"Black Lives Matter" is painted with 35-foot tall letters spanning two blocks on 16th Street.

"Black Lives Matter" is painted with 35-foot tall letters spanning two blocks on 16th Street.

In early June, the D.C. government commissioned local muralists to paint “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot tall letters on 16th Street leading up to the White House. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then renamed the intersection of 16th Street and H Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

Many praised the mayor’s message and project, especially as a response to President Donald Trump. (Four days before the mural was created, law enforcement teargassed peaceful protesters outside of St. John’s Church so the president could have a photo op there.) Similar large-scale murals have popped up around the country. But some local Washingtonians have criticized the mural and renaming of the plaza as performative. Chief among the critics is the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, who responded by adding “Defund The Police” to the mural. (After letting the addendum stand for more than two months, the city recently paved over it.)

Over the summer, the space has taken on a meaning of its own. Some come to protest. Some bring their children to educate them. And some come to take in the mural, like the late civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis, who made his last public appearance there.

What does Black Lives Matter Plaza mean to Washingtonians? Is it a place of hope, of unity, of protest or of pain? And how will the space be used and remembered in the decades to come?

Produced by Cydney Grannan

Guests

  • Brandi T. Summers Assistant Professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Author, "Black In Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City"; @_blusummers
  • Bethelehem Yirga Co-founder, The Palm Collective; @PCollective2020
  • Gary Williams Jr. Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Creative Theory Agency; @masterwilliams

Transcript

  • 12:00:04

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show'' on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. If you've been following any of the protests in D.C. since June, you're familiar with the huge yellow letters spanning two blocks on 16th Street leading to the White House, spelling out Black Lives Matter. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned local muralists to paint the massive public piece of art, and she officially renamed the area Black Lives Matter Plaza.

  • 12:00:28

    KOJO NNAMDIThe plaza has witnessed history this summer. Activists added their own message to the street: defund the police. Parents bring children to see the mural and the messages on the fence nearby. Some have even brought mats to participate in midnight yoga. Today, we're talking about what Black Lives Matter Plaza means to Washingtonians. And joining me to have that conversation is Gary Williams, Jr., co-founder and chief creative officer of Creative Theory Agency, a marking agency based in D.C. Gary also had photographed the late Congressman John Lewis at Black Lives Matter Plaza, the congressman's last public appearance before he passed away. Gary Williams, Jr., thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:11

    GARY WILLIAMSThank you for having me. Glad to be here.

  • 12:01:14

    NNAMDIAnd Bethelehem Yirga is the Co-founder of The Palm Collective, a black led organization working to build a coalition of grassroots organizations in the D.C. area. Bethelehem Yirga, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:25

    BETHLEHEM YIRGAThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:28

    NNAMDIAnd Brandi Summers is an assistant professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California Berkeley. She's also the Author of "Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City." Brandi T. Summers, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:44

    BRANDI T. SUMMERSThank you so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:01:45

    NNAMDIBrandi Summers, what is your connection to Washington?

  • 12:01:47

    SUMMERSI lived there for about eight years. I still have a home there. I just moved back to California a year ago. So, I also wrote my book focused on H Street Northeast in that corridor. So, I'm very familiar with D.C. My daughter was born in D.C. I truly love D.C.

  • 12:02:07

    NNAMDIGary Williams, Jr., what did you first think when you heard about the Black Lives Matter mural on 16th Street and that the mayor renamed the area Black Lives Matter Plaza?

  • 12:02:16

    WILLIAMSThat's a good question. I think I had mixed feelings, to be honest. I loved the gesture. I thought it was a great symbol as to what was going on at that time and what has continued going on now. I think, obviously, you know, there's been some mixed opinions about it with the mayor's track record and the things that, you know, she's upholding within the city, specifically due to police and policing in the city and how blacks are treated within the city. And so my thought I love the gesture. I love what it says in this moment and what it symbolizes in this moment. But, at the same time, I think we can applaud the gesture, but also hold, you know, the proper people accountable for some of the things that are going on within the system here in D.C. and how the system has treated black folks in D.C. and the District.

  • 12:03:23

    NNAMDIBethelehem Yirga, I'd like to get your thoughts on the mural. But first, can you briefly tell us what The Palm Collective is and what you do with other activist groups here in D.C.?

