'We've been doing this since the 1960s': March on Washington protesters demand change but acknowledge uphill fight as they seek to oust Trump

'Other presidents did nothing but give it lip service. Now, President Trump has publicised that there are good people who are racists,' one black protester told The Independent

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Friday 28 August 2020 19:28 BST
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The young black woman stood just a few blocks from the White House, where Donald Trump was holed up, and spoke into a bullhorn as a crowd of white and black faces hung on her every word.

"We have to vote. We have no choice. Even if we have to go to the voting box wearing three masks and two pairs of socks, y'all," she said, stamping one foot on the cracked pavement of 17th Street, NW. "Amen," an older black woman cried out, wiping her forehead on a hot and muggy day in the District of Columbia.

"It's not an option, y'all," the woman with the bullhorn continued. "Every vote counts."

About half a block away, a young white woman posed for a picture taken by a black woman about her age holding a homemade sign, made from cardboard and a black marker, that read: "Black Lives Matter."

A group of black men and women endured a blistering morning sun about an hour earlier at the intersection of Constitution Avenue, NW and 17th Street, NW, singing and chanting. "Whose streets? Our streets!" they said over and over.

As they paused in between chants, a man who identified himself only as David hoisted a black flag with large white block letters bearing the same slogan as the white woman an hour later. Asked how long he could hold his arm up with the flag, he responded: "As long as I have to. We need change." Most waiting in a line to enter the National Mall cheered as he spoke. But not all.

"Enough is enough!" a middle-aged black woman nearby yelled, throwing down a full water bottle, its contents spilling into the empty street. She added loudly as her friend led her away: "Stop killing us!"

A large group marched by few minutes later. They were under the direction of a man with his own bullhorn, who cued up chant after chant.

"Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!"

"No justice. No peace. No racist police!"

Those moments caught the spirit of Friday's rally and march in Washington, which had, all at once, the energy of a mass protest, a political rally, a large church service and a festival of like-minded people pursuing the same cause.

"We are in unprecedented, uncertain times. The state of our movement, it is strong. And another world is possible," Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, told march participants from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Mr King delivered his "I have a dream speech" nearly six decades ago.

But her next statement contradicted Washington's ongoing era of legislative gridlock, which has only been intensified by a period of tribal partisanship that has been further intensified by Mr Trump's conservative based-focused presidency and Democrats' visceral reaction to it.

"It is possible to legislate justice and accountability," she said even though no major legislation targeting racial inequality is moving in either chamber of Congress. "It is possible to write budgets that actually value black lives. If it feels unfamiliar, it's because it's never been done in America."

'Not to fear us'

Another Democratic House member, Budget Committee member Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, suggested that panel could help produce the change being sought by the thousands assembled in Washington: "Today we stop the insufficient funds and we put the money in the bank because we have to heal this nation," adding this plea for white America: "We ask American not to fear us."

The lawmakers' statements were more aspiration than reality – but black and white people interviewed on the streets around the Mall on Friday said that is just what they want.

"I hope that after today, this helps bring actual change. We talk about it, some of us talk about. Politicians talk about it. But we never really move past those conversations. We don't enact any real change," said Ron Hartley of Dallas.

Americans of all colours have taken to the streets of many US cities since George Floyd was killed under the knee of a white police officer on May 25. But just last weekend, new protests, sometimes violent and deadly, came after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr Blake, a black man, was moving away from the officer at the time. (Local police say he admitted to having a knife, and he was trying to get into an automobile while ignoring the officer's orders to stop.)

Philonise Floyd, George Floyd's brother, spoke just before the march began, admitting he was "overwhelmed with all the people that are here right now." He said he was marching for his brother and "anyone else who lost their lives to evil," declaring all the participants will bring about "change ... because we demand it."

