The Police Don’t Keep Us Safe, We Keep Us Safe

Mary Small
Jul 1 · 7 min read
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Black Lives Matter Protest in DC, 5/31/2020. (Instagram: @koshuphotography)

On June 1, armed riot police attacked and cleared a group of peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square by the White House, so President Trump could take photos in front of nearby St. John’s church. This is a first-hand account of what happened.

I want to share something with all of you, because I want you to come with me when I go back.

Tonight, another local organizer and I went downtown to drop off supplies around 5:30. Curfew was set for 7. We planned to stay for a while, expecting things to stay relatively calm until closer to curfew. I told my kids I’d be home for bedtime.

We started at 16th and H facing a wall of police in riot gear. Almost as soon as we arrived, chants of “take off your gas masks” rose up, so we knew what was coming when police began shooting gas pellets. We were all kneeling on the ground, hands in the air, chanting:”Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black Lives Matter” and “George Floyd” and “Breonna Taylor.” I mention this not because this is how all protesters should act, but because I don’t know how else to describe how completely one sided the attack was. We were kneeling. With our hands in the air. Long before curfew.

Not long after, with no real warning, police advanced aggressively — more tear gas, flash bangs, and firecrackers exploding on the ground. We now know that it was to clear a path for Trump’s photo op, but in the moment, it felt completely chaotic and senseless.

It was.

People began to run, an exceptionally calm Black woman began yelling, “Walk! walk!” Others took up the call, and people slowed down so we didn’t trample one another in the crushing smoke.

Because my friend and I followed the direction to walk, we accidentally ended up on the front lines. Which meant that I was very close to the next round of flash bangs. They exploded, everything went silent, and I was hit with (I think) a piece of shrapnel. My head snapped back, then forward, and my sunglasses flew off my face. In the eerie silence that followed, I thought ,”I wonder if I’m bleeding,” then, “I should get my sunglasses.” I started to reach for them, really just a micro-movement, and then registered the cop in full riot gear advancing toward me, screaming, but I couldn’t hear him. I jerked my hand back and my feet carried me backwards. I read my friend’s lips as she asked if I was okay.

We did that dance for a while. Hands up, chant. Attack. Retreat. Teargas, flashbangs, beating anyone who didn’t move fast enough. The police pushed us east and then up 17th St.

When my friend and I got to 17th and I, we saw other protesters pulling someone who was stumbling and clutching his chest around the corner to relative safety and then gently lower him to the ground. He was gasping, eyes rolling around, and seemed to be going in and out of consciousness.

One of us said, “We have a car; we should offer to get him out.” We hung back for a minute, giving space while folks carefully bathed his face, flushed his eyes with water, opened up his shirt, coached him to stay with us, called a medic. But it was clear he needed more help than we could offer on the sidewalk as the police continued to advance toward us.

We did that dance for a while. Hands up, chant. Attack. Retreat. Teargas, flashbangs, beating anyone who didn’t move fast enough.

After another police assault down the block, we stepped forward to offer the car. Three other protesters helped hoist him to his feet and held him up as he stumbled forward. Still gasping, alternatively moaning about his chest and his head.

He said he’d been hit. I assume by a canister. That he’d gone down. That as he lay on the ground, choking on tear gas, the police kept shooting at him. That folks had pulled him out.

We asked him who he was with. He said a news crew. We asked what outlet. We asked him where the rest of his crew was. If we could call them. If we could call anyone for him. He said we couldn’t call them. That there was no one to call.

My friend ran ahead to move the car as close to the barricade as possible. I stayed with the man and the other protesters who were carrying him. I carried his backpack.

Twice on the short walk to the car, he collapsed completely. Each time, he was gently lowered, gently coached, gently cared for. Every time, I thought “my God, we need an ambulance.”

Each time I looked around. The police were advancing, shooting flash bangs, firing tear gas. Brutal and relentless.