  • 12:03:32

    YIRGASure thing. And apologies for my voice. We ShutdownDC, The Palm Collective and Long Live Gogo D.C. went to Postmaster General DeJoy's house this past Sunday, and we made sure that he knew what we felt about what was going on with the USPS organization. And so I lost my voice. So, apologies for that. But The Palm Collective came out of the frontlines organization. I'm an educator for 10 years majority in Wilmington, Delaware. And then I came back in the area and now teach in D.C. Ward 6. And I was on the frontlines on Black Lives Matter Plaza protesting with one of my first students, Kevin L. Kramer, Jr. Met him my first year teaching, and that's how he introduced himself. And we were on the frontlines, and it didn't feel like a unifying experience, what you would feel like going into that experience as someone who is fighting for injustice that is just sick and tired of being sick of tired of not mattering.

  • 12:04:40

    YIRGAAnd we just kind of started talking to all the orgs that were there, giving out snacks and water to protestors and helping them with teargas. And we started a Zoom call on Sundays. And the first Sunday, we had seven organizations join us. The next Sunday, we had 20. And by the third Sunday, we had 65 organizations on a Zoom call. And we decided to come together, go through all of our own demands, declarations, bill of rights and ended up on the core four demands that we are now working through talking to councilmembers about. And we have met thus far by the end of this week, we'll have met with the five of the eight wards councilmembers, as well as the chairman of the D.C. Council. And so we're on the frontline supporting frontline protestors, showcasing the creativity and originality of how we are protesting, at the same trying to change the policies that impact our entire city. And it just kind of came out of Zoom calls, and we all coming together and trying to support one another.

  • 12:05:38

    NNAMDITell us about your initial response to the mural and the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza. Have your views on the space changed over the summer?

  • 12:05:46

    YIRGAVery much so. So, the Purpose Party in attendance on the frontlines was a great space of connecting with Black Joy and seeing everyone out there in support for Black Lives. And it was this experience of -- you know, Mayor Bowser walked right passed us and there was this big applause. And there was just this -- seen as this gesture of unity. And as time has gone on and defund MPD was on the road and miraculously was repaved last week right the DNC Convention. It just has shifted from the perspective of how us protestors have kind of seen it. We made it a place of unity and support and growth for one another as frontline protestors out in the streets all summer and building together. But as the summer went on, it felt like the narrative was trying to be shifted and curated around us.

  • 12:06:46

    YIRGAAnd that is why we go there and we come together and we do resistance art. And we do midnight yoga. And we do Zumba, because it comes to be a place where we stand in our self-care in our support of one another and showcase that Black Lives Matter by showcasing in those solidarity moments of self-care on the plaza.

  • 12:07:07

    NNAMDIBrandi Summers, before we dive into your response of the Black Lives Matter mural and messaging, I'd like to ask you more broadly about how murals or public art like this changes a space. What kinds of questions are you asking when you first hear about something like this?

  • 12:07:22

    SUMMERSWell, I think, you know, especially as they come in moments of crisis, how we define public art, whether it be defined as a mural or graffiti is usually produced within the context of social and political turmoil. So, like now, public health crisis, economic instability, and oftentimes it's also in response to, you know, various austerity measures like cuts in public health or social services, privatization, you know, increase in taxes. And so also, in cases like this, you look at the increase in policing and surveillance of marginalized people. So, ultimately, public art like this usually reflects anger or feelings of loss and anxiety about erasure or development that leads to erasure.

  • 12:08:12

    SUMMERSSo, it can certainly -- and just what Bethelehem was mentioning it can transform a space depending on how people use it. But at the same time, really, it's supposed to be a transgressive act. It's supposed to be a political act that hopefully transforms the geography in that particular space and how it feels.

  • 12:08:31

    NNAMDIGary Williams, let's talk about the mural itself. What struck you about the way it looks?

  • 12:08:34

    WILLIAMSI think what first struck me was the boldness of the yellow that they chose. You know, I think as we saw other murals similar to this pop up, there were a lot that were very much more artsy than the one that the mayor commissioned. And so what struck me was that it wasn't necessarily and artful piece. There wasn't a lot of, you know, I guess thought behind the -- it being almost an art piece. It's more so of a statement, like let's just, you know, bold caps and yellow Black Lives Matter across the span of 16th Street. And so I thought it was more of a statement than -- that it meant to be more of a statement than it was to be an art piece. And so I thought that was interesting that she chose not to make it necessarily, you know, an artful piece, but I also I think understood what she was trying to do in that sense, right. It wasn't necessarily supposed to be a mural quote on quote. But more so a statement in the times.

  • 12:09:51

    NNAMDIBrandi Summers, do you think there's any significance to the fact that Black Lives Matter is written in the color yellow?

