Across from Malcolm X park, tucked away in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, you will find the Josephine Butler Parks Center. Originally intended to serve as the US Vice President’s residence, it was deemed to be two miles too far from the White House to serve this purpose. The Center was eventually renamed after Black activist Josephine Butler, who campaigned for worker rights, environmental justice, and healthcare reform.
Now the Center serves as nonprofit hub for community-based organizations, including Many Languages One Voice, City Kids Wilderness Project, and the GALA Hispanic Theatre. My daily commute from Arlington took me directly past the White House (literally a house where white men have lived – with one exception), up 16th street, and into a different world. It was the first time in my 35+ years that I felt the stark divides between the Administration and the Black and Brown people who live in the nation’s capital.
Long before the pandemic, the people were fighting for their rights. Many funders and CBOs have shifted their priorities to racial equity, noting that the District—historically known as “Chocolate City”—was built and owned by Black and Brown people. The people themselves criticized gentrification, taxation without representation, and expanded immigrant detention at the hands of ICE. Racial and economic divides across the Anacostia River became ever more alarming as armed violence increased throughout the city. In the voice of 21-year-old DC rapper Nfinity Zhy: “Heart stops when you walk down the block. Two shots and your stomach in a knot…I’m serious, but that’s not your experience, so you’re just gonna stand on the side…I’m furious, I never thought DC would be so gentrified.”
Despite what you may think of the Bowser administration (the takeover of DCCAH, questionable political appointees, etc.), it has always stood in contradiction to the federal regime. Many note that Mayor Bowser did not typically criticize the Trump administration. However, from public education investment to housing equity and marijuana legalization, the Mayor’s policies speak louder than words.
With the COVID-19 crisis, most immigrants and refugees, almost 18% of the city’s population, lost their jobs in a matter of days. Most remain ineligible for unemployment benefits or stimulus payments because they are undocumented and/or work in the informal economy as street vendors, childcare providers, and domestic workers. Instead, families turn to mutual aid networks to put food on the table and provide hand sanitizer and masks. Black communities east of the Anacostia River (Wards 7 and 8) face even more dire circumstances. In recognition of their distress, street vendor union Vendedores Unidos has sent over $5,000 of their own mutual aid funds across the River.
Thousands of DC residents have now protested against the death of George Floyd, and, by extension, the pervasive system of white supremacy they face on a daily basis, including the ever-looming threat of injury and death. In front of the White House, they have gathered peacefully, although major media players have called them “vandals” or “looters” when they fight back. Are these terms accurate, or are the people unarmed scrambling to respond to the state-sanctioned force used to disperse them—to literally put them on the run through their own streets?
Monday we witnessed the disturbing scene of federal police using force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, against peaceful protestors before the 7p.m. citywide curfew, denying them the agency to leave Lafayette Square and return home safely. This act was in direct moral and ethical opposition to all doctrines related to the just use of force—before we even consider that it happened only for a photo op. In my opinion, it could be argued that such a disproportionate use of force against civilians is a war crime. As the Black Lives Matter and ACLU lawsuit attests, it is at the very least an infringement of constitutional rights.
From my first days in the District, it has become apparent to me that the people—the Black, Indigenous, Immigrant, and Refugee majority—are fighting the battle for the heart and soul of our nation. Steps away from the White House, they will not give up in the face of white supremacy, fascism, and state terror. They are stronger, more resilient than most of us. They know that the city and country are rightfully theirs. It’s past time to surrender our white privilege and embrace the equitable future they see for all of us.