Jacob Blake Sr spoke strongly into the microphone in front of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln and led the crowd in a chant of his brother's name. He said there is a justice system for whites and another for blacks. "The black system ain't doing so well. Every black person in the United States is going to stand up," he said. "We're tired. I'm tired of ... seeing these young black and brown people suffer. ... I truly did not want to come and see y'all today for these reasons."

Mr Hartley, like others interviewed on Friday, says Mr Blake's paralysis and gunshot wounds show a country that still has deep racial and social shortcomings.

"There's been an awakening, but there hasn't been any change," he said. "If there had been any change, that young man (Blake) wouldn't have been shot over the weekend."

'Structural change'

Notably, a handful of march participants, interviewed separately, used the same term when asked what they hoped Friday's event would help produce: "Structural change."

Maya Barry of the Arab American Institute noted it had been 168 days since Breonna Taylor was shot dead in her home by police. Ms Taylor was not armed. Tamika Palmer, Ms Taylor's mother, addressed march participants and declared "we are at a point we can get that change," but added: "We have to vote."

Ms Palmer grew emotional as the crowd chanted her daughter's name.

Kenya Young, a black woman, told The Independent earlier that she wants "justice to be served."

"But it's not justice if it's just those cops going to prison," she said. "We need policy change and we need police to stop killing black people or anyone who is unarmed."

She and Debra King, who were standing together and wearing masks in a line to enter the official program after being temperature-checked amid the Covid-19 pandemic, both said part of the policy change they want are new police training programs.

"We need cultural sensitivity training for the police, and we need cops in black communities that look like us," Ms King, an older woman. "If the officer thinks someone looks like my son or daughter, they're probably going to treat them different. And they're not going to shoot them."

Ms Young said she hopes Friday's event will "jumpstart" some change. But, so far, "I don't really see any movement towards change."

Like most others interviewed, the duo said they intend to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris. They see the White House's current occupant as fanning the flames of racial inequality.

"The president never acknowledged any of these injustices last night," Ms King said, referring to Mr Trump's 2020 GOP nomination-acceptance speech less than a mile away at the White House. "If the head of the United States doesn't talk about it, it's easy for people who support him to not even think about it."

Mr Trump and other Republicans opted against speaking at the Republican National Convention about black deaths while interacting with police; instead, they hailed law enforcement and warned a Democratic-held White House would automatically bring "anarchists" and "mobs" free to burn large cities and suburbs alike.)

'Lip service'

But it's not just Mr Trump who deserves blame for the recent sting of black deaths at the hands of police officers, multiple march participants said.

"Other presidents did nothing but give it lip service. But now, President Trump has publicised that there are good people who are racists," Ms Young said. "But other presidents never did anything to get that structural change."

She hopes Mr Biden and Ms Harris will feel pressure from events like Friday's march and the major protests from earlier this summer to push for major policing and societal changes, saying she feels "more motivated to vote."

The man who called himself David, his "Black Lives Matter" flag still high in the air, expressed optimism the Democratic ticket would seek changes, if they can defeat Mr Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in November.

"They'll have to. They'll have to," he said. "With everything that's going on, they're gonna feel that pressure. ... Democrats haven't done that much, at least not lately, but something has to change."

No one interviewed, nor the speakers who addressed the crowd, predicted one election would bring all the change they say is needed. Some acknowledged hurdles abound and progress has been made. One man, however, said it has been too slow-moving.

"Come on, man. We've been doing this since the 1960s," said a white man who called himself Mark from New Jersey. "I'm 60 years old. This has been going on all my life. The country needs to wake up."

Martin Luther King III warned the crowd "there are no permanent victories" for blacks in America's troubled racial experience. He said the black felt hope for greater change when Barack Obama was elected the first black US president in 2008 only, 12 years later, to feel "in peril again."

Still, Congresswoman Pressley vowed: "We will march on."

Minutes before the massive throng began marching to his father's memorial on the Tidal Basin, Mr King let the crowd know marching is only one part of their mission, saying on the steps of the memorial that honours the president who freed all black slaves: "We must raise our voices and cast our ballots."

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