  • 12:09:58

    SUMMERSYeah. The significance I saw was related to being the same yellow that you use to mark spaces to divide the street for traffic, for example, or it's not the same white that you use for bike lanes. But it seemed to be more official, in that way. So, the marigold itself didn't evoke any particular meaning in terms of the relationship to Black Lives Matter. But there's a way that it seemed to be stamped by the state by using the same color yellow. And for me, honestly, you know, anything that the state allows you to mark with ease should be questioned. It's not radical or anti-establishment. So, seeing that yellow immediately made me question kind of the meaning, the intention behind it and also what was going to go forward.

  • 12:10:48

    NNAMDIBethelehem, what it is like being on Black Lives Matter Plaza, standing near or on one of the letters?

  • 12:10:57

    YIRGAYou feel -- great question. You feel perplexed, right? Like, when you're on the A, and you're one-one thousandth of this large letter. And you feel the magnitude of the statement and you're standing on it. You wonder if whoever was commissioned to do this or the choice of the size of the statement also showcases the magnitude of what it would take for that statement to matter, because of how engrained in our culture for 400-plus years that black lives haven't mattered. And it's shown historically time and time again through our history not being a part of our textbooks and being a country built on our backs. And so you feel very small in a very large movement. But you also wonder, was it written this way because we know the uphill battle that it will take for that to be a cohesive statement, for that to be a true statement through policy, through community, through the work that we all can do to make it possible.

  • 12:12:08

    NNAMDITwitter user with a handle redpandaallday tweets: The plaza is important as a visual symbol. But does little to address the displacement of black and brown Washingtonians and the widening wage gaps in the city. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:42

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Black Lives Matter Plaza and what it means to Washingtonians. Let's go to the Doug in Alexandria, Virginia. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:52

    DOUGThanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment that, of course, this is a terribly important statement to have. And I believe that, you know, there's a lot of different layers to the onion here. I mean, obviously, putting it in front of the White House when we have a fascist, racist regime in charge right now is important. As far as -- so there's that. It's important to have it there for the people, so that people can see it. And I think you were commenting on the yellow earlier. Well, it's easier to photograph from above. I also would just like to comment that I think it's a bit difficult to gauge what the mayor meant by it, because obviously -- at least as I've read -- they've increased funding for the police. Now I don't know that that has to go deeper because I don't know if that money in funding is going to go into proper programs and training in a thing like that that can probably help the scenario. So, I guess there's just a lot of facets to it. And that's all I had to say. Thank you very much.

  • 12:13:57

    NNAMDIAnd that's one of the reasons we're having this conversation today. Thank you for your call, Doug. Brandi Summers, when the news of the mural and the renaming of the plaza first came out it received a lot of praise, a lot of national media attention, as did the Mayor Muriel Bowser herself. But the conversation was a bit different in local Washington. As some local advocates, including the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, criticized it as a PR move. What was your reaction?

  • 12:14:24

    SUMMERSI had a similar reaction. I definitely think that, you know, the racial politics of the moment and the increasing use of blackness, whether it be, you know, in terms of letters on a street or renaming a street, it's part of this aesthetic infrastructure that's contributing to black people being pushed out of various cities, including D.C. And so we see -- and actually just what the caller just said, there was an increase to the MPD budget. We're seeing ways in which the aesthetics of this actual mural aren't necessarily being coupled with real change. And I think what it ultimately does is it marginalizes the potential gains that have been garnered by radical political action by the movement for black lives, especially the local D.C. chapter. So, ultimately, these types of actions have to be accompanied by clear solutions that confront and really dismantle institutions and practices that perpetuate the kind of structural inequality. You know, and that includes thinking about gentrification in addition to the demilitarization of police or the expansion of the police state in D.C.

  • 12:15:33

    NNAMDIWhat's the significance, therefore, of the D.C. government using the same language that activists use, and that is Black Lives Matter?

  • 12:15:41

    SUMMERSSo, I mean, really we have to look at this as protestors around the world really are fighting for the authentication of black lives mattering through the enactment of real change. So, city leaders actually do have the power to make these changes. Activists are calling for an end to police brutality and various forms of maleficence. And they're making the clear connections between the police state and how it's impacting black people. So, it was telling that even though, you know, the plan to repave the street where the defund the police part of the mural was taken away, it's telling and coincidental, I guess, that it was taken from the moment or at least taken from the full statement of the fact that Black Lives Matter does equal defunding the police. Like I said a little bit earlier, anything, you know, that the state just openly accepts or at least allows to mark the street, you have to question it because it's not necessarily radical and it's not anti-establishment. So we have to question whether it's going to create real change.

