by Will Fowler
Journalists are trained to be objective. From my first day in journalism school, the idea of unbiased, uninvolved reporting was drilled into my head. However, sometimes we become too close to a story to cover it objectively – we become participants rather than observers. This was, in a way, my experience with the demonstrations that have rocked DC and the rest of the country since the death of George Floyd.
The Friday after Floyd’s death, a friend invited me to a protest in Richmond. I went more to check it out than to participate. My instinct was to act as an observer, not a participant. But as I found myself marching alongside Black Lives Matter protesters through the streets of Virginia’s capital, that instinct dissolved. I watched as police brutalized nonviolent demonstrators, escalating the situation and provoking the crowd until they retaliated. A car caught fire. The windows of the police station were smashed. Protesters were beaten and drenched in so much pepper spray they vomited.
I recall seeing a young girl, no taller than five feet, bleeding profusely from her forehead after being attacked by the police. She couldn’t have been older than 18. That was the moment I stopped being an observer.
I was enraged, and the next night I went to Lafayette Square with friends to join protests closer to home. The square was cordoned off by a wall of riot police, many of whom had their name tags and other identifying insignia removed.
The atmosphere was confrontational but nonviolent. Protesters attempted to speak to the police, but officers ignored demands to give their names and badge numbers. Eventually, angered by the silence, people began shouting at the police. Many cried as they told the police about friends and family they’d lost. The police didn’t respond.
In an instant, everything changed. For reasons I still don’t understand, the police suddenly began pepper spraying the protesters. I was sprayed directly from about four feet away. The sensation is difficult to describe, but it feels something like someone injecting a needle full of hot sauce into your eyes. Fortunately, some protesters had come prepared with Maalox and water and were able to help me as I writhed in pain on the street. I had to remove my face mask because it became soaked in pepper spray.
Although things remained mostly nonviolent for the next hour or so, police periodically sprayed the crowd, at times seemingly without reason. At one point, I got it so badly on the back of my neck that my skin turned bright red and burned for hours. After that hour of abuse, the increasingly angry crowd started throwing water bottles and other small projectiles at the line. I saw a rock fly over an officer’s head and within seconds police replied by firing tear gas into the crowd. The air filled with yellow smoke, making it impossible to breathe. The police line advanced toward St. John’s Church, forcing me to move west along H Street. At the front of the church, I saw people running and heard flash grenades. People, especially older people, were getting trampled in the chaos.
I walked against the running crowd shouting “Walk, don’t run!” to try to quell the panic, moving toward the police line with my hands in the air. About ten yards from the police line, I saw a blinding flash of light and heard an overwhelming booming sound. I felt burning pain on my arms and scalp. My ears rang so loudly that I couldn’t hear. Extremely disoriented, I fell to my knees and looked at my arms, which were bloody. A young man grabbed me and pulled me to my feet, dragging me toward the church. Somewhat delirious, I tried to pull away from him and continue yelling at people not to run, but I couldn’t hear myself.
The young man informed me that a flashbang had exploded directly on top of my head. In disbelief, I touched my scalp and burnt hair fell off. In shock, I began laughing. There was something deeply ironic about being injured by police while protesting police brutality. As my hearing began to return, the man insisted I get to a hospital, but I was too shocked to listen. I found my friends, who were stunned at the sight of me. I was bleeding and covered in ash, and I was forced again to sit on the curb and be a passive observer.
A few minutes later, things escalated again as police began clearing H Street entirely. They fired tear gas, protesters threw it back. A few people shot fireworks or threw rocks. Some yelled at them to remain peaceful, some cheered on the retaliation and said it was self-defense. I was too disoriented to pay much attention, but I distinctly remember when the police started marching toward H and Vermont where my friends and I were resting. It was immediately obvious that they weren’t going to stop advancing until they had arrested or violently dispersed the crowd. People began building barricades, and at this point I was genuinely afraid of what would happen if the police continued their advance, so we helped build.
Fortunately, the barricade worked, and the police stopped in front of it. They seemed unsure of what to do next. The crowd quickly got organized and gave a megaphone to an organizer. Addressing the police, he explained the barricade was an act of defense and that the crowd didn’t want to hurt anyone, and encouraged protesters to avoid violence. After he finished talking, the megaphone was passed around to people from all walks of life. Organizers gave speeches; people talked about those they’d lost. Most memorably, a black woman repeated the phrase “I have a black son” to the police before telling them how scared she was that one day she would get a knock on the door and find out her child had been murdered during a traffic stop.
