In a situation markedly different than what initially transpired between police officers and protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death, hundreds of thousands of people of various races peacefully converged on portions of the District’s downtown sector throughout the weekend during what officials considered the largest mass demonstration in the nation’s capital in recent history.
This milestone had been precipitated by a celebratory unveiling of the large “Black Lives Matter” mural and street sign that D.C. Muriel Bowser (D) commissioned a day prior as what some people considered her alignment with protesters clashing with the federal police forces and President Donald Trump.
However, others — including members of Black Lives Matter DC — quickly dismissed Bowser’s move as an empty political gesture that distracts from her administration’s contentious record on police-community relations.
While local protester Wad Khalafalla didn’t necessarily echo that sentiment, she acknowledged the moment as an opportunity to pressure the District government’s implementation of eight policies — including the defunding of the police — championed by Black Lives Matter as part of Campaign Zero.
“The endgame is to abolish the police, [and let] the communities govern themselves. You see a criminal and [the] community gathers to find and punish that criminal,” Khalafalla, a nonprofit sector employee of Sudanese descent, told The Informer as she distributed snacks to protesters stationed at Freedom Plaza on Saturday.
“Why do the police and national guardsmen have guns?” she added. “When I see a police officer, I stop breathing. You get scared of the repercussions. My two little brothers carry suits in the back of their car so the police know they’re educated, but they don’t care about any of that.”
Sixteenth Street’s transformation to Black Lives Matter Plaza comes days after Black Lives Matter DC filed a lawsuit against the Bowser and Trump administrations over the curfew imposed last week and the use of tear gas on protesters by the White House, respectively. In the wake of the mural’s unveiling, and much to the chagrin of those calling for unity, the group condemned it as a performative act of a mayor who has embraced gentrification and police militarization.
On Saturday, hours after the sun had set on the nation’s capital and revelers stopped grooving to go-go band TOB during a parade hosted by LongLiveGoGo, members of Black Lives Matter DC conducted an art project that altered the meaning of the “Black Lives Matter” mural. The new version, which reads “Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police,” hinted at the group’s frustration with Bowser and the Metropolitan Police Department, to which she has allocated an additional $45 million in her fiscal 2021 budget.
In demanding the defunding of MPD, decriminalization of sex work, charges dropped against protesters, police-free schools, and the abolishment of jails and prisons, Black Lives Matter DC alluded to Jeffery Price, D’Quan Young, Marqueese Alston, Terrence Sterling and Ralphael Briscoe, all Black men who were were shot and killed over the past decade during encounters with MPD. The group also condemned Bowser’s reduction of funding for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE), through which the District implemented the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act.
“We rebuke the notion that we must celebrate crumbs the mayor gives D.C. residents without engaging critically in why we settle for art but not housing, street signs but not investments in the actual things that keep communities safe,” Black Lives Matter DC said in its statement.
“If our attempts to hold this administration accountable for what we believe are multiple failures of leadership turns people away then we will stand alone,” the statement continued. “We are clear in our commitment that liberation for all Black people and real change to the conditions that keep us locked up and out will not be swayed even if people disagree with our stance.”
The District’s Black Lives Matter mural represents a collaboration between city government and local creatives.
Keyonna Jones, executive director of the Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center (CHACC), counted among the creatives who painted the now-world famous mural throughout much of the night and early morning. She said the mural aligned with the values and projects she promotes from CHACC’s base in Congress Heights.
As the project near the final stages and more people funneled into downtown on their morning commutes, inquisitive passersby eventually assisted Jones and her comrades, especially after learning about the concept. Jones said that aspect of the experience — and the ripple effect of the Black Lives Matter mural — revealed a key lesson: regardless of where one stands on the issues, widespread change begins with self.
“I understand both of these thoughts can coexist in the same space — where I know I painted the mural, but [also] know there’s work to be done,” Jones told The Informer. “I hope that people will start looking around to see what they can do.
“Change is healing and it starts internally and on to the next phases to become communal,” she said. “This experience shows that. If people realize that process, then they take the same road.”