How I Accidentally ended up in front of the White House, on the first day of the George Floyd Protests
I landed in Washington D.C. in the beginning of January, four months after graduation, and three months after sort of moving to New York City. I never planned to move here, but nevertheless it was one other city (along with San Francisco) that I could see myself working and living for the next year, on the one year work permit (OPT) that international students have access to. The internship that brought me here somehow happened overnight, or at least it felt like it after months of not finding something substantial and sustainable in New York. I was in Saint Petersburg, Florida, when I applied for the position and completed my interviews there. When I got back to New York after Thanksgiving, I was walking down 3rd Ave when my now supervisor and de-facto mentor, Steve, called me. I hadn’t walked too far from the 53rd Street subway when the phone rang. He had already called once. I immediately walked into Pret and answered the call as soon as I could and within seconds, he delivered the good news. Of course, I apologized for not answering his call and said I had been in the subway.
“I didn’t know there were subways in Florida.”
“I am in New York,” I replied, still trying to process what I had just heard. I walked out from that Pret the happiest I had been in a while- I just knew this was going to be a good experience and that the person I had just spoken to was someone I could trust. After that call, I had about three weeks to make living arrangements in D.C. I didn’t know anyone, or at least thought I didn’t until I got in touch with my mom’s friend, a lovely Canadian guy who worked at the World Bank, and who I had missed the first time I came to the city in 2016, two days after Trump won the election. Travelling in a plane full of students who were clearly not his supporters, the atmosphere was dull, as a CNN headline in the baggage claim area read, “Obama, Trump meeting at White House.” Despite that, it wasn’t all that blue, and we were elated for the coming days as it was most of our first times in the capital ,and we had a competition ahead of ourselves to take part in.
My initial contract was only through April so it made sense to look for a furnished apartment and with that in mind, I landed on the various housing pages on Facebook, the deep web for finding any place, for any amount of time, and anywhere, as long as you had the means to support it. My budget was no more than $1,000 a month and although that’s what I told my mother’s friend, who reached out to people on my behalf, I really was hoping to spend no more than $900 on rent even though the internship was paid.
Anyways, as expected, I of course got in touch with this individual, who and my future roommate and I discovered to be sketchy. He not only had a fake account on Facebook, using the name Jason Cohen, that he used to advertise the rooms, but also had a completely different name on the Zelle account, (probably his real name, Turkish, which he didn’t use whilst dealing with us) where we sent our rent. The apartment came furnished, and it was within walking distance from the office, and also just below $900. Plus the security deposit was only $600. We had a video call, which confirmed that he wasn’t fake and nor was the apartment. I liked the big window in what would become my room for the next four months. It reminded me of New York City; it had a pretty view of concrete buildings, overlooking a major street with non stop movement of pedestrians and traffic.
I arrived in the city the weekend before I was to start working, so much of seeing the city, the downtown area, where I now lived and worked not too far from, happened as the work week began. My office was located in Dupont, along with world famous organizations like the National Geographic Society and The Human Rights organization.
This was my first time in the area. There were as many people walking as there were driving. Some days I would cross paths with a Bernie staffer, wearing a “Bernie” hat or a middle-aged woman with sneakers, a backpack, and knee-length dress in the middle of January! With so many people walking, for a change, having gone to a university in Florida, where “there’s one car for every person,” and one of the worst public transport systems in the US, the place did not quite feel like I was in America. Washingtonians were not laid back, but they also did not speed walk like New Yorkers.
I walked to and from work every day and desperately tried to think of another place, of another city, that reminded me of D.C. A not-so-happening Brooklyn meets Geneva, I thought. The closer to high-end and quiet homes reminded me of the parts of Brooklyn-Park Slope that I had spent some time at. And the serious and eerily diplomatic institutions and the people who worked there reminded me of Geneva in winter, when all the rich leave and all that’s left are the working class and budget tourists. My supervisor asked me what I’d thought of D.C. and rushed to say that of course the food was no match to New York. I had no idea about the food culture here, yet.
