Updated: Jun 15, 2020
As a combat vet, African American, and photographer, I set out to understand the pain & wounds opened up by George Floyd's death. I ended up finding healing for myself.
(The images protected by 1st Amendment)
On Saturday, May, 30th 2020, I awoke to a nation already boiling over with tension. George Floyd, an African American man, was killed earlier that month while being detained by four police officers in Minnesota for allegedly passing a fake $20 bill.
As the officers held him down, one policeman, Derek Chauvin, placed his knee on Floyd's neck, cutting off his airway. Cellphone footage captured Floyd laying handcuffed and prone on his stomach as the world watched him slowly die. Furthermore, Chauvin, applied weight for over three minutes after the suspect was nonresponsive. He did not release Floyd until paramedics hauled his handcuffed body onto a gurney.
To see a strong, black man such as George Floyd submissive, passive and weak made me feel... ashamed.
I was also unfairly treated and arrested during the mid-2000s. I was a troop commander preparing to deploy to Iraq to support Special Forces. I would be joining a team of Green Berets and working on a critical mission. Before our departure, I yielded to my troops to have a fun send-off before deploying. So, I found a bar and several establishments near a police station in Baltimore, Maryland. We were in safe hands. The police were a block away. What's the worse that could happen?
As the night ended, we waited on the corner for a prepaid taxi. We were waiting for the last person on our team to finalize his check. While standing there, we saw a group of people run from the harbor, followed by a police van. As the police van and officer moved to our location, all was calm as we watched. To our surprise, the Sergeant picked me out of a crowd of people and told me to leave. Stunned, I calmly explained that WE were not apart of the group, and WE were simply waiting for our taxi and for our comrade to finalize his bill.
However, he looked at ME, the only African American, and repeated: "You, get out of here!" Frustrated, I had to betray my training, instincts, and oath to never leave a troop behind. I walked towards another corner, dumbfounded on what to do next. This only triggered him more as he bee-lined towards me. He grabbed me and said, "You're moving too slow, and now you're going to jail!" He placed my hands behind my back. He handcuffed me. He put me in a police van. And just like that, I was under arrest. I tried to reason with the officer from behind the bars of the paddy-wagon; however, he laughed at everything I said.
In anger, I blurted out: "It's ironic that I fight in foreign counties so they can have rights, but I don't have any in my own!" He bowed his head in humiliation.
As I watched George Floyd die, as many other African Americans, I felt that same anger, and shame return. It didn't matter that Floyd had a checkered past. It also didn't matter that he was the subject of numerous police run-ins involving robberies and assaults.
I realized we were both victims of over-aggressive policing. My position, accomplishments, and rank did not stop me from being guilty. His police record and criminal history certainly didn't help him. At the end of the day, we didnt deserve the rights so many fought and died for.
Also, with the numerous talking points found in media and conservative Christian circles, one would think that Floyd was worthy of death. According to them, I may have deserved what happened to me. Footage of police officers committing crimes that would easily convict citizens is analyzed, debated, and dismissed. The presumption of innocence is barked down as a person's past is exposed and denigrated by political pundits. The slightest infraction and sometimes no crime at all are justified by a death penalty executed by street cops.
Everyone sees the facts through their own political/ideological lens'. This goes for, black and white, police and civilian. Despite what happened to me, I consider myself a fair person. So, I took my camera out to document what I saw. To tell my truth from my experience and my lens.
Before leaving for DC that Saturday, I wanted to prepare for the worst. It felt like I was back in the Middle East, planning to go out on a mission. I had on the same gloves and boots I used when I deployed. However, instead of having an M4 rifle, Beretta pistol, and grenades, I was armed with my camera and lens.
In true military form, one of my assistants was the driver. The other searched places to investigate or avoid. We also prepared milk diluted with water, just in case of tear gas.
However, there had been no aggressive police use-of-force in DC up to that point.
I didn't expect to be there after dark and didn't expect police to use tear gas or pepper spray. That was a big miscalculation.
