One Hmong-American in DC, Black Lives Matter, and BLM Plaza

On Monday, June 1, 2020, Mayor Bowser ordered the first DC curfew sometime around 3 pm, to be in effect at 7 pm. Many Washingtonians like myself found themselves lining up at the closest Trader Joe’s, ready to panic-food buy. We were not sure if the curfew order signaled greater danger of peaceful protests turning violent as in other cities, where looting destroyed local food supply stores, after the horrifying death of George Floyd in MN. Trader Joe’s was understanding and relaxed a bit its social distancing rules, allowing more people than they usually would in the store at the same time. People tried to maintain distance while rushing to grab products and rushing to the cashier lane, to be be able to get back home by the curfew deadline. On the way of my return bike commuting, at the first stop light, on U Street NW and 14th Street NW, I started hearing some loud music. An open truck was coming up, full of musicians and one man was singing. Green signs identified them as supporters of Black Lives Matter. I had never seen a BLM protest before. I had not gone to any protests due to the pandemic stay-at-home order. I had just plain stayed glued to online news, monitoring the social upheaval in my home state of MN and around the country. I was glad to finally have the chance to participate a little bit in social justice. I got off my bike and balanced it precariously on the kickstand, despite groceries tipping it more to one side. As I struggled to document with my old iPhone that had no memory space left, I listened to the bantering in between musical sets. They worried they had to leave right away as they were blocking the main intersection. Someone said they could stay until 6:45 pm, another 20 minutes. They reminded people to go vote the next day for the DC primaries. Then they reminded people to get back on time for the curfew deadline. Overall, it was a really relaxed and rather fun musical break from the dread of the pandemic and the social unrest. Many people stopped on the streets and sidewalks to really look at them and see them. I think it was their purpose: to be seen as more than some scary group that some people make them out to be. Later that night, my weekly Monday night virtual writing group focused on things we were thankful for, as a break from the painful events of the past week. It made me think about my experience earlier in the day. I was thankful for those young Black men, for the music and social advocacy they shared with us then. I don’t know if in other places other people had very different experiences with the protestors. My own first experience was peaceful and artsy. The next morning, I heard that the protests turned violent when Lafayette Square was forcefully cleared so that President Trump could walk to the church across and take a photograph with a bible. My first thought was for those young men, wondering how many of them got beaten or arrested. It made that memory of the previous sunny spring evening more poignant: it was like a moment of peace and merrymaking before going into the night to face scary things. I thought, to sing and banter knowing that the night will be frightening, to still sing and banter knowing that what comes next will be frightening, and to still go into the night knowing it is frightening: isn’t this what people call bravery?

On Friday, June 4, 2020, Mayor Bowser approved the proposal by DC artists to paint a giant Black Lives Matter mural on the two city blocks on 16th Street NW leading to the White House. Reactions were mixed. Some hailed Mayor Bower’s clever and daring act of defiance and resistance to President Trump’s having defiled the peace and public protest the Monday before. One of my DC acquaintances posted joyfully about being able to participate in the painting of the mural, alongside her Black husband and their biracial toddler boy. Others rejected the street mural as a performative response, showy in appearance, but with no substance when compared to demands to defund the police and re-invest in Black communities. One of my DC poet acquaintances posted an article to that effect. He was immediately verbally attacked by a fellow DC Black artist who acknowledged the performative aspect of the mural, but also praised that it gave DC artists work to do and it promoted social justice for Black people. I was surprised by the vehemence of the attacks, considering that poet was a queer API known for his social activism.

Later in the weekend, the two street blocks of the mural were renamed Black Lives Matter (BLM) Plaza. I really wanted to go see it and get a first-person sense of it. I was finally able to go on Tuesday, June 8, 2020.

My first impressions: The street blocks were secured as a pedestrian plaza by low-visibility road blocks and police vans parked in the middle of the busy downtown streets. A happy melody from an ice cream truck filled the air. Black vendors were lining up at intervals under tree shades. People of all races strolled leisurely and took many photos in the vast expanses of a not-busy workday morning. Overall, it had a touristic spot feel.

In the evening of June 3, 2020, President Trump had peaceful protesters forcefully removed from Lafayette Plaza, a public space where there is always some kind protest happening, so he could walk to this church, across from the White House. On Tuesday, June 4, 2020, several BLM signs adorned the church. Some Black activists were publicly teaching about Black Resistance history there.