But what I did have an idea of was how eerily quiet this place was. I would get off from work at five most days, and despite leaving the office at rush hour, in an area considered a central business district, there were barely any people on the streets. The houses surrounding my office would be well lit, but they looked as if nobody lived or worked there. Once in a while, I would see someone enter one of the buildings- this was rare and must have happened only twice in the two months that I worked from the office. That was the same case with the restaurants surrounding these offices. For example, there was this one restaurant called Iron Gates and you just couldn’t believe that inside that gate, there was a restaurant, where people served you food and you drank. Like in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” the peace and quiet (unbearable), in some parts of the city felt like it had come about because of all the problems America brewed in the rest of the world.
One weekend, I had gone clothes shopping at the H&M close to Dupont. Before entering, I spent nearly five minutes across the street from the store, hoping to catch a glimpse of a customer, or an employee- anyone to walk by so that I knew it wasn’t closed. I finally went in the store after I saw a worker. One day I came to work and told my colleague, “This place looks like a Hollywood set.” Maybe this was just a pseudo-New Yorker reacting to a place that wasn’t New York City.
The scene is of course a bit different on 14th Street- during the weekend there is music, streets filled with young people who can laugh (thank God), and less than three electronic music venues, two of which my Turkish roommate escaped to every Friday. A person from work said that she couldn’t believe how much 14th Street had changed; when she was only a kid in the car with her dad, driving past a rather different 14th Street, she recalled that the place was basically a dangerous territory. Today, the scene is rather different: “Fifty years later, it’s all hard to picture. On the corner of 14th and R, studio apartments start at $2,100 a month in a building that once was a homeless shelter; on the ground floor, a Shinola store hawks $800 watches”(Kashino). I revealed that even though I had no idea about the gentrification of the place, when walking by it, that I could still sense the deprivation that was still there; “Prostitution had become 14th Street’s best-known trade” (Kashino).
Another thing that fascinated me with the city and only aided me in this growing sense of curiosity of this abnormal place (vibe) came from seeing so many beggars, all around the city, with the exception of Kalorama, a super-wealthy neighborhood where former President Obama, along with Ivanka Trump, live. Having lived in New York for a while and in Saint Pt., I knew and accepted that homelessness was a problem all across America. D.C., just like any other American city, also had a homeless problem. However, I had never seen so many beggars, most of whom were elderly black men and middle-aged black women, on any American street that I had been to before.
“You cannot expect to walk in D.C. and not have someone come up to you and ask you for money,” a friend complained.
In fact, one time, after the coronavirus lockdown began, I had a rather vexing experience with one of the beggars, (which by-the-way may not be a politically correct term here as they are often referred to as the homeless). My roommate and I had been out on one of our walks downtown, returning back from the White House, when suddenly a black woman in her mid-30s began to approach us, inaudible at first. As she diagonally walked towards us, I could feel the tension, which is rare for me to feel in these cases, especially when I have company. She asked us for money.
“Don’t say anything. Just keep walking,” my friend said as if he knew what I had been thinking and feeling at that moment. I barely locked eyes with the woman and looked down and kept walking.
“You dumb fucking bitch!” the women shouted. As we left the scene and neared our apartment, I felt ashamed and angry at the same time. Usually, I would have spoken to them and told them I didn’t have any cash on me. I got mad at the lady for talking to me like that, for talking to us like that, as if we owed her something. That night, I couldn’t sleep well and only thought more about what had happened. It suddenly dawned on me that for someone to have spoken to a complete stranger with so much hate, the only cause was the fact that that individual was going through a lot. I closed my afterthought on the subject with forlornness.
Growing increasingly intrigued by whatever I had been seeing for a while, I began to record some of my experiences and sightings with the idea to make a movie or a podcast.
The city also has numerous underground arts, mostly about class differences. On the way to Columbia Heights, a neighborhood I first stepped in when I had gone to buy oat milk, I came across a piece of street art that said, “Eat the Rich, for Lunch,” painted with perfect symmetry on a white construction boulder. Two months after I first saw the art and ended up living in the neighborhood, an addition had been made to the work, it now read, “Eat the Rich, for Lunch, Yeah.” Other less static pieces read, “Donald grabs Ivanka’s Pussy,” “Demand paid sick leave, no work, no debt…” the latter appeared after the lockdown, after it began to register with American politicians and the public that the virus was not just the flu, and it was indefinitely going to stay for a while.