  • 12:16:46

    NNAMDIWell, I could see some people agreeing that the city is co-opting the message of activists, but overall still grateful that the mayor is putting out this message. But do you think the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza ultimately does more harm than good?

  • 12:17:02

    SUMMERSI'm not sure about harm. What I would say is that it adds more complexity. So, I think something that the caller also recognized in terms of the color yellow is that we have to question who the mural is for. There were statements that you could see the Black Lives Matter mural from space and, you know, that you can see it from rooftops. So, we're wondering what does it mean actually for the people on the ground. And so, ultimately, what it's done thus far is really kind of helped the PR campaign. It's helped put Mayor Bowser on the national stage in a way that I think she might not have, previously. To have the Black Lives Matter mural behind her at the DNC convention, it's a way of branding. It's a way of showing her support of black communities in, again, this aesthetic form, but not necessarily committing to real change for the people in D.C.

  • 12:17:55

    NNAMDIOne Tweeter user says: The follow-up to the mural is where the rubber meets the road especially where businesses decide to step up to the plate. Look at the elite companies, NGOs, lobbying groups, law firms in the District, what's their commitment? Is it real? That's where the change has to be. And now let's hear from Toby in Fairfax, Virginia. Toby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:17

    TOBYWell, thank you, Kojo. I've loved your show. I lived in D.C. in the past. I've been in Northern Virginia for the last 10 years or so. And I literally stumbled upon the mural, in progress, that morning on June 5th. And crossed in the middle of the street coming across, and I couldn't even see or recognize what it was. I almost kept going. I thought it looked they were repainting some parking regulations. And I almost went to my car a few blocks away. I approached someone painting with a big roller and I said, "You know, what does it say?" And she said, "Black Lives Matter." And I'm like, "Wow. Like, who are you?" And she said, "We're with the mayor's office." I'm like, "Wow. The mayor's office is painting this?" I teach government in a public school in Fairfax and I instantly knew the implications, you know, of what the relationship would mean between D.C. politics and what's going on with the White House. So, I just kept watching and talking to other people working. And after about 20 minutes, one of the Department of Public Works said, "Would you like to join us?" And I said, "Yeah, of course." So, I was just in the right place at the right time. I spent an hour and a half helping paint the rest of the mural.

  • 12:19:22

    NNAMDISo, you were a part of the process of painting the mural itself. How do you feel about it now?

  • 12:19:29

    TOBYI take a lot of pride in it. I believe in Black Lives Matter. I believe in social justice for everybody. And I didn't understand the implications of what would happen, you know, right there in that moment. But I was side by side with a lot Department of Public Works, the mayor employees, there were other volunteers. And from talking to the kind of head person in charge, they started at 3:30 in the morning outlining the letters. I got there at around 9:00, 9:15. And then an hour and a half later, I saw, you know, the bucket truck go up and rename the street post itself Black Lives Matter Plaza. And saw the mayor make the speech. It just was an incredible day.

  • 12:20:07

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call, Toby. Gary Williams, Jr., you think the plaza is still important, even if it was created by the city and not by activists. Why?

  • 12:20:17

    WILLIAMSI just think in the timing of it and the symbolism of it and whether it's performative or not, the statement rings true, right? Black lives do matter. And, yes, that should always be followed up with some action. But, at the same time, being able to go to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza with my family, my mother, my young daughter, my wife, and to see the people that were there and, you know, from kids to elderly every ethnicity, race, some, you know, smiling, some laughing, some crying, but it just felt like a moment that was needed from many different perspectives. And I think we can appreciate the statement.

  • 12:21:21

    WILLIAMSWe can appreciate the gesture, whether it's performative or not. And, like I said, but we still need to hold the mayor and city officials accountable to back up that statement. And I think, like the caller said, there was an increase to policing here in the District. And so while we're not necessary seeing policies or things change to really, you know, make this statement ring true in the District, I think for people that visit this plaza, I think there people that were inspired. There were people there that felt really connected and really valued that space. And not to mention, you know, Representative John Lewis.

  • 12:22:08

    NNAMDIWe'll talk a little bit more about that later. Charlie in Adams Morgan sent us an email: I've traversed Black Lives Matter Plaza at various times of day and days of the week. The most activity that I have encountered was when, once, there was a well-attended exercise class in progress. Other than that, it's strictly been a handful of vendors as well as out of towners desperately trying to figure out how to get up high enough to shoot a photo of the entire street painting. That's it. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:04

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our conversation about Black Lives Matter Plaza and what it means to Washingtonians. Bethelehem, The Palm Collective has been undergoing efforts to reclaim D.C., specifically around Black Lives Matter Plaza. Most recently, you worked with other activist groups to reclaim the H Street Art Tunnel near Black Lives Matter Plaza. Tell us about the tunnel and why activists felt that space needed reclaiming.

