“Water dirty like the police that flood streets” — Common “Trouble in the Water”
This past Saturday, April 22nd, at the March For Science in Washington DC on Earth Day, I was assaulted, roughed up, and detained by police in the shadow of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. It was not part of an action or planned civil disobedience. It was sadly a much more regular event - an interaction between police and a person of color gone very wrong.
I have spoken at the Earth Day event on the National Mall in years past. But this year I was particularly excited to attend the March for Science to hear Mustafa Ali speak. Mustafa, if you don’t know, courageously resigned as the head of Environmental Justice at the EPA after 24-year career. He is now Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice, and Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus.
Mustafa and the rest of our Hip Hop Caucus team were already at the march. I had spent the early morning driving around handling daddy duties and was arriving at the rally about midway through.
I was walking in the rain and carrying an umbrella down Constitution Ave. from the National Archives Building towards the Washington Monument. Constitution Ave. was closed and I was excited to see so many people out for the Science March. As I approached 14th St. on Constitution, the walk sign was on, but there was an MPD officer in the middle of street letting cars proceed across 14th so I stayed on the curb. I waited as the crossing signal turned red and then it turned back to walk, signaling clearance for all of us on the curb to cross, which we started to do.
I was the only person of color in the immediate area.
The police officer then told everyone to get out of the crosswalk. By then I was about half way across the street. I paused in the middle of the street and then decided it was easier to proceed to the other side of the street, in effect getting out of the crosswalk.
The officer then ran up to me, grabbed me forcefully by my jacket and swung me around, slamming me up against a food truck. I yelled, “What are you doing? Stop grabbing me.” He told me to stop resisting, to which I responded that I wasn’t. I dropped my umbrella, and put my hands up. I told him I was there for the Science March. He said he had to detain me because I “could be on drugs.” YES, he really said that.
By this time I’m surrounded by five police officers, still in the street, next to the food truck into which I had been slammed. It was very serious. I was in fear for my life. The officer then asks if I had an ID because he wanted to check for outstanding warrants. He asked if I had heard him, I said not until I was in the middle of the crosswalk, when I, like everybody else had started walking. I asked why he was detaining me and why he roughed me up. He told me to shut up and to give him my ID.
I unzipped my rain jacket, which revealed two things - my clergy collar showing that I’m a minister and a VIP badge for the March for Science. At that moment the officer’s demeanor changed, as his perception of me changed slightly. It was as though until that moment he didn’t believe I was “supposed” to be there. Yet, he still detained me, ran my ID, and when he found nothing, told me it was easier to rough me up then stop cars from coming into the crosswalk, and then ultimately, he let me go.
As unfortunate as it is to say, this interaction with the police is not the first or worst I’ve had of this kind, and it is all too common for people of color in Washington DC and all over this country. But the deeply disappointing truth of this Earth Day case of racial profiling, was that none of my fellow science marchers stopped or took issue with what was happening. They didn’t question or pause to witness in a way that one would for a member of one’s community. There was one young woman with bright pink hair, who asked if I was okay, told the cop she knew me, and asked if I wanted her to make a phone call for me. She was encouraging. Otherwise, not a move was made at a march about protecting our planet and communities, to speak up or attempt to correct an injustice that was happening right in front of them.
I am a prominent leader in the climate movement. It is not hyperbole to say, if this can happen to me, than imagine what it feels like for a young person of color who might be coming to a march like this for the first time.
When something like this happens, I think first of my two teenage sons and all that might go wrong for them in an interaction with police, and it scares me as only a parent can get scared at the thought of losing a child as so many have.
I also think of all the various efforts within the climate and environmental movement that are meant to broaden and grow the movement in numbers and diversity. And I think, all those efforts will not be as successful as they should be until there is true recognition of what it means to march for climate as a person of color, and until there are meaningful things put in place to create a multicultural movement that accounts for the different experiences we have even at the same climate march, let alone in the same country, and certainly on the same planet.
I hope my platform in this movement and the reality that I was profiled and assaulted by police at a climate march further brings to light the work we need to do to change the culture of our movement by first defining what a truly inclusive movement is from the perspective of the very communities we want to have more deeply involved in the issue of climate change.
Still, I’ll be marching again next weekend at the People’s Climate March in DC. Can’t stop, won’t stop, as we say in Hip Hop, because too many lives depend on us solving climate change and revitalizing vulnerable communities.
Although I missed Mustafa’s speech on Saturday among many other powerful speakers while being detained, I caught them on video later. Please watch Mustafa’s powerful words on revitalizing vulnerable communities because together we can win.
All power to the people!
Rev Yearwood is president and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, a civil, human and environmental rights organization for the 21st century. Follow him on twitter @RevYearwood.