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Protesters Rallying for Racial Justice in Washington See a Watershed Moment

6 minute read

It started with a tweet. Philomena Wankenge, 22, wanted to organize a protest following George Floyd’s death. “Let’s make some noise,” she wrote on May 28, with a solidarity-fist emoji. She started a group chat, and those who were active on it became the board of directors for Freedom Fighters DC, a group that is less than two weeks old but has helped mobilize thousands of new voices into a renewed push for racial justice in the nation’s capital.

With a megaphone tucked under her arm and a Black Lives Matter fist buzzed onto the back of her head, Wankenge was among the organizers who led thousands of people in Washington to march against police brutality on June 6. They gathered on Capitol Hill and streamed past the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where they took a knee, then past President Donald Trump’s backyard. She was followed by thousands of chanting protesters chanting “No Justice, No Peace, Defund the Police” and “F-ck Trump,” while listening to songs like Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” Most wore face masks despite the heat.

“The level of aggression that the police invokes on people is inappropriate regardless of the race,” says Wakenenge. “But it’s just that it’s easier for them to bully black people and no one really says anything.”

More people are speaking out now. Floyd’s death has prompted an uprising against systemic injustice on a massive scale. From New York to Los Angeles, demonstrators continue to fill the streets to protest against racial injustice. In Washington, a long stream of thousands of people carried signs reminding the world — again — that black lives matter.

To many it felt like a watershed moment. The coalition of supporters is broadening, protesters say, and the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder to ignore systemic inequality in America.

“This changes everything because the whole world is involved and watching,” says Carmen Jordan, 39, a D.C. resident standing in the protest area near the White House. Around her was a summer festival atmosphere, with people handing out free T-shirts and food and drinks, blowing bubbles, and holding signs. Though in recent days the area surrounding the White House has become a flashpoint between law enforcement and protesters, on Saturday it was jovial.

The demonstrators’ demands go beyond justice for Floyd to ending racially discriminatory policing practices and dismantling systemic racism. In Washington, protesters called for reducing the police budget, blocking the addition of a new jail, banning stop and frisk tactics and investing in communities.

“I don’t think that police need to be operating on such a large budget. I don’t think they need to have militarized weapons,” says Taylor Jenkins, 29, holding a sign calling for defunding the police with military vehicles parked a couple of blocks away. Jenkins expressed optimism that defunding the police was achievable, noting that several major cities are already looking at slashing police department budgets.

Activists say the national outcry that’s come since Floyd’s death is finally making more white Americans see the ongoing racial inequities around them. “We’ve gotten a reaction I’ve never seen before,” says Alex Hagans, 30, of Mitchellville, Md. “We’re not alone anymore.”

Hagans, who works in tech and is studying business at University of Maryland, remembers going into the office after Eric Garner died following a police chokehold in July 2014 and feeling like he was the only one around him struggling with the news. “While you’re sitting there in the office and that’s all you think about, everyone else is having a regular day like nothing happened. A lot of times it’s kids that this is happening to, that are dying, and you just feel it when you think that could have been you,” says Hagans. “Corporations are now speaking out internally and externally. It’s a big deal.”

Many protesters also see signs that the coalition around Black Lives Matter is broadening. Protesters point to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitting the NFL was wrong in how it handled players’ peaceful protests. Polls bear out the idea that the cause has broadened: in a Monmouth survey released this week, 76% of Americans said racial and ethnic discrimination is a problem in the U.S., up from 51% in January of 2015.

Some who came out to protest on Saturday were guarded against expecting too much. They’ve been here before. Racial inequality was one of the biggest stories in America before Donald Trump’s election, sparking sustained protests but limited change.

“My hope is it’s not going to be a flash in the pan moment. We had so many black men – unarmed black men – killed unjustly,” says Chad Jackson, 49, a train conductor from Severn, Md., standing on a street in front of the White House that was painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” on the orders of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser. Jackson served in the Army, as a cavalry scout and a drill sergeant, and he held a large yellow poster board that read: “When will this be the Land of the Free for me?”

Protesters are demanding more than symbolic gestures. Activists criticized Bowser’s “Black Lives Matter” mural and “Black Lives Matter Plaza” street sign, noting that her proposed budget doesn’t address their concerns and had cuts to community-focused initiatives but increases for the police department. Later in the day, protesters reportedly added the demand “Defund the Police” in yellow paint by the street mural. Organizers rebuked those who cheered at a recent protest when police took a knee, reminding them that Floyd had died because a police officer had knelt on his neck. “Why the f-ck would we cheer for police kneeling?” one protester asked the crowd.

But often, the mood was joyous, a marked change from recent days. As thousands of protestors marched up 17th Street NW, past the same gates that National Guard trucks had driven through on Monday before officers violently cleared protestors, the drivers of orange city trucks parked along the road blared their horns in support. Cheers went up. It may have been loud enough for President Trump to hear inside the White House on the other side of the gates.

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Write to Lissandra Villa/Washington at lissandra.villa@time.com