  • 12:23:28

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAYes. So, the H Street Art Tunnel kind of became this organic and authentic space for communication, right, sharing of pain and being able to process trauma, the community, but through art. And it continued throughout the summer. It's right at the intersection of H and Black Lives Matter Plaza, and it is in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building. And so it was the tunnel that was going on during construction and it just started overflowing with beautiful art and resistance art.

  • 12:24:04

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd last Monday, coincidentally, at the same time that defund MPD was taking off at Black Lives Matter Plaza, pictures were taken of certain pieces of art that were on the wall. The art was taken down. A press release was given out, and the art just miraculously was no longer there. And what was in its place were plastered vinyls, of pictures of art that was the messages that were curated for that space, as opposed to organically growing out of the movement. And that was Monday.

  • 12:24:37

    BETHELEHEM YIRGABy Wednesday, I was on the phone, me and my cofounders were on the phone with U.S. Chamber of Commerce V.P. of strategy, saying, why? Why would we preserve a movement in real time? Why would we take down the artwork of those who are coming from all over D.C. to put their art here and share? There was a majestic mural of Breonna Taylor at the end that an artist spent almost two days working on, and it no longer existed there. So, we shared that we need to reclaim that space.

  • 12:25:06

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd so they agreed that it was a misstep on their part, and in that space, we were able to align with an organization with the business. I think we were talking about that earlier, Kojo. I heard you say that. How do businesses get involved in that statement of Black Lives Matter Plaza or the movement itself? And U.S. Chamber of Commerce showed, like, a really great example of how that can be done, right. Immediate action, listening to the community, reaching out and connecting with an organizer.

  • 12:25:34

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd so, that Sunday, following the Monday, finding out that the art was taken, Wednesday having that phone call with the VP of strategy, we had a press release ready to go. We had the 65 orgs donate snacks and drinks and art supplies. We had a DJ. You know, we made it a family-friendly space, and we put it on Twitter and Instagram. And about 300, 350 people showed up. And the art spilled over onto the sidewalk, onto the street, to the point where we went over -- we were inching close towards the wall that is also having -- that has resistance art on it, on the White House.

  • 12:26:10

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd it was a space of healing, of togetherness, of children dancing in the street and finger painting on the wall and being a part of Black Joy. That is an essential piece of the resistance and the movement and how we have to continue to showcase that things cannot go back to normal because normal wasn't working and never had.

  • 12:26:33

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd that art in that space allows us to come together from all walks of life to agree in that message that black lives definitely do matter, and that we can showcase that together through art and heal together through art. And so we do it every Sunday now. We reclaim D.C. as a family space. It's very important for the movement to continue going on, resistance art, and ensuring that families are involved is a key piece to that.

  • 12:26:58

    BETHELEHEM YIRGAAnd so reclaiming D.C. is about that, right, creating spaces for families and making sure that, you know, we're allowing healing spaces. You know, mental health is a very important part of showcasing Black Lives Matter and showcasing all lives in solidarity for all black lives.

  • 12:27:15

    NNAMDIBrandi Summers, what Bethelehem just said and explained, regardless of how the space was created, does that, what she was talking about, in fact, transform the space? Can a space that was created in the way this was created be transformed by people, and activists in particular?

  • 12:27:34

    SUMMERSI definitely think so, in ways that she explained it earlier, also, that it's holding people accountable. It's holding leaders accountable. So, on the one hand, you are having people occupy the space, literally be in place, ways that they can kind of take over. We saw this also happening with Don't Mute D.C. and the events that were happening around there last year.

  • 12:27:59

    SUMMERSAnd so it's very important to occupy a space to reclaim it, to physically have bodies in the street in order to really kind of take some ownership. But, again, at the same time, as Bethelehem explained, holding officials accountable, making sure that they promote policy or at least find ways to not only make the statement that Black Lives Matter, but actually explain how Black Lives Matter in D.C. It's crucial. And so, certainly, it's transforming the space, but it's a moment in time. It has to continue, for sure.

  • 12:28:31

    NNAMDIHere's Matt in Great Falls, Virginia. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:35

    MATTGood afternoon, everybody. And (unintelligible) enjoy your show all the time. My question is, being an eternal optimist, I always look at the picture from far away. When utopia comes and you'll see (unintelligible) and all other entities being equal on a level playing field and then there would be a question (unintelligible) white lives and everybody else's lives matter. (unintelligible) the distance. I've been brought up and by training and by (unintelligible)...

