Juneteenth marked with marches and rallies in celebration of Emancipation
By EMILY DAVIES, MARISSA J. LANG AND MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: June 19, 2020
WASHINGTON — Demonstrators spread across Washington on Friday to celebrate the death of slavery 155 years ago and continue the national street crusade against the racial oppression that pervades the country today.
On foot, by car and bicycle they came to march, pray, dance and vent in the third week of almost daily demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
Students, teachers, military veterans and sports stars came to protest poor education and health care for African Americans, as well as police brutality and institutional racism.
They brought umbrellas to block the rain, megaphones to be heard, and horns to make music.
Jeremy Berheisel brought his black Audi A4, which was covered with Black Lives Matter graffiti, and invited people to sign it.
Two go-go bands thundered from the back of a flatbed truck.
A man in a white loincloth simulated the crucifixion of Jesus.
Friday's rallies marked the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth — June 19, 1865 — the day a military decree was announced in Galveston, Tex., informing thousands of enslaved people in the Confederate state that they were free.
African Americans have embraced the date for generations as the symbolic end of almost 250 years of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth "really is in some ways the second Independence Day in this country," Lonnie Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said as crowds assembled Friday morning.
"For many people, Juneteenth raises the fundamental question of the power and impact of freedom, and the fragility of freedom," said Bunch, the first African American to serve as Smithsonian secretary.
Celebrations and marches were held in Atlanta and Salt Lake City, in Richmond, Va., and Minneapolis. In Washington, people marched from Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, from U Street and Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park — small groups joining to become thousands to share the triumph of the day and the struggles that persist.
In Washington, pro basketball players from the Wizards and the Mystics rallied outside Capital One Arena, where hundreds of mask-wearing supporters gathered.
Wizards guard Bradley Beal, Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and John Thompson III, the former coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, led a march through the streets of Penn Quarter to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Beal spoke of an encounter with a police officer who threatened to arrest him two years ago when he was pulled over on the Capital Beltway.
"I didn't do anything," Beal recounted. "But because I was a black athlete driving a nice vehicle, that's why he came over. And how am I supposed to respond to that?"
"I would just be waking up on Monday morning with an ESPN headline, 'Bradley Beal arrested because of interaction with the police.' "
At Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, River Rubalcava, 37, of San Antonio simulated the crucifixion.
He made a loincloth out of his shirt and wrote "BLM," for "Black Lives Matter," across the front. He fashioned the cross out lumber scraps from a dumpster.
He pointed to the White House and said, "I want him to know that in the end, everyone has to stand before God."
By 1 p.m., hundreds of people gathered on the National Mall across from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture for a planned "Freedom Day March" to the MLK Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
As the sun came out and the day grew hotter, Kevin Cramer, one of the event's organizers, directed attendees to free bottles of water while fielding questions from a German television reporter.
"Today is Juneteenth," he said. "We're supposed to be celebrating freedom. But we know black people in America are only conditionally free."
Cramer, a 24-year-old from Wilmington, Del., had been at protests at the White House following Floyd's killing when authorities deployed pepper spray.
Friday's scene was different, with protesters, including families with young children, waiting in the shade for the march to begin.
Cramer credited the negative reaction to the violent response at the White House and the ongoing pandemic for the change.
"I thank God for coronavirus," he said. "Coronavirus has allowed us to be awoke."
Aminah Mellion, 39, a public school employee from Springfield, Va., was at the march with her 6-year-old daughter, Ella, who was holding a "Black Lives Matter" sign.
The pair had left Ella's father and younger sibling home for their first trip out since coronavirus shutdowns began.
"It's nice to get out of the house," Ella said.
Mellion said she thought it was important for Ella "to be part of this moment."
"I just had to show up," she said. "I couldn't not be a part of it."
At the edge of the crowd, Ken and Pat Moss, a married couple in their 60s from Silver Spring, Md., held a protest sign featuring a portrait of Floyd that Pat had painted.
