Commentary: The right to a peaceful assembly is for some, not all

“Police have never failed to comply with white activists’ demands for safety

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One of the fences the police set up in Lafayette Park to deter BLM protesters. (Rebecca Heimbrock/iGeneration Youth/TNS)

The pavement in Lafayette Square Park is usually warm from the sun, rough to the touch, and uncomfortable to sit on. The Black Lives Matter protesters who have gathered at Lafayette in protest of the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer wouldn’t know that. In an unprecedented move, the police and national guard have blocked off all access to the park, forcing activists away from the pavement that has hosted so many protests before them. This is the first time the national guard has occupied the park since the Vietnam War (@DCMEDIAGROUP).

When the mostly white local organization Students Demand Action DMV organized a die-in on the pavement in Lafayette, the police were barely present. A few officers strolled by, glancing toward us, but, for the most part, stayed out of our way. “We have the right to protest on the sidewalk,” I remember being told. It didn’t occur to me that this right would not apply to everyone. 

When I returned to the park for another die-in against gun violence, again organized by a mostly white activist group, the police were there, but they didn’t do anything to us. They observed and went on their way. When I and two other white activists were organizing a protest outside the NRA headquarters without a permit, essentially forcing the police to come and block off the road for our protection, they came in standard uniforms and formed a barricade that protected us from gun-toting counter-protesters. 

Student protesters gather at Lafayette Park for an anti-gun violence demonstration in 2018. (Rebecca Heimbrock/iGeneration Youth/TNS)

And again, and again, and again. Whether it be in Lafayette Square Park, the middle of a busy street in Fairfax, Va., or on Pennsylvania Avenue, the police have never failed to comply with white activists’ demands for safety. 

In contrast, when the local group Black Lives Matter DC organized a protest in Lafayette Square Park, the police met protesters in riot gear with mobile fences up, blocking off the paved area and forcing the protesters to stay on the lawn — far away from the White House. The next day, the police pushed the barricade even farther, blocking any entrance to the grassy park. Protesters were forced to congregate on H Street. I watched as police in full riot gear inched up, antagonizing protesters at the barricades with their clear, round riot shields — a mockery of the round shield that anti-fascist pop culture icon Captain America carries. 

This distinct divide in the treatment of protesters is not new. The origins of policing can be traced back to the pre-Civil War slave patrols as noted in “A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing” by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D., which tracked down runaway slaves and returned them to plantation owners. This was all legal, of course, because black people were seen as property. Then, during the Jim Crow era, police force jobs in some parts of the country were to arrest ordinary black citizens and put them in jail so they could serve out life sentences in coal mines and on farms — a modern iteration of slavery. 

Fast-forward to the civil rights movement: Many in police authority regarded their job as to maim, kill, and violate the rights of black protesters who were fighting for freedom, according to Kappeler. The most famous examples of this were Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., and the FBI wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. as noted in the files at Stanford |The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. And now, after centuries of racism being ingrained into police culture, unarmed black and brown men and women are still being abused and killed by police. Black and brown people are still seen as a threat to state forces, and nothing exemplifies this more than the discrepancies between how white and black protesters are treated in the nation’s capital. 

When I marched from Lafayette Square to Capitol Hill with my mostly white peers, the roads were blocked off for us, and some cops even cheered us on. 

When I marched from Lafayette Square to Capitol Hill with Black Lives Matter, the police blocked off roads “because” of us — meeting us in riot gear, batons in their hands, ready to beat every minority who dared take to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights. 

Tear gas and pepper spray were never an issue when I marched with organizations of majority white people like March For Our Lives and Students Demand Action. But when I walked down 17th Street with Black Lives Matter, I found out for the first time how disgustingly bitter pepper spray smelled.

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