Day after day, night after night, Washington D.C has been the site of unprecedented protests, vigils, and, along with them, deployments of the Secret Service, police, National Guard, and unidentified troops. Eva Shapiro, a 2020 UC Berkeley graduate and Washington D.C resident, offers unique insight into the current political moment of which D.C is at the forefront.
From Berkeley, California, this feels like a historical moment, but is it? “I’m really hopeful…, but the gun control rallies felt distinct, DACA felt distinct, in High School the original two years of the Black Lives Matter felt distinct….[It] felt like we were living in a moment….I’m hopeful this is an inflection point somewhere in the middle,” Eva explains. Washington D.C is both a symbol of the nation’s government and a site of historic political moments that have forced the Federal government to act; Eva believes that this is a time for Washington D.C to be a symbol, as well as “a city with 700,000 residents,” a city with problems of systematic racism like those of towns and cities across America. Eva asks “what does it mean that we still have police in schools… and the overuse of force by the [Washington D.C] Metropolitan Police?” For Eva, it is “gratifying” that, as protestors look to Washington D.C, they see its need for statehood and control over its own policing. Washington D.C is currently filled with multiple law enforcement agencies and military units. Washington D.C is not a state; therefore, it has virtually no control over which “protective” powers are deployed. For example, there were 12 policemen at a vigil at a Unitarian Church 20 minutes from the White House that Eva attended; at a rally downtown, the Secret Service were on horseback. This was odd to Eva.
Eva had been very cautious in quarantine, and yet she decided that protesting was more important than sheltering in place. She attended a protest on the afternoon of Sunday, May 31st as well as a vigil thus far. What is the aim of someone like Eva, who decides that her duty to protest is greater than her duty to stay home? Eva “want[s] to show support to other protests…. [That BLM] is something we care about in the city.” Furthermore, she adds that police aggression at protests only “impassions people.” Eva also said that protestors have not forgotten they are in a pandemic: she estimates that 95% of people are wearing masks; protestors distribute hand sanitizer and attempt to stay 6 ft apart; she tries to move around in the protest (we are more likely to be infected via long term exposure).
While Eva says the pandemic has certainly changed the atmosphere, she said the emotions felt similar to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2015; it felt “organized”and very “serious.” In addition, the protests felt similarly racially diverse; she estimates the protests reflect the ethnic breakdown of Washington D.C. A key difference Eva notices is that the crowd is much younger. She speculates that this is because older people are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Another wrinkle added on to protesting during the pandemic is the curfew. On the weekend of the 30th, the curfew was set for 11 pm; on Monday and Tuesday, however, the curfew was 7pm, in the following days the curfew was pushed back to 11 pm. To Eva, the curfew has two major effects: first, police aggression, tear gassing and violence, increases at the time of curfew; second, it puts Washington D.C’s primary election, on June 2nd, at risk. Polls closed at 8pm, one hour after the curfew began. While Mayor Muriel Browser (D) said that voting was exempt from the curfew, the police harassed some voters nonetheless. That said, Eva herself, has only been at the protests in the afternoon and does not have first-hand knowledge of what they feel like at night.
Eva comes from a very politically engaged family: her father is a reporter at NPR and her mother has lobbied on behalf of nonprofits in Washington D.C since Eva was born and more recently she worked in local government. For Eva, this was not the first time she had protested; in fact, being home now due to coronavirus, she once again protested with her mother, like she did when she was younger. At five years old, her mother brought her and her sister in a double stroller to protest against the Iraq war; this was typical. Protests in Washington D.C, Eva reports, are “frequent,” “highly organized, and very safe.”
Throughout high school, I have been vexed by what I perceived as a lack of sustained organized protest and political engagement at UC Berkeley, the institution I had looked to as an emblem of radicalism and action. Eva, who worries that she “didn’t do enough,” supported graduate students in the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) strikes, was a member of lefty Jewish groups focused on Palestine, went to several protests at Berkeley and the broader East Bay, including those supporting Gun Control and DACA, and was a political science major with a minor in Spanish. She perceives Cal’s political participation very differently than I had, saying that “political participation is focused inward.” Most of the students’ political action reflects on their own University. Furthermore, she points out that this might not be a shift from the University’s historical past at all; after all, UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement’s original aim was to give UC Berkeley students freedom of speech. She added that, “in recent years, movements on college campuses [have been] very organized.” A virtue of being a student at UC Berkeley, and one we as CPS students may feel holds true, is that we have a school community and East Bay community, the two of which we “can connect.”
So how has Eva’s education in Political Science and Spanish served her in our current political moment? Her focus was on international politics, which she admits gives her some understanding from a macro framework, but, surprisingly, the geography department and, less surprisingly, the ethnic studies department have served her best because their foci are on learning local histories, which I assume means that they explain much larger phenomena. Eva’s biggest take-away is that, to understand what is happening, “we need to do all this reading around racism, [but] no one is doing it perfectly; … it is hard to [do] by yourself.” This, Eva explains, is why we need professors and universities.
Finally, Eva reminds us of the power and repercussions of how quickly we can read newspapers and consume TV news. First, she instructs “media consumers” to “balance what they see on TV and from those that are there [at protests].” Moreover, she warns against the temptation to move past this issue too quickly: the media cycle can mean we move quickly from one issue to the next. She advises us to sustain our efforts if we want to produce real change.
Photo Credit: People’s Daily (China)