Kayla Edwards Friedland starts getting ready at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, a half an hour before she’s expected at the gates of Georgetown University. She stands in front of her bathroom mirror, twisting her braids into one tight strand that she knots at the back of her neck.
A bun is better than a ponytail, she learned a few nights ago: less to grab onto.
Each night Friedland spends outside the White House, protesting the killing of George Floyd in police custody, she learns something that makes her more prepared for the next time she goes out.
Mascara does not mix well with pepper spray.
When you run two miles in cheap combat boots, you’ll be limping the next morning.
Even if it’s hot, wear your leather jacket. It might stop a pepper bullet from ripping that patch of skin clean off your arm.
Friedland unzips the black JanSport backpack she’s been bringing along every night, taking out two bottles of spray paint — one red, one black — with last night’s fingerprints smeared around the lid. Today she heard that President Trump has been calling some of the more violent protests, “domestic acts of terror.”
Tonight she’ll leave the paint at home.
Friedland, a rising junior at Georgetown, has placed herself at the center of the Washington, D.C., protests every night since they began on May 29. With a group of seven friends — almost all Georgetown students on campus through the summer — she takes the bus downtown around 5 or 6 p.m., violating city curfews to stay out late into the night or early morning, when the last of the crowds begin to disperse.
Activism comes easy to Friedland. She went to high school in Hollywood, Fla., a 30-minute drive from Parkland, where 14 students and three staff members were massacred on Valentine’s Day 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The next month, she joined hundreds of thousands of students around the country in a local satellite March for Our Lives, fighting for stricter gun control. In February, she led a week-long sit in for black survivors of sexual assault at the Georgetown president’s office. Even though she’ll only spend a few months in her summer dorm, she took the time to tack a picture of Angela Davis to her wall, next to a sign that says, “Well Behaved Women Never Make History.”
A few minutes before 5:30, Friedland’s friend, Mali Nichols, a rising senior, shows up at her door in black cutoff jean shorts. It is Nichols’s first night going out with the group.
“Hey, are you sure you want to wear that?” Friedland asks, handing over an extra pair of goggles.
“Wear what? Shorts?”
“Are you planning on going to the front lines or just protesting?”
“Just protesting.” Nichols pauses. “Are you planning on going to the front lines, Kayla?”
Friedland made her way to the front as soon as she arrived in Lafayette Square for the first night of protests on Friday. It’s terrifying to be a few feet from a long line of police officers, Friedland says, who for years have scared her so much that she holds her breath when she drives by their cars. Before last week, Friedland had never been to a protest with violence. Neither had anyone else in her Georgetown group.
Nichols spots the large Band-Aid on Friedland’s upper arm, wrapped in white medical tape — where Friedland was hit at close range with a pepper-spray projectile.
“Did I not tell you?” Friedland says. “I got shot.”
She says this without emotion or embellishment.
At least for her first night out, Nichols agrees she should stand further back in the crowd.
Friedland and Nichols pull out their phones as soon as they reach the Georgetown gates, texting the rest of the group. There are seven members in a group chat Friedland named Leftists United, followed by a series of raised fist emoji, one of every skin color on the Apple keyboard.
It’s a relief to have found this group of students, says Friedland. She knew some of them before this summer, but not all. They came together because they’re some of the few students left on campus, and they’re furious about the killing of George Floyd and the many other police killings of black men and women.
Friedland hasn’t watched the George Floyd video, and doesn’t plan to. Floyd died on May 25, after a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
“I don’t have to watch it,” she says. “That’s all, that’s it. I don’t need to see another one to know it’s real.”
She doesn’t have to explain this to the Leftists United: They get it. But most people at Georgetown aren’t like them, she says.
When she walked through these front gates at orientation, Friedland quickly realized how different she was from most of her classmates. She noticed the expensive backpacks with designer labels, and made up excuses for why she didn’t want to order UberEats with everyone else.
“There are students here who complain about their — what’s it called? I don’t even remember because I just don’t get it,” she said. “Oh, their allowance. They complain that their allowance from their parents is not enough.”
Friedland doesn’t get an allowance. Back home in South Florida, she grew up eating ramen noodles every night for dinner. There were stretches of summertime when her family could not afford air conditioning. She is at Georgetown on a full scholarship.
In Hollywood, white people are a minority. Friedland’s high school classmates were largely black and Latinx. Many students were from low-income families like her own. At Georgetown, she says, she is often the only black person in the room, and regularly the only person of color.
At first, she tried to ignore how out of place she felt, she says. She joined College Democrats, one of the largest political organizations on campus, thinking she’d find like minds in her position as the director of advocacy, planning activist events around issues she cares about.
Then four Georgetown police officers showed up at her dorm room one night last fall. They’d received a tip that Friedland and her friends were smoking weed. When she opened the door, they forced her friends out, leaving Friedland alone as they looked around her room. When she missed a College Democrats event the next morning, she texted the president — a white student — to let her know she’d had an encounter with the police the night before.
“I told her the police came to my room and I was feeling really messed up about it,” said Friedland.
The president took a screenshot of the text, Friedland said, sending it to Friedland with her own message beneath the photo: “I’m deceased,” it read.
“She meant to send it to someone else on the College Democrats board,” Friedland said. Even if the president couldn’t fully understand how an unexpected police confrontation might affect a young black woman, she said, she couldn’t believe she would use the experience to mock her.
Friedland quit College Democrats after that.