Besides a silent underground detest for the growing inequalities between the poorest and the richest in America, the city also is unpredictable and surprising in its architecture- not just from one neighborhood to the other, but even within. In Columbia Heights, still in northwest D.C. but less “rich” and clean than downtown, the majority of the population are low-income blacks and Hispanics, who I thought had little time to continue living here as more and more houses were now being rented out to young millennials such as Capitol Hill employees and UN interns.
In the heart of the neighborhood, there’s a residential colonial looking in the architrave building, with large white pillars, which doesn’t shy away from screaming, “Miami!” as soon as it leaves the architrave. On the trave, there are detailed Greekish ornaments. The building reminded me of Connaught Place in New Delhi. Both are similar in the sense that they look as if they are an outcast, surrounded in all directions with modern-looking buildings that have no connection to its colonial past.
Heights is noisy, loud, filled with hawkers and men selling “perfumes,” police cars on standby, and a giant Target, that brings people not just from the area but also from outside it, and despite the noise and craziness, it also felt the most normal part of D.C. that I had been to.
By May, nearly two months after offices in D.C. began to telework, I had moved to Heights, to my new home. With social life brought down to nearly nothing, I, like a lot of young people, had plenty of energy and no avenue to release that energy. Naturally, I spent plenty of time outdoors, exploring the city and observing people, and paying close attention to the capital of the world’s most powerful and “richest” country. There was something distressing about living here and seeing so much crime and poverty happening on a daily basis.
The usual traffic of people walking to work in the morning disappeared. For social distancing purposes, lines began to emerge outside grocery stores and restaurants underwent renovations or extended them, as hardly any one came, out of fear. On the streets, when you went for your walk, people made extra effort to avoid you by walking in a different direction. The little night life that I knew of went away.
With so much time left to think, I now seriously considered making the movie. It was going to be a dark comedy. On top of the script, I wrote:
D.C. represents America
D.C. represent capitalism
D.C. represents broken systems
D.C. represents Class systems
I reached out to my supervisor at work and shared with him the idea, with the hope to borrow one of the offices’ better pieces of equipment. I work in the production department. He suggested that I begin by writing a script and that we could talk more after. Listening keenly to what I had to say, he then went on to ask if I had been to Southeast D.C. I said no even though I most likely had, at some point. I guessed that the reason he asked me that question had to do with the fact that he meant things were inherently bad there, and that what I had seen was really nothing compared to Southeast D.C.
“But this is not Southeast though,” I said. And it was there that I realized why I had been so caught up with the idea; poverty, crime, beggars could exist in the southside, but not in the “better” neighborhoods- like the one I lived in now and the one I lived in before. To begin with, immigrants always have these grand ideas of America and American cities, and when one is in Washington D.C., the capital, one cannot help but suffer and then obsess over (why), whilst coming to terms with the fact that broad poverty exists in every part of the city.
I took note of an incident that had happened when I had gone to a CVS in the downtown area. I noticed a security guard in the store, which I had either missed seeing before or they had just started to keep one. Irrespective, my curiosity led me to walk up to the woman in uniform and inquire why she had been there. Had there been a crime?
“I am about to finish here,” was the first thing she said. It was obvious that she was tired and ready to go home. I told her I wasn’t used to seeing a security guard at a CVS before. She explained that the reason she was there was because more stealing and shoplifting was happening in the better neighborhoods, like this one, because “nobody expects it.” I was surprised, but it made sense. She said it with so much conviction. I said it was nice meeting her and asked what her name was. “Officer Breonna,” she proudly said, with a smile, as if just a second before she wasn’t tired and done for the day.
For days now, even though I barely wrote a proper script, I kept talking about the film; I spoke about it with my friends in Florida, Bhutan, and even told my dad about it! But, as most things in life go, the drift soon went away and I returned back to the routine of working, walking, and grocery shopping.
