Protest in a Pandemic

“How are you today?” has become a hard question.

I feel sorrow and somehow a sense of loss.

Last night was tough in Washington, DC, where I live. The President of the United States had a peaceful group of demonstrators teargassed to clear a path between the White House and St. John’s Church, one block away. Once cleared, he crossed the park to stand in front of the church for a photo-op, Bible in hand. He does not attend St. John’s Church. He didn’t pray. He didn’t attempt to console the nation.

As the night went on, in a residential neighborhood, other non-violent protesters were cordoned off by police and then confronted. They fled on foot. One neighbor opened his front door, pulled people inside and sheltered dozens of protesters, complete strangers.

This morning, I, like many others, awoke feeling sorrow.

Why had I not yet attended any of the protests? I have been to many DC protests over the years. How can I respond to the outcry against racism and police violence in the context of a pandemic? Only a week ago we were commemorating the 100,000 lost to Covid-19. DC is only in the first stage of reopening. It didn’t feel responsible to go out and protest.

When I learned that the President was headed to the John Paul II Shrine this morning for yet another attempt at religious endorsement, I knew that I needed to find a way. Pandemic or not, I would try to protest responsibly.

My husband and I met three others from our church at an intersection near the Shrine. It was fairly spontaneous. A few hundred people gathered with homemade signs. People were cordial but kept their distance. Families attended in small groups. It was completely peaceful.

Every now and then we were joined by intense, yet supportive, honking. The loudest and most sustained came from garbage trucks headed to the nearby dump. Garbage collectors are essential workers. They couldn’t join us, but they could make themselves heard.

After the President entered the Shrine, we waited for him to leave before disbanding. In that quiet time, I struck up a conversation with an African American woman who lives nearby. She woke up just as I did, with a feeling of sorrow and an understanding that even within the pandemic she needed to figure out how to protest, how to be counted.

Our protest was insignificant, but it helped me. Talking with a stranger helped. I left feeling lighter, more connected and with a little hope, not that the President will lead us somewhere better, but maybe my neighbors will.