  • 12:29:28

    NNAMDIWell...

  • 12:29:28

    MATT...goes into the (unintelligible) you know, the way I was brought up.

  • 12:29:36

    NNAMDIMatt, the utopia that you describe has not been the experience of black people for the past 400 years. And so the conversation we're having now is not a conversation about seeing a utopia. It's really a conversation about how, after 400 years of racism, white supremacy and oppression, how do black activists, and together with elected officials, change the world. Because we're not just talking about the United States. We're talking about how they change the world. So -- but thank you very much for your comment.

  • 12:30:16

    NNAMDIGary Williams, you had a special experience at Black Lives Matter Plaza. You were asked to photograph the late Congressman John Lewis at the plaza, to document his visit. It was for him personally, not a photo op. Walk us through what happened, starting when you arrived at Black Lives Matter Plaza around 6:00 a.m. that day.

  • 12:30:35

    WILLIAMSYes. So, first, it was an honor to be able to photograph Mr. Lewis. And so, at 6:30, we show up. I see Mr. Lewis pull up with his chief of staff. I immediately walk over to the car to greet them. There were some mayor -- some of the mayor's office was there. The mayor hadn't yet arrived, but her office -- some of her officials were there. And so we all greeted him.

  • 12:31:06

    WILLIAMSHe had just come off of chemo treatment, so he wasn't at his strongest. He had a cane, he had a mask on, and he had a hat on, so it was -- you know, he spoke very low, and he didn't speak a lot. So, he said hi. We greeted him, and then we went into the building. I can't remember exactly the name of the building, but it's right there on 16th Street. And I believe it's across from the Hay-Adams Hotel, which is where the mayor, I believe, took her photo of Black Lives Matter Plaza.

  • 12:31:37

    WILLIAMSAnyway, we rose to the top of the building. And as we got to the terrace there, I guess the mayor's folks had really built almost a platform for him to stand up on and to oversee the plaza. And so we allowed him to walk -- people kind of stepped back and let him walk up onto that platform, helping him up on the steps. And then as he got up on the platform, people just kind of were quiet, they stepped back, they let him take in the moment.

  • 12:32:10

    WILLIAMSIt was hard to see -- obviously, he had his mask on and he had his hat on. It was hard to really see his facial expression, but you could look in his eyes and see that this was a very reflective moment for him. And, you know, I think, as I was photographing him there, I just kept thinking, you know, what is he thinking? I would imagine he's thinking about all the work that he did and that his counterparts did in the civil rights movement to get to this point and to see this mural that is proclaiming black lives matter.

  • 12:32:50

    WILLIAMSAnd, actually, as he left the plaza that day, he said, you know, to him, this was, you know, the District and the residents sending the world a message that, one day, we'll get there. So, we got a little bit of a glimpse as to what he was thinking. And I think that was -- it was just -- one, it was powerful and one, it was an honor to photograph him.

  • 12:33:16

    WILLIAMSBut I think, in that moment, to see him there, to know the work that he put in up until, you know, the day he passed, was very much inspiring, very much, even for me personally, motivational to do more. To do more for my community, to hold my, you know, elected officials accountable and to just be more present and do the work. And, like he said, to get in good trouble.

  • 12:33:46

    NNAMDIWell, Brandi Summers, when he talked about we'll get there, in the short term, for the District of Columbia, getting there means statehood. Many see D.C.'s lack of statehood as a racial issue. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, Black Lives Matter Plaza is explicitly linked to D.C. statehood, even if you obviously think her administration isn't doing enough to help us black residents. How do you feel about whether or not this brings awareness to the fight for D.C. statehood?

  • 12:34:12

    SUMMERSI definitely think it does. And if -- you know, for those of us who are familiar with D.C.'s history and political history, we know that, you know, back in 2016, that was definitely an effort that Bowser pursued then and has continued to. She's not the first D.C. mayor who has tried to achieve D.C. statehood. And it's true, it seems as though race and racism play a huge part in why D.C. has not achieved statehood. And there are questions as to whether, you know, once D.C. is led by someone who isn't black, that there might be a real conversation that there's a possibility for that.

  • 12:34:50

    SUMMERSAnd so while I do think it's important to have a conversation about statehood or at least achieving self, really, regulation and representation in D.C., it's also important to have those conversations, again, alongside these structures of racism that are impacting black citizens and black Washingtonians who are continually being displaced. I don't think it takes away from that conversation. I think both of those things can be discussed at the same time.