Not everything you think of needs to be brought to life, I thought, and tried to be content and proud of myself for having this internship and working hard at it, and for reading more (consciously) than I used to. And then, just like that, on May 29th, four days after George Floyd had been killed by the police while being arrested, and on the first day of the protests in Washington D.C., I accidentally ended up in front of the White House. The film that I so desperately wanted to make had come to me.
It was just after 4:00 p.m. that day when I had left my home in Heights, about fifteen minutes in the car to the White House, to go for a walk, which wasn’t going to be a long one, for the comfortable spring weather was coming to an end. I had heard bits and pieces of news about the killing of Floyd, enough for me to remember his name but really didn’t know the more important stuff: Why had he been killed? What was his crime? Who was this man, really?
After walking a few minutes away from the house, I saw a small protest outside an apartment. My first instinct was to call Eduardo, my friend (ex), who was my cameraman for the now dissipated film. The words on the banner were in Spanish, and although deep down I knew this wasn’t important material for the idea that I had, nevertheless, there was still some action happening and I wanted to get this on camera. My friend arrived after the protest was over. Later we found out that it was against paying rent as many people went unemployed after the virus hit. There, I saw this father and daughter duo, who I’d crossed paths before while on our walks. We always exchanged smiles but that day I decided to ignore them. My friend took some photos and videos of the now finished protest and we headed back to my house. On our way back, I asked him if he knew Floyd’s name and ironically, took some time, myself, to remember his name. He knew what had happened to George Floyd.
At my house, we sat on the front porch and I offered him a beer that the homeowner had generously offered to tenants, to make up for the late water supply. Technically, I already drank my share but knew there were plenty so I went in and grabbed one anyway. I took some sips and gave him the rest. Within the next few seconds, he took his phone out and got on Instagram, a mundane action that millions of us do on a daily basis, but not for us that day.
Eduardo’s banal activity dramatically shifted the course of our day, and pushed both of us to experience and be part of history. On Instagram, he saw a post from a local D.C.-based account that was giving updates on the protest. At the time, the protest, assuming there was only one, was on 14th Street. I texted my colleague who lived on 14th and asked her if she could hear or see anything from her balcony. I didn’t even bother to ask her to go out because for weeks now, she had been dead worried and paranoid about the virus. She quickly sent me screenshots of the protest from Facebook and said that it happened at 5 p.m.; it was now close to 6 p.m. One would have thought that this was it, and that we were just going to talk, “hang” and that that was how the day was going to end. But fortunately or unfortunately, this was not what happened that day. We came across a Facebook live, on Brietbart’s page that showed that the protest was very much happening. They were outside the Freedman’s Bank Building, which is the official building for the U.S. Department of Treasury, minutes away from the north lawn of the White House.
“Let’s go,” I quickly said, with the enthusiasm of a young person who had been in isolation for months now.
“There’s a bus that goes all the way down,” my friend informed me. That was my first time using public transportation, since lockdown. My friend looked indifferent, as he did most days, and I was pretty much oblivious but suddenly energized and elated that I was going to get materials for the project. The elation also came from the fact that I was with my friend and taking the bus, an activity, along with so many others, that had been cut short since the virus hit. I was also a bit nervous, as I didn’t want to catch the virus and tried to be careful by not touching anything.
The bus followed a straight route, in the direction of the Washington Monument, and it was only when we got close to Lafayette Park, after seeing a motorcade of police vehicles — the only other time I had seen something like this was on TV, in Chernobyl, after soviet authorities finally decide to vacate people from Pripyat, a motorcade of military trucks, and buses make their way to the city — that I began to realize that tensions were high, and that we were now in dangerous territories. This was when I had really begun to get scared and started to question why I had even been there in the first place. The entire area was filled with police cars. I was so consumed by our surroundings that I had forgotten we were the last people on the bus; this was the last stop the bus was going to make that day.
For days, as protests escalated, the bus would stop going down this route. I briefly managed to make eye contact with the bus driver, as a way of saying, “thank you,” and now showing solidarity, as he was black, I think. I was surprised that the police even let us come out. I took this as a sign that after all things weren’t that serious and also saw this as an American thing to do- that people were free to do what they wanted to do, protest or no protest. And plus we could have been one of those couples who were picnicking at the park, yes, this actually happened.
