Saturday night marked another session of “Midnight Yoga” on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C.
The protesters, who have been out in the streets over 50 days after being initially sparked by the failure to arrest the officers who had murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (still), have turned to the peace that yoga provides to manage their pain, both physical and emotional.
Around the same time federal police were turning Portland into a war zone while violently beating and pepper-spraying citizens, D.C. protesters were stretching out their limbs after giving a touching 100 candle-light tribute to late Congressman John Lewis.
Over the past 50 days, protesters in Washington D.C. have faced their own share of police violence and war-like conditions, and on this night, Mahadi Lowal, a 26-year-old who helped organize the yoga session, addresses over 120 people in the street on their mats.
“I know yoga seems like a complacent act of protest,” says Lowal to the limber crowd, “but last night most of us here, most of us spent the night outside of the mayor’s house begging and pleading for her to address the rampant use of excessive force and abuse of innocent civilians by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). We decided to show some videos of MPD’s greatest ‘hits’ and show what the officers really do.”
One night earlier, Lowal was part of about 80 protesters outside D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s home projecting onto a bed sheet a video of the brutality experienced by D.C. protesters with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as the soundtrack to the violence.
“I just want you to know that we’re doing yoga because we’re all in pain,” Lowal continues. “We’re protesting every single day, and there’s no time for self-care. So if you can’t leave the protest for self-care, you can bring self-care to protest. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
Lowal speaks about pain from personal experience. As was one of hundreds of protesters camped out in tents on Black Lives Matter Plaza on July 4th weekend, Lowal had a seizure and passed out in the grueling heat, and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. He had no history of seizures prior to the protests. With a visible blood clot in his eye that still shows two weeks later, Lowal was back protesting the next day. In June, he had a police flash-bang explode in his face.
“Experiencing police brutality at a protest against police brutality, and being hit in the face with a flash bang and have it explode and burn half my face only pushed me to go harder,” says Lowal, “and make sure that we have substantial and long-standing change in the fight against police brutality and racism.”
Saturday’s Midnight Yoga session was hosted by a group of young protesters named “Occupy H Street” and “Bartenders Against Racism,” and marked the fourth time this month that yoga was used as a therapeutic response to police violence. They have been followed up by Tuesday sessions that tend to start earlier around 8 p.m.
Yoga sessions are often followed by calls for defunding of police budgets, reallocating police resources, getting police out of D.C. schools, gentrification, and calls for police accountability (“Breonna Taylor’s and Elijah McClain’s murderers are still free”).
Aabi Abdun-nafi, the midnight yoga instructor, is also a protester herself.
“We’re protesting for over 40 days now,” says Abdun-nafi. “It’s mentally exhausting, it’s heartbreaking, it’s overwhelming. It’s hot, so you’re building up a lot of negative energy to the point where we can effectively continue to protest without taking care of that for us. So we decided to provide a yoga class for everyone to check in with their mental health.”
After covering the D.C. protests for weeks, a consistent complaint has been the dearth of national media attention. “The Black Lives Matter Protesters Want You to Know They’re Still There,” writes Jenny Gathright of of D.C.’s local WAMU/DCist outlet, one of the only outlets still covering the protests.
But local outlets lack the resources to station media on Black Lives Matter Plaza between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Protesters say D.C. police are acutely aware of this, and have scheduled their violence accordingly. Most of the overnight police violence, which occurred in the latter half of June, has still not been covered or publicly seen. Media is gone. Crowds have thinned. Phone batteries are dead. And documenting police violence while being bear-maced and trying to salvage your tent or property from destruction can be quite the multi-task.
“I’ve seen people get their heads opened up, and bruised and battered and beaten, and gassed. Oh God!,” exclaims “Earl”, a food supporter with Earl’s First Amendment Grill. “Where’s the footage? Where’s CNN? Where’s ABC?”
