Photo by Ben Burgess / K Street Photography

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n the evening of June 16, more than 100 people gathered in Freedom Plaza, across the street from the Wilson Building and down the block from the White House, to watch the documentary “13th” and television series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike,” both of which explore generational inequity faced by Black people in the U.S.

But when the credits rolled, many did not leave.

Some had been there since 9 a.m. the previous day when members of the racial justice collective Freedom Fighters D.C. began to sit in at the park in protest of the proposed police budget. The grassroots group formed on May 28, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Department officers while in custody, to confront systemic racism and police brutality.

The fiscal year 2021 budget proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser last month includes a 3.3% increase in funding for MPD, meaning a total of nearly $580 million for the department. The proposal includes $1.7 million to add 50 more cadets to the police force.

Initially announced via the organization’s Instagram two days before it began, the demonstration was described as a 36-hour sit-in “to demand that the D.C. Council reject the proposed $18.5 million increase to the police budget, defund the [Metropolitan Police Department] in a substantial way, and fully invest in our communities.” It was extended through the second night as protestors continued to amass, but concluded Wednesday morning ahead of forecasted inclement weather.

The group mobilized people through social media to donate camping equipment for the event, which organizers said would be washed and donated to people experiencing homelessness afterward.

Media such as the documentary “13th” and the television series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike” were screened under a central canopy tent (right) in the plaza at night. Photo by Ben Burgess / K Street Photography

As the sit-in began, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety heard testimony from public witnesses and MPD officials for more than six hours regarding the department’s budget. The committee received over 16,000 written, video, or audio testimonies, 99% of which called for decreasing police funding, Washington City Paper reported

[Read more: Organizers at a separate “Fund Care Not Cops” rally the previous week offered attendees the ability to record a testimony on the spot to send DC Council]

Jacqueline LeBayne, one of seven co-founders of Freedom Fighters D.C., said the goal of the action was to show D.C. councilmembers that their constituents are showing up to demand that the $18.5 million increase for MPD instead be redistributed to community programs involving mental health services, education, and food and housing insecurities in underserved communities. 

Emily Kerl, a white 20-year-old participant in the sit-in, said the District prioritizes police funding over other areas that urgently need support, like education. 

“We want to see the defunding of the police,” she said. “[The mayor has] money for the police, doesn’t have money for affordable housing developments, doesn’t have money for Roosevelt High School, and doesn’t have money for Coolidge High School.”

Bowser had previously allocated unprecedented levels of funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund. And last year, her administration committed to adding 12,000 units of affordable housing, equitably distributed throughout the city, by 2025. However, the mayor’s FY2021 budget proposal includes a $16 million cut to the trust fund, a more than $10 million cut to the Housing Preservation Fund, and a $2 million cut to the Local Rent Supplement Program.

The proposed budget also includes $15,000 less for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, banking on federal dollars to make up the difference, and decreases funding for street outreach by about 57%. 

Some people brought their own tents and sleeping bags while others were collected as donations that would be cleaned after the sit-in and distributed to people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Ben Burgess / K Street Photography

Stefon Lyndsey, 34, attended the sit-in out of frustration with Bowser’s approach to providing affordable housing options and helping the city’s most vulnerable residents. “A couple years ago, she said she was going to make all of this affordable housing. But, I see more condos, I see more office buildings than affordable housing,” said Lyndsey, a Black native Washingtonian who grew up in the Shaw neighborhood. “I feel like a lot of D.C. residents are being pushed out of D.C. because they can’t afford the rent here.” 

He said majority Black neighborhoods are feeling this particularly intensely. A national study released last year found that D.C. had the most intense rate of gentrification and that low-income populations in neighborhoods like Shaw have decreased by as much as 57% as wealthier, whiter, tenants have moved in.

[Read more: Bowser’s budget provides only 7% of funds needed to reduce homelessness, advocates say]

Bowser has not shied away from her critics’ complaints about MPD and racial inequality, nor has she been subtle in addressing President Donald Trump’s criticism of how she handles protests in the city.

