As the U.S. observes the birthday of American Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself reflecting on protests I covered in recent years.
In May and June 2020, when the nation was awash in protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, I trawled the streets of Washington, D.C., to report. I thought of King often. I wondered then what he would say if he were alive. I imagined the cause of the protests would pain him deeply, of course. But much of the response in the streets of the nation’s capital, I imagined, was something he may have been quite moved by and proud of.
Often, when interviewing protesters that summer, it felt as if an invisible thread connected them to King backward nearly 60 years.
Much has changed since then, and sadly, much has stayed the same.
Thankfully, however, the spirit of King’s righteousness has carried on.
The protesting in Washington was not perfectly peaceful, but it was overwhelmingly peaceful. The protests that endured for days were overwhelmingly calm. I met people of every color, age, and creed who came to Washington from all over the U.S. to reject the abhorrent injustice of this nation’s institutional racism. And though many people’s hearts were breaking—or already broken—so many still managed to reach deep into the pit of their despair and bring courageous compassion to the surface.
I didn’t personally meet any protesters that summer who believed in using tools of violence or malevolent force as a means to an end. It’s not to say these people don’t exist. But I personally didn’t meet any like that.
I met people so angry about the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement that, as they spoke to me, their spittle flew onto my face. I met people so utterly exasperated by this nation’s two-tiered justice system that they burst into tears when I asked them, “Why are you here today?”
I saw people perform first aid on one another, like one woman who helped patch up the knee of another woman who fell and tripped on a lip in the concrete as she marched near the National Monument. I saw people feed and water each other at no cost, encouraging protesters to eat and drink so they didn’t dehydrate or collapse in the hot summer sun.
I saw people hand out free hand sanitizer and face masks, since it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I listened as they advised one another to stay healthy if they wanted to “show up again tomorrow.” I saw people offer the tired a lift on their backs, or carry them on their shoulders. I saw mothers march with small children in their arms. I saw the young walk alongside the old. I saw people protesting in the street who used wheelchairs. I saw people plod down Constitution Avenue on crutches. I saw people sing and dance. I saw people sob. I saw people doused with pepper spray as they held up protest signs or chanted. I saw just about every type of American you could imagine, moving in unison as they rejected hate and demanded justice.
When I watched footage of the rioters storming the Capitol on Jan. 6—many brandishing weapons, makeshift and otherwise—my mind flashed back to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
My mind fluttered, more specifically, to a charged 10 minutes I witnessed in June.
A very large crowd of protesters had gathered near Lafayette Square, roughly a block or two from the White House. Its bright white facade shone in the sunlight. Security was very stiff, given the events of June 1, when riot police cleared peaceful protesters using tear gas and rubber bullets.
On this day, there wasn’t a cloud overhead. There was a line of police, maybe 20 or so, standing shoulder to shoulder, on this particular block. Signs and banners were hoisted high in the air and in semi-regular intervals, a protester would emerge from the crowd and begin to pace in front of the police while loudly delivering a speech about the evils of racism and the necessity of equality.
As one protester spoke to the crowd, I moved off to the side near a fence. Suddenly, I watched as a large beige-colored truck pulled up and parked just to the side of the police line. It was a transport of National Guard troops.
Where people had been busily chatting before or chanting, a quietness swept through the crowd as troops began to pop out of the back truck and flank police.
Then, a man’s voice cut through the growing quiet.
“Peaceful protest, peaceful protest, peaceful protest,” he yelled.
Then he dropped to his knees.
“Peaceful protest,” he chanted again.
Then, I watched as dozens of people behind him dropped to their knees.
Now the chant was in stereo. Together, the crowd uttered only those two words.
I watched the troops watch the crowd. I watched the police watch the crowd. I listened to the crowd chant “peaceful protest” over and over and over as members of the National Guard assembled.
It went on like this for a few minutes.
It was brilliant to behold.
The protesters made their intentions perfectly clear at that moment: This was not a group to be mistaken for an irate mob. No satisfaction would be granted to anyone that day who would denigrate their movement. This was not about force; this was not about malevolence. And if you should doubt their words, one only needed to look at their bodies, supplicant and kneeling on the asphalt, to confirm.
This was about protest—a treasured right afforded to all Americans.
This was about sharing a message and making that message so hard to ignore that it might actually spark policy changes for the better.
After Jan. 6, I thought about that moment a lot, especially when people would attempt to draw comparisons between those who protested the murder of George Floyd to those who stormed the Capitol when their preferred presidential candidate failed to win an election.
I saw nary a single swastika brandished in the street in June 2020.
On Jan. 6, 2021, I saw several.
I never feared for my life when I covered the Floyd protests.
On Jan. 6, I did.
I never had to hide my badge as a reporter during the Floyd protests.
On Jan. 6, I concealed my badge out of fear of being assaulted for the sin of doing my job.
The former head of the D.C. National Guard and former Sergeant at Arms for the House of Representatives, William Walker, told the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol that he thought it “would have been a vastly different response” if it were Black Americans who overwhelmingly stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6
“As a career law enforcement officer, part-time soldier, last five years full but, but a law enforcement officer my entire career, the law enforcement response would have been different,” Walker, a Black man, said.
In January 2021, President Joe Biden told reporters: “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”
I wish I could ask Dr. King what he made of the insurrection.
And not just the insurrection, but the way in which protesters were treated both during and after the attack.
I wish I could listen to him sermonize on this double standard in the way only he could.
I wish I could hear his thoughts on the demagogues of today, who only began calling for necessary prison reforms or an end to mass incarceration when hundreds of white Republican men who stormed the Capitol started getting thrown in jail.
I wonder what King would say about having patience in the face of so much continued injustice.
I wonder what he would say to the young man who dropped to his knees without a second thought in order to unify the masses around him and stave off a greater conflict.
I wanted to capture as much as possible of the protests in Washington in the summer of 2020, so I took more than a thousand photographs and published several reports. I wanted a visual record of what I saw. I didn’t want the world to think there were bands of malcontents and hooligans running wild in the streets, viciously beating police, the press, or their ideological opponents.
For Dr. King’s birthday, I reflect on the import of nonviolent protest and why that matters as we move forward into another year in which extremism is on the rise and Trumpism continues to have a foothold in America.
If you have Twitter, check out the tweet thread below. It is a photo diary from my coverage of the protests, with links to my reports enclosed.
For those who aren’t on Twitter, check out the thread unrolled here, but please note—when I originally uploaded these images, the thread broke, so the “unrolled” thread may not lead you to every picture in the series.