The White House and Lafayette Park are now fenced in. The fence is a reminder that the park was federal land, whereas 16th Street NW coming onto the White House and H Street NW bordering Lafayette Park are city streets. This is the border where federal power and city power are squaring off at the moment. Most people stop here. There were a couple of news crews. There were many regular people just taking photos and videos.

This is the center of 16th Street, behind this large BLM sign is Lafayette Park and behind Lafayette Park is the White House. At first, I thought, the wreath was for George Floyd. The words below do reference him. However, #BlackLivesMatter and the protests have been about more than George Floyd. They have also included asking for justice for other Black people killed by police. Personally, I don’t know why the mural is painted in bright yellow and the wreath was also yellow flowers. My guess for the mural is that it may have been readily available as a bright color that DC street maintenance already has in storage. Maybe the flowers just match the color of the mural. But for me as an Asian American, with some knowledge of buddhism, yellow is a sacred color, for spirituality. And with some knowledge of yoga philosophy, yellow is the color of the third chakra, manipura, to stimulate wealth. So, whether it was intentional or not, the color yellow has many positive connotations from Asian traditions. I hope spiritual good forces and dreams of greater prosperity will manifest for blacks in the US.

The fence around Lafayette Park is covered with protest signs and art work. You can only catch tiny glimpses of the White House through several layers of metal fences. Personally, as an American, it does hurt me to see the White House fenced out and so far away from its People.

One of the art areas on the fence. It remembers all the Black lives lost with crosses. It also remembers Breanna Taylor specifically, her life cut short ahead of her 27th birthday, which was celebrated this past week by people who keep her in mind.

As an Asian American, I was looking for signs of Asian American solidarity. There is nothing that indicates whether these cranes were made and placed there by Asian Americans, as the thousand cranes symbol is now popularly used by many. However, as an Asian American, I was pleased that the Japanese legend of one thousand cranes was invoked to ask for wishes to be granted by the gods. I hope the thousand folded cranes will help the wish for greater social justice for Black Americans come true.

This is not Asian American, as it clearly states that Japan stands with you. It was still nice to notice that sign of Asian participation and support. Personally, I envied a bit that person’s ability to invoke the name of their whole country. Within Hmong and Asian American communities, it is more complicated and difficult to be so unequivocal. I was shocked to see other Hmong and Asian Americans object to the sweeping use of Hmong or Asians for BLM, for how dare a few speak as if everyone in the whole community agreed. And unfortunately, the issues have to be more deeply discussed and addressed also with more than a sweeping statement that Hmong or Asian people who don’t support BLM or who are afraid of blacks or who are afraid of disbanding the police are just racist.

Beyond posters and visual arts, BLM Plaza is also a space for street performance. It was nice to see young Black street artists performing and others stopping to enjoy the show.

There were several apparel street vendors. This food vendor stood out, because it takes a lot more effort and equipment to set up a food booth. However, it seemed obviously popular, and it was nice to see that food is always healing for people. Overall, it was good to see that BLM Plaza can boost Black entrepreneurship.

I almost missed the significance of this booth: a first aid area. I think it is both a stark reminder that violence can suddenly erupt, so this is needed, and it is also an indicator that these protests are well-prepared/organized. What I felt was, wow, there is a community-clinic corner on BLM Plaza.

This is me at the BLM Plaza in DC. I knew I wanted to come see it. I did take care of how I would dress for this occasion. I knew I wanted to wear something nice, because this is a historical moment. I knew I wanted to wear something springy because spring is the season of new life, and we definitely need inspiration and hope for a new kind of life now and moving forward. Plus it needed to be something I could bike with for 3.5 miles and back on a very hot spring day in DC. Just so people don’t get the wrong idea, the whole outfit is really inexpensive as I don’t believe in spending tons of money to look decent. I am glad I dressed decently, for BLM Plaza is also a historical place at the moment: it is a place of recent violence that was immediately reclaimed for peace and community building. The overall feeling I got after visiting was that it is like a village: it has a a church where education is provided, it has a museum wall, it has shops where people can buy souvenirs and food, it has performance art, it has a community health clinic, and mostly, it has people, young and old, gathered there with common interest in a more just USA. I don’t know how long this Plaza and temporary village will last, if there will be plans to keep something of it there, or if it will be replicated in other places for more durable purposes. For now, this is a good start. I was glad to be part of this picture and I hope I will find the right role I can play in the larger picture of building a better country for all of us.

For now, I am offering this photo essay.

What are you looking for?