My assistants were excited to help me cover the event. Aubrey is a Guyanese-American with an Ivy League education, and Kevin is a first generation African American with a family hailing from Ghana. Both are fellow christian brothers and friends.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were head-to-head with 2,000 protestors coming our way. I immediately leapt into position to capture the scope and tone of the protests.
The demographics: Sixty-Five percent white and the rest African American. I did not identify a sizable number of Latinos or Asians. The group was also about 70% female with an average age of 24 years old.
The protesters were peaceful and orderly. The group had positive energy, and most of the people seemed enthusiastic as they chanted slogans such as "Hands up, don't shoot" and "No justice, no peace." There was a resolute energy from the youthful protestors. Skateboards, bikes, and motorized scooters were in use by a few while most walked.
I thought most drivers would be annoyed due to their routes being delayed. But to my surprise, many had sign's on their vehicles and were enthusiastically joining in.
As we travelled past the African American History and Culture Museum, it seemed appropriate that the protestors would have their voices heard under the shadow of this prominent icon.
The cohesion of the group began to change when the protestors came to an intersection. One group wanted to travel further down Constitution, while the other wanted to protest on I-395.
The unsung facilitators were the DC police. Carefully predicting the route of the protestors and subsequently stopping traffic ahead of them for up to a quarter-mile. The math in coordinating and anticipating was commendable as the safety of the demonstrators was never in question.
Protestors flooded into the 9th Street Tunnel, almost surprised at the advances they made. Demonstrators were in awe as they entered the arteries of the tunnel. The scene was an eery amber as it led us through its veins under the city. A sight previously only experienced by drivers.
Protestors take the time to show off their signs while trying to hold a semblance of social distancing during the height of COVID 19 protocols in Washington, DC.
I knew this was not a crowd to be concerned with. But that would change as day turned into night and we met up with a different group. More on that later...
Breonna Taylor, an African American medical technician, was killed by Louisville police after they executed a search warrant on her home, which listed her address in error.
Traveling for over 2 miles, a sense of victory waves over the crowd. As protestors finally reach daylight, they are met with dusk and weariness. Night slowly begins to set in, and the tone of the protests would also change.
As the White House illuminates the night, secret service, park police, and the military descend on the scene to protect the grounds from rioters. We moved towards Lafayette Park, directly in front of the White House and ground zero of future violent protests in DC. All of our planning, from eyewash to vehicle egress tactics, would be tested if protests turned into riots or community policing turned into police brutality.
Seeing the military personnel-carriers move into DC was a strange sight. I felt a camaraderie with the occupants. They were young troops from the National Guard that were probably volun-told to be there. We've all been through it. Contrarily, they probably saw me as a
threat. I know I would if I were them. We are trained to keep a suspicious eye on anyone and everyone that's not within our ranks. As one truck drove by, I could see the cautious gaze of the driver and passenger. I've looked with the same scrutiny when driving through foreign countries. The scrutiny you give to anyone approaching your vehicle because they could be a threat. Was I now a threat? I remember driving through downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, full battle-rattle. When all of a sudden, my door was opened from outside.
I quickly went for my gun, to engage the enemy. To my surprise, it was a young girl reaching out to me with a flower in her hand. I could have killed her. Nearly taking her life showed me that deescalation is key, and everyone is not a threat.
The question was: Have these troops or police officers learned the lesson of deescalation I did? Or will they learn only after injuring or killing a fellow American?
After seeing the military and park police marshaling, we decided to go to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. The protestors seemed to be more mature ranging in age from 25-30 years old. Ninety-five percent of the crowd was peaceful. But 5% is more than enough to start a riot.
Suddenly, I saw a bottle of water soar over the crowd and crash into a phalanx of secret service and park police.
One man, in particular, locked-in on a secret service agent. He yelled at him, "Do you remember me? Earlier you hit me in the face for no reason!" The people closest to the police line were the most passionate. Why did bad cops do this to people? Why did they do it to my friends and family? Why did they do it to me? Don't they understand the trauma we are left with, the legal fees, and the paranoia we transfer to our children? As a combat veteran, I felt the burden of responsibility lay on law enforcement more than the poeple.