Each time I thought “we are all we have. #WeKeepUsSafe.” The thought felt solid, real, tangible, and utterly terrifying.

We managed to get him into the front seat of the car under the gaze of men in military uniforms who never lowered their weapons, who never moved to help. I climbed in the back. We drove north, away from the protests, to Washington Hospital Center.

Once he was in the car, he seemed a little better. He was a little more coherent, talking a bit. He pulled out his phone. He held it up in front of him, off to the side but shaky, and said he could kind of see out of one eye.

I offered to take his phone, to make a call for him. He said no. Something felt off.

He began stabbing at his phone, trying to pull up a number. Said something about calling his boss. He accidentally opened an email, and from behind him, I saw his name, the name of the person the email was from, and another jumble of words.

I’ve spent days of my life skimming FOIA-ed law enforcement documents for my work. There is a certain muscle memory in my eyes for some words, I think. I don’t know exactly what I saw in that email. But I instinctively alerted, and I started googling.

Each time I thought “we are all we have. #WeKeepUsSafe.” The thought felt solid, real, tangible, and utterly terrifying.

And then two things happened at once. I began to realize that we might have a cop in our car. And he began to have trouble breathing.

I don’t have the words to describe what it sounded like. There was a gurgling, a hissing, a constriction. He said “something’s wrong” and then just more hissing.

I thought he might die in the car. I couldn’t think. I wanted to throw up.

My brain was melted; it’s still a little melted, to be honest. The irony of a cop struggling to breathe after being attacked by other cops at a protest about George Floyd’s murder.

We got to the emergency entrance, got him into a wheelchair. Someone waiting outside stepped forward to help us transition him. Hospital staff took a quick report and pushed him into the ER.

I don’t know what happened to him after that. I’m not 100% sure I identified him correctly. And even if I did, I don’t know in what capacity he was at the protest — if he was off duty or undercover or what.

But I believe that he may have survived that night — being shot at and tear gassed by people who say they keep us safe, maybe even his own colleagues, as he lay on the ground — because protesters stepped forward to take care of someone in trouble. With the information available at the time, we lived out #WeKeepUsSafe with a care and precision that I can’t capture here.

I want to be clear. For me, this story is NOT a torturedly complex take on the current situation. The truths at the heart of this are clear. Black Lives Matter. I don’t sympathize with racist, fascist, authoritarian forces. The police do not keep us safe. They don’t even keep their own safe.

For me, this is a story about horrifying, militarized, indiscriminate violence. About how just breathtakingly dangerous the police are.

It’s also a story about the tremendous depth and breadth of the care protesters are showing each other. It’s a story about how a different vision of collective safety — one being built out before us in this very moment — is what keeps us safe, is what will get us through this moment, stronger and more clear-eyed on the other side, as we work to completely dismantle the police state that perpetually has its metaphorical and literal knee on the necks of our Black siblings.

With the information available at the time, we lived out #WeKeepUsSafe with a care and precision that I can’t capture here.

I’ve heard folks say that they don’t want to join because the protests seem wild and out of control, with no organizers calling the shots on the protester side. I thought that too. After being there tonight, I’m clear that the police are wild and out of control. But the protesters, well, the protesters gave me hope.

They were calm, clear, grounded, and so exquisite in taking care of each other. The viral videos don’t capture — not even close — the level of discipline I saw on the ground in the hour before curfew tonight. Fall back, stand, and declare the value of Black life. Again and again and again as we choked on tear gas together. I’ve got a hell of a headache, but each throb feels a little like a love song for the people I shared the streets with tonight.

It’s quite a thing that happened. Like I said, my brain is melted. But as my beloved city is occupied, as the fires rage, as the President incites violence, the gentle care-taking that I witnessed is part of what stiffens my spine to go back in the streets, part of what I hope can pull you past fear into action, part of the future we’re called to bravely birth together.

Mary Small is an organizer with Sanctuary DMV.

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