Upon stepping foot on the park, we spotted a group of protestors outside the bank, and tried to get close to them so that we could take some photos. Because of the type of camera we had, even though the bank wasn’t that far from the park, we had to get close enough to have taken good photos. Yet this did not happen as two other women, who were ahead of us, who looked like they could be journalists with their IDs hanging around their necks, but may have actually been corporate employees working in the area, were stopped by a police officer. They briefly got into an argument, and my friend, from whom I did not expect quick thinking at that moment, hurriedly said we should get over to the bank. I did as I was told and before I knew it, we were not only nervously speed-walking, but we were doing so in the opposite direction, towards the White House, along with protestors who looked like bees swarming.
Outside the WH, barricades had already been placed, with the Secret Service at their most vigilant. If there was a row amongst the protesters, me and my friend would have probably fallen in the fourth or fifth row. My friend began to take photos and videos of the protest and of protestors. And while doing so, there were live PSAs: about being careful of surveillance and protecting the identities of those that were there.
On the other side of the barricade, a middle-aged Asian man, in a light gray suit, paced up and down, while simultaneously talking on the phone. Although not even Asian-American, oddly, I felt a sense of pride in seeing an Asian man work for the WH. He remained a constant presence throughout the time we were there.
Most of the protestors were young black people to which I joked, “You know when a white man is considered exotic?” scanning the area, “during a Black Lives Matter protest.”
A pregnant lady stood out, who looked like she had come alone. All the while my heart never stopped beating faster than normal, which I tried to hide from my friend.
“Black lives matter, black lives matter,” first in a sing-song tune and then faster and more domineering.
“Black lives matter!” I chanted, along with the protestors. There was an increasing amount of growing solidarity now as if all of us had just become one. Behind us, a popular mainstream news channel camera crew stood unexpressive. I spent more time looking around than at the WH and the atmosphere was, as one Twitter user described, “Peaceful but tense.”
At this point, I thought this was it, that I had seen enough “action” when not long after the kneeling began. And it was there that I felt something, which I had never felt in this country before. Part of it I am able to describe, but parts I don’t have words for. I felt this heavy, almost like a liability, a sense of uncorrupted human connection; perhaps this moment was telling us that it was possible to feel this way — even in a hyper capitalistic world — but that it required individual responsibility and sacrifice, which can feel like a burden sometimes in a system that praises and pushes (subconsciously and consciously) those who reach the top at the mercy of others.
Watch protestors chant, “Don’t shoot, hands up” outside the White House. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWlbR3SrR9A
After experiencing this rare moment, I took it as a sign that it was now time for us to leave. My friend wanted to stay longer. Paranoid that I might be interrogated, or caught on some surveillance camera, which could potentially harm my ability to come back to the U.S., or worse, deported in the middle of my work, I did not think it was a good idea to leave the area alone. Minutes after I decided to stay, the crowd, for the first time since we had been there, moved, in a violent way, not knowing why and trying to listen carefully for gunshot sounds, me and my friend ran as fast as we could, away from the White House and towards nowhere. Ending abruptly, I found myself standing next to a chair, in the park, with another protestor who was still panting but looked less scared than us.
“Man they got snipers on all directions!” shouted a lady, sounding hysterical. I had known this for a while but tried not to think about it.
They aren’t just going to shoot us. They aren’t just going to shoot us, I don’t think so, I thought, from a while ago. I also knew that the sole reason these men on the rooftop of the White House, and elsewhere surrounding us, were there to protect the President. And that if things went awry, if it came to that, that they would do what they had to do in order to protect the President.
At 7:45 p.m., the White House went under lockdown. Fortunately, no one was hurt that day, and nothing violent happened. The protest continued past midnight; it ignited a wave of support throughout the country, and the world, and most importantly, here in Washington D.C. — to the extent where just last week, nearly two months (four+ months now) after that day, young people are still protesting, still pleading for peace, and for justice.