America lifts its voice for protest and change

Once upon a time, I was knocked to the ground by overzealous bodyguards at a Freetown stadium. It was for an official event and, partly because Ernest Bai Koroma, then Sierra Leone’s president, saw it happen, I was immediately helped up and given space to carry on reporting.

No such luck for the Australian news crew who were battered by riot police in Washington DC on Donald Trump’s watch this week. The US president claims he is an ally of all peaceful protesters, but critics say his threats and actions have incited violence, militarised the nation, targeted media and put the hallowed First Amendment — the right to free speech, peaceable assembly and to petition the government to redress grievances — under strain.

As Amelia Brace, a 33-year-old reporter, covered the protests this week, a sudden police surge cleared out peaceful protesters (some of whom were kneeling with their arms up) from outside the White House before a 7pm DC-wide curfew. Tucked away to one side, and clearly identifiable as media, she thought she was safe. Instead, a line of police came “straight, straight at such a pace that you couldn’t get out of the way . . . I was screaming ‘media media media’,” she told me. Footage shows a police officer punch her colleague with his shield and slam his camera into his face. As the pair turned to run, another thumped her with a baton in the back. Rubber bullets gave her red welts. “All my injuries are on my back; it just shows that we were trying to get away,” she says. “We were desperately trying to get away from the police, which is a terrifying experience.”

Vandalism and looting in some areas has destroyed businesses and buildings in recent days, sometimes with fatal consequences, and some protesters targeted media. But the fact that protests against police brutality have been met by further police brutality has not been lost on Victor, the 27-year-old African-American grandson of a preacher who worked on desegregation during the 1960s civil rights movements and for whom the protests have terrible parallels. 

“I grew up 45 minutes from where David Duke lives,” says Victor (not his real name) of the founder of the Louisiana chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He joined peaceful protesters at the Capitol on Saturday afternoon in a chorus of the black anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. Solidarity matters, despite the risk from coronavirus, he said: “The killing of black lives is a pandemic in this country.”

He was spurred in part by the language of Mr Trump, whose words the night before had echoed those of a racist 1960s Miami police chief when he tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. “Those kinds of phrases to me evoke something that I’ve only heard about,” says Victor. “The police are the aggressors. I cannot go another day allowing my people to be killed, murdered in the streets and nothing is done.”

Diego Molina got hit. A former US army specialist who trained as a combat medic, Mr Molina took a rubber bullet at close range on Sunday night. His lower left leg is now bandaged and, reliant on crutches, he can no longer do his pet-sitting job.

The 40-year-old, who was born in El Salvador, decided to continue protesting in DC after an 11pm weekend curfew because he wanted people to pay attention. “It’s been decades that black people in the US have been trying to peacefully request to be treated as humans; they tried kneeling — that was a big, huge offence to conservative white people. That was a very quiet, peaceful way to protest but it didn’t work,” he said, referring to how American football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee at NFL games, prompting Mr Trump to say players who knelt should be fired.

For many, the echoes of the 1960s are overwhelming. National Guard troops at the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday prevented protesters from standing where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous 1963 speech before a peaceful audience of 250,000 people. Instead, they sat. “Dr King would say [carry on] until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Victor says. “My grandfather always used to say: ‘keep your eyes on the prize’. Black people are fighting for liberation.” He intends to keep up peaceful protesting “from now until — until”.

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