June 19 was Juneteenth. It commemorates the proclamation of the end of slavery in the U.S. reaching the last Confederate State (Texas – two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation). Previously, Juneteenth was written off as another human interest topic whose relevancy rises and falls in its passing (like why we need Daylight Savings Time). But with the latest wave of outrage against racialized killings by police and subsequent police brutality in response to nation-wide protests, institutions are recognizing the importance of this date in Black American history.
On Friday, 19 June, Peace Direct sponsored a second peace activation, a responsive peacebuilding activity taking place at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., and organized by +Peace, a coalition of peacebuilding organisations. This peace activation was a creative space for supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to participate in artful expressions with banners, murals, and a drum circle. It was a space offered for solidarity, community-building, and healing to all those affected by racism and participating in the protests to end it.
I joined the activation during the second weekend of protests in Washington, D.C., and witnessed the reaffirming power of community and joy during a time of tension and anger.
The days leading up to that weekend were emotional. Across the U.S., people took to the streets to protest over the latest wave of racially-charged killings by police officers and were met with a militaristic response of tear gas, rubber bullets and kettling. It felt unreal how reputable news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post were informing citizens how to protect themselves against their own government’s military and police. You could not ignore the conversation about #BlackLivesMatter – it infused every social media stream, TV networks, flyers posted on people’s windshields, and spray painted on the walls of shuttered buildings. It was hard to focus on anything else, and at one point I felt guilty for working – even if it is to support peacebuilding – when I felt I belonged on the streets, lending my voice in anger against a racist system, especially within walking (and possibly yelling) distance of President Trump and the White House.
When the weekend came, I was cautiously eager to head down to 16th Street with my cardboard sign (the sign read: “& even though you’re fed up, you got to keep ya head up” -Tupac Shakur). I followed a stream of demonstrators with their own pieces of cardboard which led to a river of supporters that congregated at the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza. DJs played samples from their speakers and someone even offered me a vegan sandwich. The vibe checked like a block party and I was a little disappointed. All this outrage over police brutality met with more police brutality the following week and now that we had reached a critical mass of people, it had transformed to a street fair. Shouldn’t we be focused on pressuring the government to change the (un)Justice System that continues to racially profile, incarcerate and kill Black Americans?
After locating the +Peace station I listened to the speeches of Black organizers in front of the fences (yards away from the actual fences) of the White House calling out the U.S. systems of oppression that devalued their lives. Then I marched with protestors, bringing into the streets of D.C. the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
When I returned to the +Peace activation, I still held onto my mixed feelings about this juxtaposition of outrage and celebration. Was this really a time for peacebuilding? One of the facilitators announced that the drum circle was starting and invited his Black brothers and sisters to join in. The beat grew in sound and intensity and when the crowd really got going, I recalled what +Peace interim director and good friend Monica Curca said during the planning meeting: peacebuilding should be about creating the spaces and creative tools for people to express themselves. In this case, the agency belonged to the Black community.
Perhaps this is where peacebuilding fits in. Although the Emancipation Proclamation announced the end of slavery in the U.S., it did not announce Black ownership of property. Throughout Black American history afterwards, it has been a struggle for ownership and space, whether manifested in the form of housing, or in positions of leadership in the workplace. But when actors allied to the movement give up their spaces for Black Americans to claim, there is peacebuilding. Consider the literal example of Black Lives Matter Plaza. When 16th Street proclaimed BLACK LIVES MATTER in yellow, the Black community came down to own the space and loudly profess their identity and history, with all the pain and joy that comes with it. On a street in a city where 70 percent more Black Americans are stopped and frisked by Metropolitan Police Department more than other races, could Black Americans feel liberated and unapologetically Black in public?
That day, I learned anger and joy could exist in the same movement, in the same moment. Peacebuilding is where these moments can happen and as peacebuilders, we can help facilitate these spaces and, (when requested) offer tools and different mediums for others to fully express their emotions and claim their space. The +Peace activation and Black Lives Matter Plaza itself both signaled the Black community to claim space and potentially lay the groundwork to build peace. As the United States recognizes Juneteenth as an important marker of this country’s history, I can see the day as an annual event to create space where Black Americans can both protest and celebrate. Either way, what is most important is that the day is claimed by Black Americans who lead in the discussion and uplifting of Black lives, and that the rest of the community listens and protects these spaces with them.
You can learn more about +Peace at www.pluspeace.org
Christine Trillana is Development and Administrative Associate at Peace Direct U.S.