Lindsay Kouyate is a 21-year-old college student who is currently living in Maryland.
I went to my first protest at the White House on May 30. I haven’t stopped protesting since.
When I saw what happened to George Floyd — an innocent Black man murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 — a number of emotions surged through me. First came sadness, then fear, and finally overwhelming anger. How could this happen again? He was killed in the same city that I lived in just a year ago. That could have been me. That could still be me.
You see, I grew up in small towns in South Dakota that ranged from 96 to 99 percent white. As a mixed Black woman, the racism I experienced there was relentlessly awful. There was, of course, the obvious racism: getting beaten up on the bus after school for being an “n-word.” But microaggressions were the most common, and the most hurtful. I experienced this type of racism every single day: going into a store with my white mom and getting dirty looks; seeing a fleet of Confederate flags hung on students’ trucks in the parking lot of my high school; simply walking down a street and being the only person of color. The minute I graduated from high school, I packed up my stuff and went to the nearest big city I could find, which was Minneapolis. I stayed there for about a year, and then moved in with my dad in Maryland for college.
After Floyd’s death, I was tired of feeling as though my race is one that should be disregarded, even in death. My Black father’s life, my Black sisters’ lives, my own Black life. They are all at risk of falling victim to a mass genocide, and I could not sit back and let it happen.
So, on May 30, I decided to head to the White House. I remember showing up and seeing a crowd of people screaming at a line of policemen. I immediately went to the front of the line; the need to release my own pain was overwhelming. We spent a couple of hours expressing our frustration peacefully.
Then, the entire protest changed. “Move back,” the officers said. It’s a statement that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Men, women and children all started to get pushed back by the officers. Those of us who asked why were hit with metal clubs.
All hell broke loose. The street turned into a war zone. We were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and shot at with rubber bullets. Despite their very obvious efforts, they couldn’t break us. We had had enough. Nothing they could do to us would trump our desire for freedom.
People started destroying the capital of a country that has been destroying an entire race for hundreds of years. I watched D.C. burn to the ground, and it was one of the most terribly beautiful things that I have ever seen. Karma was finally catching up to the country that had wronged us for so long. The only terrible thing was that it had to escalate to that degree of destruction for the rest of the country to acknowledge what they have done to the Black community.
Later that night, I was still at the front line, holding my “I Can’t Breathe” sign, screaming at the top of my lungs. People started throwing water bottles at the line of police that had been mistreating us all day. Suddenly, I saw a water bottle launch over my head at a police officer who was close to me. He turned to me with his rubber bullet gun and fired over and over and over again. Everything from that moment on is blurry to me. I know that I was shot once in the chest, then five times on my left arm, and two times in the back. I was pepper-sprayed at some point, because my eyes felt like they had scalding hot sand in them and my face was on fire. A medic rinsed out my eyes for a good 30 minutes before I could see again.
I continued to protest for the rest of the night.
That was only the first day. It has been almost 60 days of protest, and I have stories from most of them that could fill up a book. I have patched up someone who had rubber bullet wounds in each of their hands because police wanted to play target practice during a “Hands up, don’t shoot” chant. I have seen someone get shot in their face by rubber bullets and knocked out cold. I have seen someone get cut by a police officer with a knife. I have seen people with burns all over their hands from picking up tear gas grenades and throwing them back at police. I have seen thousands of people leave because it was pouring rain; the 150 people who remained raised their voices to make the entire city shake. I have seen protesters get violently arrested for doing absolutely nothing.
As time went on, the crowd got smaller, grew larger, then became smaller again. But a core group of people always stayed. We formed a family, and the Black Lives Matter Plaza was our home base. I started helping out at a tent called Earl’s First Amendment Grill. The Earls give out free food, free water and, most importantly, free conversation. They understood why I couldn’t stop protesting, because they couldn’t either. Our anger didn’t just disappear when the news channels and trending hashtags did. I still go to the protests to this day, because nothing has changed. Black lives still don’t matter. I will continue to protest until they do. As a Black woman, I am fighting for my life and my freedom right now. It’s not an option for me to just idly watch this happen.
I recently started my own organization to get people more involved in the protests. Accountability Activists is a new group that says the names of Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Korryn Gains and so many others with the intent of action, not reiteration. It’s not enough to chant, “Say their names.” Instead, I’m in the process of creating an Instagram page for their names and faces, their stories, the numbers of government offices and officials in the area where they were murdered, and what to say when you call them. We are organizing “3 at 3’s,” where people can call three officials at 3 p.m. in an effort to shut down government phone lines at a specific time. Our goal is to force them to investigate the cases. People can still disrupt the peace, even in quarantine.
Make no mistake, this pandemic, even more than covid-19, needs your attention. Do not use a virus as an excuse to not stand up for what’s right. If you have read this article, then maybe you have a better idea of what it means to fight to see change happen.
Do not let the fire we lit burn out. Act, speak up and don’t ever stop.