I felt as if I was on the precipice of peace and war, love and hate, and this crowd was the embodiment of my feelings.
I felt the tension as the crowd became more agitated. The same tension I felt while serving with Navy SEALs. I was taught by a SEAL to watch my surroundings. He gave me insights that keep me safe to this day. I learned how to sense when a situation was turning for the worst. I called to Aubrey and Keven and said:
"Do you feel the tension in the air? Something bad is about to happen. Stay alert, stay close, and stay safe!"
More bottles of water fly through the air. I see most of the agitators were young females. Then I see two people remove barriers about 15 feet away from secret service agents. I did not see them move, they simply held position. However, I didn't see the police and secret service wearing masks. After this observation, I determined its not likely they would gas us. Besides, there were still peaceful protestors and elderly people around. Kevin and Aubrey staged further back and I weaved in between the frontline of protestors and police. More rocks and bottles fly through the air. Overall, about a half-dozen objects were thrown while I was there.
All of a sudden, a smoking canister was at my feet. It was tear gas!
I tried to hold my breath. I was hoping that my previous exposure from training would give me a stronger tolerance. I made every effort to capture the moment, but when I inhaled, fire poured into my throat and lungs. I could not breathe. Through burning eyes, I looked for my assistants, they were about 20 feet away, also suffering from the tear gas. I navigated through the crowds towards them even though I could barely see; my nose was in agony. But I felt worst for my friends.
I was being forced to leave the area and I couldnt protect my friends. It felt a lot like my experience in Baltimore. Much like my troops, my assistants' safety was my responsibility. However, I still had control over the situation and I was not going to let a moment of weakness stop me. I was not going to leave them behind. I pushed through the panicked crowds and finally reached them.
I asked if they were ok. Disorientated, they nodded, "Yes." Partially blind, I placed their hands on each of my shoulders, and told them to follow me.
Once we got to safety and I regained my bearings, there was a large group of people who were in pain and recovering from the gas. I called Aubrey, and he provided me with eyewash. Kevin suffered from a moderate ENT issue and a chemical reaction that left a 3" scar on his shoulder.
I took a break and realized I was able to freely breathe. My gear was banged up, but it could have been worse. Other protesters were also in bad shape. The rioters were nowhere to be seen.
We had enough for one day. We walked for hours, logged 17K steps, suffered through tear gas, and took iconic photos. My lens captured enough to tell the story.
This is what I've learned from the protests:
With all the shortcomings in the African American community, we still deserve dignity, and our rights. Being stopped and detained for no reason is against the law. If a person is not a threat they do not deserve to be assaulted.
No ethnic group should be in the wrong to demand justice after suffering from police brutality. We also don't need to be perfect to demand that police observe our rights.
On the other hand, African Americans should never channel their bad experiences at the hands of bad cops onto other police officers. Also, being respectful goes a long way, and sometimes being silent works even better. This may not stop a bad cop from being their worst, but it will help African Americans be the best version of themselves at the worst of times.
Police officers need to learn how to deescalate situations. I learned this in the military. I still don't understand how service-members have to observe strict rules of engagement on foreign soil, but police don't understand the rights of US citizens. Someone that is confused or asking why they are being stoped or questioned does not warrant an attitude, or beatdown from bad cops. It's also not a crime to be angry or disrespectful of police.
Most Americans believe it's ok to stop anyone at any time, and if the suspect disagrees or shows contempt, then force is warranted. That is not what the constitution says. That's precisely one of the reasons the Founding Fathers fought the Revolutionary War! Amongst other issues, they were being detained unlawfully by British authorities.
The majority of incidents occur because a black person triggers the ego of a police officer. And nothing incites police brutality more than a bruised ego.
I don't have all the answers but I do know truth lies somewhere in between. That being said, inaction from white America could be the end of our American Experiment. African Americans also need to dig deep and continue to pull up everyone in our culture -or we all lose. Those suffering at the bottom are most vulnerable to abuse of power. Van Jones said it best, "We are about one more of these video... from having 5 or 6 American cities being burned down."
Thanks for seeing the world through my lens. Thanks for your support. I anticipate releasing more solutions in the future.
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