A demonstrator raises his fist at a gathering to celebrate Juneteenth at the 16th street "Black Lives Matter Plaza" near the White House. The US marks the end of slavery by celebrating Juneteenth, with the annual unofficial holiday taking on renewed significance as millions of Americans confront the nation's living legacy of racial injustice. (Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the name of the movement: Black Lives Matter Plaza, Breonna Taylor and the long road to justice

She hasn't received justice yet, but Breonna Taylor is in the streets of the nation's capital



Mitchell L.H. Douglas
June 27, 2020 11:30PM (UTC)

Give us some good    news: an edited issue          of the                     OaklandTribune

with  every splayed corpse cut from its pages. Nimble fingers to make   papel picado

from    newspapers.— Yalie Kamara, "New America"

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At the entrance of Lafayette Square on H Street, a man in a black T-shirt and mask leans back against afternoon overcast, hoists two middle fingers toward the White House, and sings, Yeah, motherfucker! Fuck you and your mama. The mask hides part of the story, but the way he lowers his hands, exhales — the light in his eyes — says what the cloth conceals is a satisfied smile.

The motherfucker in question isn't home; he's in Dallas for a law enforcement roundtable that, according to reports, failed to extend invitations to three top local law officials who are Black. The president who claims he's the least racist person you've ever met keeps behaving in a way that contradicts his declarations.


Photo by Mitchell L.H. Douglas

One of his most recent and perplexing acts was his dystopian-future-that-feels-like-dystopian-now photo shoot at St. John's Church, a house of worship that sits on the same block of H Street as the man with defiant fingers. The international protests over the death of George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for an astonishing eight minutes and forty-six seconds, were at the president's doorstep. How the president got to the church — clearing a crowd of protesters outside with tear gas, rubber bullets, and a military escort — has since been denounced by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, who accompanied the president in his vulgar display of power.

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On Thursday, June 11, 2020, the fences come down around the square, a barrier created to keep protesters further back from the White House, and families, couples, and friends stroll the newly dubbed Black Lives Matter Plaza: two blocks of 16th Street NW that feel like victory. The plaza is another middle finger, or, perhaps, a raised fist by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser in the face of the President Who Isn't Here. It is honest and fearless, like the night I saw the poet Li-Young Lee revise his poems as he read them at Indiana University; the audience couldn't believe it was happening, but it was right there in front of us.

In the president's absence, the people party.

Revision: Present or absent, the president could never stop this party.

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Photo by Mitchell L.H. Douglas

Through flashes of rain, visitors snap pictures of protest signs assembled in a covered walkway on H Street outside the Hay-Adams hotel. "My skin is not a weapon," "Defund police," and "Know justice, Know peace," a homophonic twist on a popular protest chant, are among the messages that speak to passersby. The signs were rescued from the one wall the president successfully completed: a chain-link fence on Pennsylvania Avenue that created an additional barrier for protesters outside the new steel fence posts of the White House — yet another chasm between the president and the people.

I feel that divide a lot lately.  

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The city of my birth, Louisville, Kentucky, is locked in protests over the killing of Floyd and Louisville resident Breonna Taylor: an emergency room technician shot at least eight times by Louisville Metro Police who conducted a no-knock search warrant at her apartment as part of a narcotics investigation. As a teen, Taylor moved with her family to Louisville from Michigan and, years later after the start of a promising career, my city failed her. It feels a lot like the death of another young black woman, Sandra Bland. Bland moved from Illinois to Prairie View, Texas, to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, only to die in jail after a questionable arrest by former Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia in 2015.

Her death ruled a suicide, no justice came to Bland. Encinia is a former trooper because he made false statements about Bland in his police report, received perjury charges, and agreed never to seek another job in law enforcement in order to have the charges dropped. Following Taylor's death, the Louisville police officers who served the warrant at her apartment, Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, were placed on administrative reassignment pending an investigation. While Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer claims his heart is with Taylor's family, a paycheck and new duties for the men who took her life doesn't feel like love. It's another rift between public servants and the people they are meant to serve.

I want more for Louisville than the city is willing to give.

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Revision: The heart of a city is its people, not its government. We, the people of Louisville — its residents and natives — want more than our government is willing to give.


Photo by Mitchell L.H. Douglas

She hasn't received justice yet, but Breonna Taylor is in the streets of the nation's capital: her name spray painted into a crosswalk on Black Lives Matter Plaza and K Street with the names George (Floyd), Ahmaud (Arbery), and Tony (McDade); her likeness stenciled on a board covering a window at St. John's — the famous picture in her EMT uniform holding flowers included on one of the protest signs displayed on H Street. The actions of protesters in D.C. prove Taylor is in their hearts more than the empty statements offered by Louisville's mayor. Some of the signs have been gathered for the Smithsonian, a local television station reports, but the streets of D.C. are an open-air museum for the movement right now. The people have erected monuments, artful and passionate testimonies to the change they want to see.

The day draws on and more revelers arrive. A woman invites visitors at Lafayette Square to make chalk drawings on the red brick path that points to the north face of the White House. Merchants with Black Lives Matter T-shirts arrange their wares for sale in small, makeshift tents on the plaza. Across the street, a group of local fire spinners gather in front of the AFL-CIO building and twist poles edged in flame above their heads, dancing to the pop of conga drums. One of the artists admires others before joining in. Removing a black T-shirt, he twists with the flame above his head. He looks familiar; he is, in fact, the man who has raised his hands for many a righteous cause today. Dusk is pregnant with peace, a feeling my partner and I carry with us as we leave the plaza. This is what we drove more than 500 miles to feel, the story we longed to witness. We are poets: sensitive, not psychic. In a time we have yet to know, justice moves closer.

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Photo by Mitchell L.H. Douglas

An investigation into the actions of Brett Hankison by the Louisville Police Department Public Integrity Unit and a review of the investigation by Louisville Police Chief Robert J. Schroeder results in Hankison's firing on June 23, 2020. In a letter issued to Hankison that day, Schroeder says Hankison exhibited "extreme indifference to the value of human life" when he "wantonly and blindly" fired ten shots into Breonna Taylor's apartment.

"I find your conduct a shock to the conscience," Schroeder writes. "I am alarmed and stunned you used deadly force in this fashion."

But the letter is the future, and one sobering fact will remain: the day it arrives, news of Hankison's dismissal will not be accompanied by charges in Taylor's death. Hankison, Mattingly and Cosgrove will still be free.

When we drive the hundreds of miles home the next day, road worn but hopeful, there is a new name to mourn. Asleep in his car in the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks is confronted by police and shot dead.

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With news of Brooks's death, the phrase "The cruelty is the point" comes to mind.

Revision: The cruelty is the point and it cuts deep—as close to the bone as it's ever been.

Revision: Why?                      The cruelty…             

 

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Photo by Mitchell L.H. Douglas

Mitchell L.H. Douglas

Mitchell L. H. Douglas is the author of three poetry collections: "dying in the scarecrow’s arms," "\blak\ \al-fə bet\" and "Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem." He is a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets and Associate Professor of English at IUPUI in Indianapolis.

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Black Lives Matter Breonna Taylor D.c. Editor's Picks Essay Louisville Police Brutality Washington

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