We Keep Us Safe
We Keep Us Safe
At the beginning of the summer of 2020, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest police brutality, I did so as well. This wasn’t the first time I witnessed protests against the barbarity of the state, but as we’ve seen, this time was different. As the movement coalesced, protestors in my hometown of Washington, DC have been out in force every single night. When news cameras leave, the cops move in with pepper spray, gas and munitions. They arrest people en masse to clear the streets, only to release them the following day with “no paper”, the term they use when there are no charges to file. They continue to kill Black men. All over the country, every week, there’s another Black life lost at the hands of police and another community demands an end to the wickedness. In DC, two more young men have died during police encounters since protests began. Deon Kay. Karon Hylton. Each death spurred days of protest, with the Hylton killing inciting some of the most violent clashes of the year.
As the police have historically resisted reform, there have been calls for police to be defunded and even abolished. Protestors believe that police, entrusted to protect and serve, do neither, and ask, “Who keeps us safe?” The response, “We keep us safe!” They protect and defend each other, not just from police but from opposition activists, the media, and anyone who would do harm. A man on an electric scooter who disrespected some of the Black women at a march, was run off the plaza by protestors, but brandished a knife and menaced himself and the crowd. A protestor disarmed him while Metropolitan Police stood by, only to tase him after the man was subdued. At Black Lives Matter Plaza, the focal point in DC, protestors set up food tents, medic stations and give each other haircuts. At a tent city occupation of the Department of Education, protestors watched the presidential debate on an inflatable screen and settled into games of chess and spades to pass the night. The dedicated group of several dozen activists have been hardened by the protests, but have become close. The movement is not only about rage, it is about love as well. It is about love for Black lives, and the love and respect for those who would acknowledge that Black lives matter. They determine the community here, and it defines a generation.
This essay was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award for Domestic Photography in 2021