The pair remember marching against the Vietnam War on this same ground a generation ago.
"It's important for white people to show up," Pat Moss said. "The work we did was unfinished. We didn't even know how unfinished it was."
As marchers reached the Lincoln Memorial, storm clouds rolled in and people assembled on the steps.
Sanjeev Sriram, a pediatric doctor in the District of Columbia, said he was born in rural Virginia at a hospital founded at the behest of "black and brown people."
As a health-care practitioner, he said his industry had failed those it purported to serve, instead enriching a small number of corporations.
"Our health-care system was not built for us," he said. "They are failing at racial equality because they are too busy succeeding at profits, not people."
Scharon Ball, 58, took in the scene from a memorial step. The Maryland resident said she had watched the recent protests with interest, but this was the first time she had come out.
"It feels like it's time to participate," she said. "People are dying needlessly."
Ball said that she did not expect substantive change from the current administration but thought the recent demonstrations across the nation were helping Congress listen to what the American people were saying.
"Protest is American," she said. "This is how we get our government to see."
Elsewhere, Grace Odrick, carrying a trombone in one hand and a sign in the other, was hurrying to catch up to the other horn players who had just marched north on 14th Street NW, playing Peter Tosh's "Get Up, Stand Up."
"This is a magnificent event," said Odrick, 57. "I like history. I thought it was important to celebrate my own African American history in spite of the rain, in spite of my weight - I'm overweight - and my leg is hurting."
Her sign said "No More Auction Block" - a message of refusal and promise.
"It means anything that is holding me back from being myself, changing from within and changing society, whatever it is - overeating, being shy, being a female musician."
At Black Lives Matter Plaza, Jeremy Berheisel was showing off his graffiti car.
Nearly every inch - wheels and interior, too - was covered in Black Lives Matter graffiti.
Berheisel, 41, is a presidential candidate. He's among the 1,109 candidates who have filed for the 2020 election.
He said he is a former Army platoon sergeant who is tired of President Trump and tired of the racial division in the United States, which he said he recognized as a white man in the armed forces.
In the field, people were united, he said. But he said he saw blatant discrimination in promotions and personnel decisions.
In 1865, the Juneteenth order issued by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, stated:
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, 'all slaves are free.' "
"This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves," the order said, "and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."
The main Confederate army had surrendered on April 9, 1865, but resistance and defiance continued in some areas and would continue for more than a century.
The decree immediately affected the lives of 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. It was greeted with jubilation and has been celebrated in African American communities for generations.
Bunch, speaking at a Washington Post Live event streamed online, said: "This day should remind us that freedom wasn't given. . . . African Americans . . . fought for their freedom. It wasn't just given to them. . . . We should celebrate the moment but recognize that it's incumbent upon us to protect this freedom."
He said the current wave of protest over racism after the killing of Floyd "is a moment that's part of a long historic arc. . . . What I'm seeing is a struggle in the streets to make the country better."
"There's a part of me that's hopeful and a part of me that's not," said Bunch, who was also the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"I'm seeing changes that I never would have expected," he said. "On the other hand, we've seen this moment before. . . . I worry a little bit that this is a moment that could be taken away if we don't continue to push."
More gatherings are expected to continue into Saturday and Sunday, which is Father's Day.
Protests in the District have remained peaceful for more than two weeks following the aggressive police tactics - including deploying chemical agents, smoke bombs and pepper bullets - used to clear the square in front of St. John's Church ahead of a visit from President Trump.
And looming over the weekend's festivities was the long shadow of the pandemic, which has continued to ravage communities across the country.
Organizations and city officials encouraged protesters to wear masks at demonstrations and be tested at free sites throughout the District.
The Washington Post's Emily Davies, Paul Duggan, Fredrick Kunkle, Gene Wang, Samantha Schmidt, Marissa J. Lang, Lauren Lumpkin and Perry Stein contributed to this report.