The footage is right here, courtesy of a protester named “Dirty Knucklez” who climbed a lamp post at 2 a.m. to get it. In the video, police violently ransack Earl’s Grill, a place that provided free food to protesters, the D.C. Community and the homeless.
One protester who preferred not to be named for fear of police reprisal, called out CNN, the Washington Post, and Associated Press for their refusal to cover “completely newsworthy” multi-faceted protests.
“Nobody is out here except street journalists who try to chase the truth. [Due to media blackout], people believe nobody is out here. But we’re out here every day.”
One such street journalist trying to chase the truth is Wyatt Reed. On June 24 he was able to catch the “war zone’ police violence after 2 a.m. On June 27, D.C. Protest Museum, a Twitter account with 13 followers, caught this police violence at 4:43 a.m. Piecing together the depth of June’s invisible police violence is generally a Black Lives Matter Plaza cell-phone video scavenger hunt.
After several desperate pleas from protesters on the need for overnight media, I soon joined the Black Lives Matter Plaza Graveyard shift. If more police violence occurred at 3 a.m., I could document it. Or even better, possibly help to prevent it. “Midnight Yoga” was the very last thing on my radar.
Ironically, the Midnight Yoga sessions have produced more viral attention and interest on social media than the weeks of hidden police violence. When I interviewed a protester at 4 a.m. whose June police violence stat sheet included being tear-gassed 12 separate times, the video posted got 53 likes and 1300 views. When I posted what I thought was a minor tweet on Midnight Yoga, it got 83,000 likes and 2.6 million views, and dwarfed weeks of documenting police violence. Huh?
Has U.S. state-sanctioned violence become so thoroughly normalized that peace and healing is the bigger story?
The tweet was also met with many calls from people across the country to bring “Midnight Yoga” to their city. Many local D.C. protesters have expressed appreciation for the mental health focus, but also caution and concern that yoga as a response to police-induced trauma could water-down or get confused for the primary protest itself.
“The tear gassing, the rubber bullets, the intimidation, or even the fact that it’s a bunch of cops on one person — it’s ridiculous,” says Abdun-nafi. “It’s not just a free yoga class, it’s a close yoga class for protesters to continue protesting. I’ve been out here. We’ve done overnight sit-ins, and occupied the street. However we can get our rest in, we have got to get it where we live.”
In D.C., over the last six weeks, there is a lot to recover from. While Black Lives Matter Plaza has more of a festival atmosphere during the day, the evenings have often resembled a war zone. Police violence has come in three distinct waves.
1. War Zone Wave (First Week): Since May 30, police have arrested 470 people in connection with D.C. protests, with over 400 coming in the first week of demonstrations that included military planes flying over protesters, federal sniper teams deployed, multiple attacks on journalists (more here), and the local MPD notably boxing in hundreds of protesters on Swann Street. “People were coughing,” said Rahul Dubey to DCist who provided shelter for protesters. “It was like that for an hour, they were pepper-spraying in through the window.”
2. Hidden Violence Wave (Latter June): The rest of June saw D.C. arrests plummet, but not the police violence, as well as legalized theft and destruction of property. By the end of June, one protester said he was tear-gassed 12 times over the month, and those providing free food and medical supplies repeatedly had their property confiscated or destroyed by police. Brutality wasn’t the only cost of MPD’s violent June 26 takedown of “Earl’s First Amendment Grill,” a community-beloved outfit of Black men who served 400-500 free hamburgers and hot dogs a day. “The Earls,” as they are affectionately called, estimate MPD seized or destroyed up to $30,000 of their property. They were able to “dumpster-dive” and salvage one of their grills and keep cooking.
3. Red Tape Wave (July): July brought more aggressive police snatch arrests to peaceful protesters, a downturn in the notorious overnight violence that defined June, but new city ordinances, enforcement to clear all food suppliers off the Black Lives Matter sidewalk, and other movement-suppressing “red-taping” that target free food suppliers, medics and supporters who nourish and sustain the protesters. Although less overtly violent, by cutting off food, water and health services in 90-degree heat, the Red Tape wave may have caused the most harm.