As violent clashes between protesters and federal law enforcement drew on in front of the White House earlier this month, Bowser commissioned artists to paint “Black Lives Matter” as a street mural spanning the crowded block. She also renamed the street “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and condemned violent actions from federal officers.

Bowser gained national attention and inspired other cities to replicate the mural. But many, including activists involved with Freedom Fighters D.C., are critical of the move. Black Lives Matter D.C. called the effort performative if not backed up by changes in the city budget and policies. Activists led by the D.C. Movement for Black Lives painted an addition to the message and covered over the stars of the D.C. flag, resulting in an amended “BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE” graphic. D.C. Public Works employees repainted the stars on the flag but have not removed the additional words.

Bowser’s mural also served as a poignant setting for clashes between protesters and her own police department, which used pepper spray against activists  attempting to topple a statue of Andrew Jackson this week, and additionally removed protesters from tents they had set up. One such tent that captured local attention sheltered Earl’s First Amendment Grill, which the Washington Post reported fed more than 1,000 protestors in a day. The meals were given freely and also provided to people experiencing homelessness, whether they were protesting or not, according to DCist. 

How is a mural supposed to protect us?” LeBayne asked. “It was a publicity stunt. People, Black people, were brutally beaten, pepper-sprayed, shot at, all in front of this mural that states ‘Black Lives Matter.’ We want to see real policy and funding changes immediately.” 

Photo by Ben Burgess / K Street Photography

Freedom Fighters D.C. does not stand, or sit, alone in their fight. A number of local advocacy groups offered support during the demonstration.

Bartenders Against Racism, a collective of hospitality workers that organized to fight racism within their industry, has been providing free snacks, water, and other essentials to protesters since June 9. 

Allison Lane of BAR explained she initially connected with Freedom Fighters D.C. during a prior protest, when the organization helped to arrange rides for protesters after police clashed with peaceful demonstrators. So when they learned of the sit-in, BAR set up a tent stocked with essentials for the entire event.

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company also offered solidarity and support in the form of opening its lobby. Dylan Arredondo, theatremaker and community organizer within the D.C. theatre community, helped orchestrate Woolly Mammoth’s involvement with the sit-in, and with other demonstrations that have taken place across the city over the last few weeks.

At its conclusion, LeBayne said those who participated in the sit-in found the experience empowering, “…like we were getting people’s attention in a positive way to discuss our demands, and educate the public on defunding the police and what that would look like.”

Ray Pyle, 26, a Black first-grade teacher in Southeast D.C. who participated in the sit-in, was initially unsure of whether he would join the protest. But then, he said, he thought about his brother.

“What does it take for the government to understand and see we just want to be given the same rights as anyone? I shouldn’t have to be afraid [for] my brother in Chicago. I literally call him every night to make sure he’s okay because if he says the wrong words to a cop, or he looks at somebody differently, he could not be at next Thanksgiving.”

Photo by Ben Burgess / K Street Photography

Violence and a level of safety not provided by police for communities of color has also impacted his professional life. Pyle said, “I’m tired of seeing my students not making a home after a day’s lesson.” It is a situation he has dealt with more than once in the past few weeks, alone.

The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety markup of the budget is scheduled for June 25. A work session to draft the full edited budget is expected to take place June 29. The first full council vote to approve the budget is scheduled for July 21 and the final council vote is planned for July 28, after which the budget support act will got to Bowser for her signature before awaiting congressional approval.

On Tuesday, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau released a statement on MPD’s use of pepper spray against protesters. She urged Mayor Bowser to immediately sign into effect emergency legislation that Nadeau co-introduced, which the D.C. Council passed unanimously on June 9. It bans the use of chemical irritants against protesters.

“Our police department claims that they do not need reform and that they have sufficient de-escalation training, but the actions that continue to take place at First Amendment demonstrations say otherwise,” Nadeau said in the statement.


Eric Falquero contributed reporting.