He’s in the company truck and is bound by GPS tracking to take an exact route.

"I support the cause, but I got kids to pick up," Yancey says. "I wish they’d spend more time on black lives—and all lives—focusing on when someone’s running around with a gun shooting people. Not just cops."

Josh Bulloc, a 30-year-old black man riding shotgun in a woman’s sedan, is vexed at first, but becomes more sympathetic when he realizes it’s the BLM movement.

"They should totally be able to protest, but there’s a park right there. I don’t know what the significance is of blocking traffic," Bulloc says.

Seven cops arrive on scene and quietly start opening up individual lanes for those trapped in the intersection. It appears to be over until a wispy white college kid jumps in front of a small SUV that thought it was clear to go through. The car lurches forward as the college kid leans against the bumper. A friend comes and takes a dive in front of the vehicle and demands that police respond by arresting the driver. The cops continue directing other traffic, while the mob surrounds the SUV. Protesters clog the windshield with an artist rendering of one of the trans murder victim and other placards. They snap photos of the license plate.

"You don’t care about our bodies?" You don’t care about our bodies," people scream at the driver.

The police shoo them back into the park and allow the SUV to proceed.

The crowd starts back toward the park shouting, "Hey hey, ho ho, these racist police have got to go."

If only race relations were as seamless as the drug deal I saw at the start of the night.

Published under: Feature , Washington