As the night continued, the presence of a physical barrier between police and protesters helped everyone calm down. There was no further aggression from either side, and I went home with my friends at around 2 a.m. They picked shrapnel out of my arm and disinfected the burns. I attempted to comb out the burnt hair but some of it had fused to my scalp. I showered, but my clothes and hair were so coated in tear gas and pepper spray that my bathroom turned into a miniature gas chamber, and I ran out coughing. I had to throw out the shirt I wore.
Sunday, despite the curfew imposed by the mayor, I was even more passionately committed. At this point it was personal, and my friends and I brought medical supplies, expecting further escalation. Between us we had almost enough medical training to be competent and planned on providing first aid. Sunday I was even more passionately committed to the cause. We arrived outside the U.S. Treasury building two hours before the curfew, where things were initially more peaceful and dispersed than the nights before.
However, within half an hour police started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. I got separated from my friends and got caught up treating pepper spray victims. When I finally found my friends, they were treating a young woman who had been shot in the thigh with a rubber bullet. They’d had to carry her out of a stampeding crowd, apply a tourniquet around her leg, and cut open her jeans. The inside of her thigh muscle was visible and a puddle of blood was forming beneath her. The bleeding slowed, fortunately, and the woman’s friend found her.
The joy of that reunion was short lived. Police piled out of a fire department vehicle, pepper sprayed all the medics, and grabbed the woman as she pleaded with them to let her go. A crowd followed them, angrily demanding to know where they were taking her, but they ignored them. Right before they drove off, they named a hospital and gave no further information.
By the 11 p.m. curfew, the situation had deteriorated into a full-blown street battle. Looters took advantage of the chaos and raided several stores downtown. I saw a restaurant engulfed in flames as I walked the streets with my friends helping the injured. The police, however, seemed uninterested in the looters, the injured, or the arsonists and focused their attention exclusively on the larger crowd of protesters. Once we’d caught up with crowd, police chased us to Farragut Square and attempted to box us in. About 150 of us regrouped and chanted “hands up, don’t shoot!” while they fired flashbangs, tear gas, and rubber bullets. People came prepared with ear plugs and goggles to protect ourselves, and we remained unmoved. We were able to remain beside the Farragut West metro station without incident until my friends and I became overwhelmed with shellshock and fatigue and decided to go home.
That night I treated dozens of injured people. Every one of them told me they were nonviolently protesting when they were attacked by the police. Police actively ignored looters, who intentionally stayed outside the crowd where there was no police presence, while abusing nonviolent protesters. The only aggression I saw from demonstrators was a direct retaliation to police aggression – like throwing back the tear gas that police shot at us.
Sunday wasn’t the last night I went out, but it was the peak of the violence – at least from the protesters. That Monday saw nonviolent protesters attacked in broad daylight, before curfew, all for a presidential photo op outside St. Johns Church. One of the protesters attacked was the priest of the church. The Secret Service denied using pepper spray, then admitted it. They also denied using tear gas, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. The Metropolitan Police Department denied being involved, despite video evidence.
Many media outlets have pushed a narrative that the protests are extremely violent and repeated the demonstrable lies of the police. I am writing this provide a counternarrative. There are those who criticize this movement for judging police by the actions of “a few bad apples,” yet judge the protests by the handful of violent participants. There are those who decry the destruction of property by protesters, yet care nothing about the destruction of human lives by police.
I am a biased source. I cannot cover this story objectively. My initial plans to merely be an observer were a result of white privilege, and I can only imagine how much worse my experience would have been if I weren’t insulated by it.
So as much as I want to be the uninvolved reporter who can tell “both sides” of this story, after seeing this level of brutality, I can’t. My hair is still growing back from the burns. Shortly after the first wave of protests, I got Covid-19, probably from being in a crowd full of people coughing on tear gas. While I cannot speak as a dispassionate observer, I still need to speak. One slogan of the protests, “silence is violence,” resonates deeply with me.
On a final note: if you, as a reader, sympathized or felt bad for me at any point in this story, I want you to ask yourself if you have the same sympathy for George Floyd. Or for Breonna Taylor. Or for Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and the hundreds of others who have been killed. I survived relatively unscathed. They deserve your sympathies far more than me – and more importantly, they deserve your action.
Will Fowler has been on Forest Hills Connection’s business beat since January. He did not expect to become part of a bigger story.