Tuesday, June 2, 2020

across maryland and virginia, suburban protesters speak out against police brutality

All over the United States, people have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against Black people after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last week. Many of these demonstrations have taken place in center cities, including here in downtown DC. Yet suburban communities in Maryland and Virginia have stepped up as well.

Protesters kneel while blocking Germantown Road at a protest on Sunday. Photo by Rachel Taylor.
Protests started in the DC area on Friday, after two days of rioting in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death on May 27 (One officer has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd's death). Since then, there have been demonstrations around the White House every afternoon. The first suburban protest may have been Saturday evening in Manassas, a community in Prince William County with a large Latinx population, a long history of harassing immigrants, and a history of protest.

Demonstrators blocked Sudley Road, a state highway lined with big-box stores and shopping centers. Tweets from the protest show a line of people in a standoff with police, peacefully holding posters. As in cities around the nation, police responded with violence. Twitter user Tony posted photos of police tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at the crowd.

Additional demonstrations followed on Sunday. In Germantown, protestors blocked Germantown Road, a six-lane highway like Sudley Road, for several hours. In Leesburg, there was a peaceful protest outside the Loudoun County courthouse, where a Confederate memorial remains standing. In Arlington, protesters kneeled in Shirlington before marching three miles to the Ballston Metro station. And in Silver Spring, roughly 50 people held an impromptu march along Georgia Avenue, stopping in front of Woodside United Methodist Church to hold signs.

At some protests, including Manassas and another one in Stafford County, police openly antagonized peaceful demonstrators. But at other suburban events, police cooperated with protesters. In Germantown, police intervened only to keep protestors from walking down an on-ramp to I-270. A viral tweet from Curtis Kill shows Montgomery County police officers talking to demonstrators and even kneeling with them.

On Monday, students held a protest in Gaithersburg, led by Magruder High School student Nicole Badobre. When a white man attempted to disrupt the protest by yelling “All Lives Matter,” the crowd grew agitated, and police officers ushered the man away to deescalate the situation. Bethesda Beat reporter Caitlynn Peetz captured a video of Badobre patiently explaining to the man why he’s wrong.

Where we protest is the message

While many Maryland and Virginia residents headed downtown to protest this week, others chose to stay closer to home. Some may have lacked access to transportation (especially as Capital Bikeshare and Metro shut down service) and others wanted to send a message to local leaders. A Twitter post shows additional protests planned in Montgomery County this week, including in Bethesda on Tuesday and Rockville on Friday.

“This is not ‘urban’ unrest,” tweeted Willow Lung-Amam, an urban planning professor at the University of Maryland. “Its unrest among Black people & communities that cut across city, suburban, & rural lines.”

One key difference with suburban protests is that students play a large role. In 2014, the Minority Scholars Project, a group of Montgomery County Public Schools students who advocate for racial equity, marched on the county courthouse in Rockville to protest the achievement gap. Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, students at several Montgomery County high schools walked out of class, demonstrating (among other places) atop a parking garage at Wheaton Plaza. Students across the region walked out of class again in 2018 for the March for Our Lives against gun violence, which culminated in a rally at the US Capitol.

Another difference is where suburban protests occurred. Some communities like Leesburg have a historic public square that was designed for assembly and free speech. In the White Oak area of Montgomery County, people gathered to honor Black people killed by police at a local park.
But in newer places like Germantown and Manassas, protests happened on big roads that are designed for moving lots of cars but are the most prominent space in the community. The Gaithersburg protest happened at Rio and Crown, two adjacent “town centers” with an artificial lake, restaurants, and new homes selling for upwards of $400,000. Rio and Crown are a popular hangout, and even though the streets and plazas there are privately owned, they effectively function as public spaces.

What happens next?

The past two days of suburban protests have given thousands of people the chance to peacefully speak out against racism and police brutality. I can only hope that these will lead to meaningful change, at least at the local level. Already, Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando will introduce legislation declaring racism a “public health emergency”, citing the pervasive impact of racism on everything from transportation to health care. Yet it’s unclear where we go next. Here in Montgomery County, residents are demanding reforms after police fatally shot a Black man named Finan Berhe last month outside his home in White Oak.

Meanwhile, vandalism in Silver Spring and looting in Friendship Heights have only put people more on edge. I’m proud of my suburban neighbors for stepping up this weekend. I just hope that we can keep it up, peacefully, and actually push for meaningful change for people of color here and around the country.

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