  • 12:35:22

    SUMMERSAnd so the hope is that if D.C. achieves statehood, that that will mean black lives matter in D.C. in ways that are more meaningful, right. That means that there will be ways to account for how black folks in D.C. can stay. And I'm not sure if it's statehood that's going to make that change, but we can certainly explore those options.

  • 12:35:43

    NNAMDIHere is Keith in Arlington, Virginia. Keith, your turn.

  • 12:35:47

    KEITHHey, Kojo. Thank you so much for another wonderful program. And thanks for taking my call. First, I just want to say how inspired I've been by Black Lives Matter Plaza. And I guess I'm a middle-aged, you know, mid-50s African-American. I grew up primarily in the South and spent a lot of time in the Army. But, so often, African-Americans are written out of history.

  • 12:36:05

    KEITHYou know, when you look at that plaza, when you look at the square there with President Jackson and the other figures there, there's almost -- there is no reference to African-Americans. So, I am just delighted and inspired by the power -- and granted, you know, there are any number of questions (unintelligible), but the mere fact that we are acknowledging what has happened to me is pretty powerful. Thank you.

  • 12:36:30

    NNAMDIThank you for your call. Bethelehem, shortly after the mural was completed, activists added defund the police to the message. Two months later, the city paved over it, citing it needed roadwork. What are your thoughts about that?

  • 12:36:43

    YIRGABrandi shared it earlier. It changes the narrative. It changes the meaning of what it was. The entire summer, activists have been on Black Lives Matter Plaza engaging in all the various actions and protests. That has become a symbol of Black Lives Matter equaling defund MPD. And it is a part of the narrative of the D.C. frontlines, of the D.C. protests, of how we can encompass that in our D.C. culture and community. And the timing of it being lifted off the road and the messaging now no longer being there, it's a narrative.

  • 12:37:28

    YIRGAAnd the sheer fact that it was not the city itself that put it there. It was actually activists that have been on the frontlines since, you know, Black Lives Matter D.C., since Freddie Gray in 2015. It's been a longtime of community activists that came together to put that down to showcase what can actually happen to go in the direction of making that statement true. And as activists on the frontlines we all work together, we all collaborate, we all know one another. We all may have different ideologies, but our big goal is the movement for black lives, forever change for black lives.

  • 12:38:04

    YIRGAAnd for that to be there all summer and to just miraculously disappear, the timing wasn't -- it was just too coincidental. And I also think to also speak to the point that Brandi shared, this is a part of Mayor Bowser's legacy. This is a part of establishing Mayor Bowser's, you know, stamp as a legislative leader and what that looks like, historically.

  • 12:38:30

    YIRGAAnd so, I think the messaging was all summer kind of like, you know, we're in support of the protests or, you know, great summer of protests. It was in conjunction with the narrative of the H Street tunnel being curated and the defund MPD being lifted off the road like that and being repaved. It kind of was trying to give the message -- perception that that was a great summer of protests. Oh, business back to normal. We know we got to clean it up around here, and we got to get back to normal.

  • 12:39:02

    YIRGAAnd so it's become a space of community, of a place where we've come together, and the messaging was there all summer. And so for it to shift and change timing-wise, I think it gave a message that may or may not have been its purpose, but it felt like that from the frontlines.

  • 12:39:23

    NNAMDIHere now is Amanda in Prince William County, Virginia. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:30

    AMANDAHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for this program. Actually, the photograph of John Lewis was deeply meaningful to me, as a former constituent of his. I'm a white pastor who serves a church not far from the plaza. And I had the opportunity on the morning that it was painted to take my 13-and-a-half-year-old son down to the plaza to see the Black Lives Matter painting, to be part of the community that was down there.

  • 12:39:59

    AMANDAAnd I'm just forever grateful to have the chance for him to enter this important dialogue we're having nationally over this racial reckoning, or reckoning with our racist history. And I'm grateful to be able to bring him, even in a pandemic time, to see history unfold.

  • 12:40:20

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Brandi Summers, since the creation of the mural, other groups are now demanding space for their messages. A conservative legal advocacy group is suing the District because they haven't been allowed to paint their slogan on the street. Antiabortion activists are also suing the city after being arrested for writing “black preborn lives matter” in chalk outside of a Planned Parenthood facility. What do you think about who is allowed to write messages on the streets in D.C. and what issues can rise?

  • 12:40:51

    SUMMERSWell, once -- I mean, we're seeing black lives matter messages in other cities as well, so it's not just in D.C. We're seeing city and state leaders commissioning these murals to be painted. So, the expectation, of course, is that someone who sees Black Lives Matter as a political message or an ideological message would feel that they could also have space to write their own message, right.