It’s been hard to be a black student here, Friedland says, but she’s still glad she chose to come to Georgetown.
“If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have become radicalized to the extent that I am,” she said. “I would probably be at the protests but I wouldn’t be throwing myself at the front.”
As the group waits for the bus outside a row of shuttered high-end stores on M Street, Friedland squats down on the brick sidewalk, passing around a black Sharpie. She has written two numbers on the insides of her arms, in case she gets arrested: the number for the National Lawyers’ Guild, a nonprofit offering free legal assistance to advocates, and the number of a favorite Georgetown women’s studies professor, Sara Collina, who has a law degree.
“I don’t think I wrote [the number] in a way I can even read it,” says Nichols.
“Memorize it,” says Friedland.
They chant each piece of the number, repeating it back to each other as they step onto the bus.
Everyone knows they might get arrested tonight. Last night, Monday, was extremely unpredictable: the crowd was chanting, waving posters in the air. It only took a few seconds for the mood to shift. More than once, Friedland says, the front line of police knelt down to put on gas masks, and abruptly sprayed the crowd. Sometimes they were reacting to something, she says — a hurled water bottle, a firecracker. Sometimes they didn’t seem to be provoked by anything at all.
On Saturday, the pepper bullet hit Friedland’s arm around 9 p.m. There was tear gas earlier in the night, but things seemed to have quieted down a little. Friedland was sitting off to the side, washing out her eyes.
“I was starting to feel a little better from the tear gas,” she said, “so I felt it was my time to go up to the front.”
A large black man started yelling at the officers, she said. When they began firing at him with pepper bullets, Friedland says, she started to scream, holding her hands above her head.
“Then they turned their fire on me.”
Friedland feels like she should put her body at the front, she says, because she has certain “privileges” that other protesters don’t.
“I mean, I’m black. No doubt about that,” she says. “But I’m small. You’re not going to look at me and be scared.”
She guessed that police were intimidated by the man who was shouting at the front of the crowd, she said, so they fired. Whenever she can, she’ll ask white protesters to go to the front. When white people are on the front lines, she says, the shooting tends to stop.
Friedland pulls up her sweatpants to check how the bruises on her legs are healing. She’s wearing a yellow pair of Harry Potter socks for an extra layer of protection.
That bruise might have been from Saturday, she says. Maybe Sunday. It’s hard to remember.
She peels down the sock to inspect the back of her heel. When she ran two miles home Monday night, dodging police who might have detained her for being out five hours after curfew, her feet bled. Right above the blisters on her left ankle, she has a tattoo: two words, in looping script.
The crowd at the White House tonight is the biggest one yet. People are spilling out from the gates to Lafayette Square in all directions, shouting “Don’t shoot,” with their arms in the air.
“Peaceful protest,” the crowd starts to chant. “Peaceful protest.”
Friedland can’t help rolling her eyes a little. Earlier in the week, she and her friends left a protest at the Lincoln Memorial because they felt it was “too peaceful.” The crowd was marching around the city, she says, “hell bent on not confronting the police.”
Nothing will change with chants and posters, Friedland says. For systemic change, there must be major disruption.
“The big, radical change that I want — the ruling class is not just going to hand it to us. The police state is not just going to hand it to us. It has to be taken.” Ultimately, she says, she values human life over property. “And this is about the basic right to live.”
Friedland’s father disagrees with her on this issue, urging her to “fight with love.”
“But I believe what we’re doing is love,” says Friedland. She hasn’t done anything violent yet. If she has to burn a police car or throw a water bottle to protect the rights of black Americans, she says, she will.
Friedland has tried to ask nicely. A month before she staged the sit-in at the Georgetown president’s office, her activist group, the Black Survivors’ Coalition, sent the administration a list of demands.
“The specific asks were so thoughtful and so incredibly reasonable,’ said Collina, Friedland’s professor. Among other demands, the group asked for an additional black therapist on campus, and for campus counseling resources to be made available after hours.
When the university failed to address the coalition’s major demands — issuing a vague statement that reiterated the ways in which the school had addressed diversity issues in the past — Friedland gave them a month to respond more directly. Then she led a sit-in from 9 a.m. to midnight every night for a week, with as many as 100 students at a time, preventing the president from accessing his office. At the end of the week, the administration made several key concessions, including a promise to hire 10 counselors of color on contract through the fall.
“We know that following the rules is often ineffective and does nothing,” said Collina. “Kayla tried that, and it didn’t work.”
As Washington’s 7 p.m. curfew nears on Tuesday night, Friedland can see her friends start to relax, laughing and leaning against the eight-foot barrier separating them from the White House. Any fear about coming to a potentially violent protest seems to have dissipated. One of her closest friends, Claudia Canales, a rising junior, takes off her goggles and the bandanna tied around her mouth.
“Um,” Friedland says. “What are you doing?”
It’s hot, Canales tells her. She’ll just take it off for a minute.
“Turn,” Friedland says.
She steps behind Canales, pulling the goggles around her forehead and fastening the bandanna around her head. It might be peaceful now, Friedland says. But that could change anytime.
Police advance from behind the fence, securing the segments with electric screw guns.
“Do your jobs,” shouts a protester.
“Cowards,” yells someone from Friedland’s group.
Friedland stares at the fence, uncharacteristically still. One of her friends asks why she’s not yelling.
“I’m waiting for the right moment to use my energy,” she says, without looking away from the police officers.
“This isn’t it,” she says. “Not yet.”