Residents, families and staff of Sasha Bruce Youthwork during June 16, 2020 demonstration. Photo courtesy of Sasha Bruce Youthwork
At least 100 formerly homeless youth took to the streets of Eastern Market on June 16 for a demonstration in support of their peers and the Black Lives Matter movement. They were all members of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which houses approximately 150 runaway and homeless youth and provides counseling, education, and life- skill services.

Participants, including youth and staff, chanted the names of Black Americans who have lost their lives to police brutality. For an hour, demonstrators sang and gave speeches.

“When I was growing up, I was a victim of police brutality, so I really felt the pain and the energy of the atmosphere,” said Marquise Harvey-Thorne, a Sasha Bruce client. “I wanted to go down there and demonstrate for myself.”

In addition to opposing general police brutality, the organizers were motivated to call attention to the violent clearing of Lafayette Square on June 1, when President Donald Trump ordered law enforcement to clear protesters by force. Some Sasha Bruce members were injured amid the tear gas and rubber bullets.

Harvey-Thorne was hit in the face with a rubber bullet at Lafayette Square while peacefully protesting. His injuries could not be cared for with a simple warm rag and rubbing alcohol. He had to receive emergency medical services. Harvey-Thorne said he feels law enforcement officers are helpful in controlling large crowds, but violence is a weak control mechanism.

Sasha Bruce strives to help young people see that their experiences matter, according to Executive Director Deborah Shore. The demonstration was meant to be a safe space for members to share thoughts on police brutality and ways to bring about future change.

“It is so important in our society that people feel a sense of their citizenship, that they are permitted and encouraged to raise their voices for the things that really matter to them,” Shore said. “Our organization is devoted to helping young people find their legitimate voices in their process of becoming adults in the world.”

Recent protests have highlighted injustices that impact the Black and brown youth the organization serves. Eighty-seven percent of homeless youth in the District identified as Black during the D.C. Department of Human Services’s last count. With many Americans facing financial uncertainty and questions surrounding racial equality, the demonstration’s organizers felt it was important to be a symbol of stability during chaotic times.

“Whoever felt like they needed to voice their opinion could get on the mic and they did,” said Harvey-Thorne. “It’s supposed to get a certain crowd’s attention and I believe that we were doing that.”

Harvey-Thorne said he hoped the demonstration sends a message to police officers. Officers who use force as a means of control can be dangerous and need to step down until they are able to practice safe control mechanisms, he said. The Office of Police Complaints found that reported use of force incidents in the city increased by 83% between 2015 and 2018.

Youth preparing signs for the demonstration. Photo courtesy of Sasha Bruce Youthwork

Marcus Cade, a family support counselor at Sasha Bruce, said protests like this one are crucial to bring attention to systemic problems.

“When issues arise and they get to the boiling point, it’s very important to have the ability to speak at will and act as a beacon to other people in society to let them know that there is a societal issue that needs changing,” Cade said.

The event’s organizers said they wanted the protest to be peaceful and they hoped to send a message that people can come together and rally for change without violence.

“We didn’t really want anything to take away from the message that we want our Black and brown neighbors, friends and family to live in a world where they’re truly free and 100% equal,” said Heather Urban, a college and career coordinator at Sasha Bruce.

Making sure youth are at the forefront of taking proactive, instead of reactive, approaches to some of life’s problems is an important part of Sasha Bruce’s work, Urban said. But the work is far from done.

“We will be working daily to ensure that our young people have their voices heard,” she said, “until real change is enacted.”

Correction (07.09.2020)

An earlier version of this story misspelled Marcus Cade’s last name.