  • 12:41:16

    SUMMERSSo, I know there are blue lives matter murals in other cities, as well, that were, again, commissioned or at least accepted by various cities. I think this is the complexity and the challenge that we have with art or with making statements in public space. There's always going to be some kind of contestation. There's going to be a back and forth. And so what the city has to be prepared for is to come up with either policy that determines what and how messages can be spread, but then also, again, accompany those types of activities with real action and change.

  • 12:41:55

    SUMMERSAnd so I think if it was part of a larger movement that was advocated by the mayor's office or the administration, even thinking about city council, that maybe it could be packaged in a way that didn't make it seem as though the art was itself the only solution. Ultimately, I don't know that they can say no to a group that wants to paint something on the street that has an oppositional focus.

  • 12:42:23

    SUMMERSAgain, this is public space, and so there's going to be these challenges over who gets to have the right to make a mark on the city. And, again, this is a complexity of this moment, but it's also the complexity of the message and having to be clear about how black lives matter, not just the fact that black lives matter.

  • 12:42:43

    NNAMDIHere's Ben in Hyattsville, Maryland. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:48

    BENYes, thank you, Kojo. Your program is just fantastic. It's wonderful, and I've been down to Black Lives Matter Plaza many times. I work at the University of Maryland as the (unintelligible). I'm taking, you know, hundreds of pictures and videos of the plaza, because it's just so inspiring and it's just so important to preserve and keep it going. I (unintelligible) building there right on the plaza very often.

  • 12:43:15

    BENAnd before the plaza, yeah, it was very depressing, just a bunch of, you know, bland office buildings and hotels and stuff. Now, it's just (unintelligible) I was there last Sunday and it just -- all the families down there with the kids, with the strollers and taking selfies and all of the various artworks around the various buildings, it's just so inspiring. I was on my fifth anti-racist protest in 1975 in (unintelligible). And, I'll tell you, going down to that plaza just recharges my battery and makes me reconnect with (unintelligible), and I think it's just wonderful.

  • 12:43:50

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Marlene in Washington, D.C. Marlene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:59

    MARLENEThank you, Kojo. I'm really enjoying this show, and I love hearing the young activists and what they're saying. I love Freedom Plaza and that Black Lives Matter. But what I wanted to say is that what I have heard about defunding the police is not just defunding the police. It's funding people like social workers and people who know how to work with people that have mental health problems.

  • 12:44:28

    MARLENEAnd I go to a lot of community meetings, and when I go to community meetings, people are asking for more police. They're often complaining about some kind of crime that they've heard about in their neighborhood or something that happens or something they're afraid of possibly happening. But there is always -- people are always asking for more police. And a lot of them are homeless. And the police usually come and just talk in the beginning of most meetings about whatever has happened in the neighborhood, if crime's up, if it's down, whatever it is.

  • 12:45:10

    MARLENESo I think that when people talk about defunding the police, I think it would be helpful to not just say defund the police, defund the police. Because in some areas, there are people who don't want the police defunded, but they would agree with, you know, if the police have to be defunded in order to bring in some different people like social workers or...

  • 12:45:39

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to get response, because we only have about a minute left. Bethelehem Yirga, how would you respond?

  • 12:45:46

    YIRGAIn correlation to the core four demands that we've made to the council and to the mayor, that is exactly kind of what we've kind of outlined in the core four, so behavioral and mental health response units versus MPD stepping into situations that may or may not be best suited for their skillsets. It's something that we are -- we do see that, right. There's this delicate balance of -- and I'm going to say a word that's probably going to shock a lot of people -- abolishment and reimagining. Because reform now has become a very dirty word, because over the years, reform has not created any real change.

  • 12:46:22

    YIRGABut reimagining what systems can look like if they are better funded, if the funding is taken away from a mass system that hasn't been able to be held accountable because of the authority and power it has developed over the years. And so I said to say that there's a balance, right, when we defund MPD, I agree that...

  • 12:46:39

    NNAMDIOkay. You've got about 10 seconds.

  • 12:46:42

    YIRGA...reimagining new systems. And our core four demands are in alignment with that. So, thank you, Kojo.

  • 12:46:47

    NNAMDIBethelehem Yirga, Brandi Summers, Gary Williams, Jr., thank you all for joining us. Today's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, how are local college students handling the start of the school year? And what do remote and hybrid learning really entail? Plus, we'll check in with local musicians Christylez Bacon and Aaron Myers, who are finding new ways to promote their craft and spread messages about racial justice. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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