This is some of the militaristic context that preceded Midnight Yoga.
“Every time you step on Black Lives Matter Plaza you are a soldier. Even in the midst of trying Trap Yoga we had the police trying to shut it down.” says D.C. protester Toni Sanders. “That was a way for people to get their mental health in order. You cannot fight a war when your mental health is in disarray.”
“I deal with PTSD,” says a Marine-turned-protester from his yoga mat this night.
“And this helps me calm down better than any other medicine I’ve ever been prescribed through the VA [Veteran Affairs]. This is meditation I need. I get a sense of stability. This is what a lot of people might need. Maybe the VA should take notes.”
This time around, the stress is not from foreign fire.
“[The yoga] is helping me deal with the police attacks,” he says. ”Some people been dealing with police brutality their whole lives. This is a de-escalation to help you deal with stress. And it’s a great thing. I love it. It helps me out.”
Liz Ferris is a protester and yoga participant who spent six years in the Army Reserve. She was hit by a stinger-grenade which exploded with nine rubber bullets to the back of her leg (video after 22 min marker). That happened on May 31, 2020, a block away from Black Lives Matter Plaza on a night where protests erupted throughout the country.
“I am a military veteran,” says Ferris on Friday in front of the mayor’s house, “and the kind of PTSD I’ve gotten from my own government is wild, and not something I ever would have expected in my lifetime.”
Navy veteran and protester Lee Cantrell, 47, sees parallels between yoga and military “R & R.”
“The healing yoga was a great thing because we are here every day in the blazing sun,” says Cantrell. “In the military, they give us R & R: rest and relaxation. They get that R & R and then come back and get in the fight. That’s all we were doing. Want some normalcy to try to keep this movement going. So what if it’s yoga. Big deal. We’re the ones out here 24/7.”
Some may be surprised to find so many ex-military members amongst the protesters and yoga participants. But many say they are just upholding their oath.
“I signed a contract to uphold the constitution against enemies foreign or domestic,” says one yoga-loving Marine protester with PTSD. “Those [police] are domestic enemies… The culture that they have. They all stand for one thing. They protect each other… Who we have in office? That’s a domestic terrorist.”
Beyond healing benefits, the spectacle of 100 mostly African-American protesters doing yoga challenged negative media stereotypes weeks before Portland’s mostly white “Wall of Moms” faced down Trump’s Gestapo goons.
“It shatters the narrative of what protests are, and who protesters are,” says Kian Kelley-Chung, a 23-year-old photographer and street journalist covering the D.C. protests. “Yoga is one of the most tranquil and peaceful activities that you can do. So to pair that with the power of protesting, it really does demolish the stereotypes that are associated with it.”
While the stereotype-crushing dynamic resonated with thousands of Twitter-responders, some D.C. protesters also feared the Midnight Yoga minus the combat context could be misused to promote harmful passivity or respectability into future protests.
“While the yoga can be a form of protest, it is not the main form here,” says Sanders, another protestor. “Don’t do yoga as a means to condemn anyone else’s means of protest. Don’t say, ‘We don’t have rioters here.’ Don’t try to invalidate other forms of protest. Don’t try to replace it. Everything works together. Everything [works together] like a hand. Don’t just come for the yoga.”
Sanders, who says she was also beaten and pepper-sprayed by police on June 1 and June 22, takes exception at calls for protesters to be peaceful without similar demands of police.
“We have a peaceful protest every night,” says Sanders. “The police are the people who bring the violence and make the protest violent. Don’t condemn someone else’s response to oppression.”
While July’s larger yoga sessions were organized by a group of protesters called “Occupy H Street,” there were some smaller ones in June, and yoga has been growing in D.C. for years. Kelley-Chung’s own mother, Katherine Kelly-Chung is a local yoga Instructor who also led a public yoga session on Black Lives Matter Plaza on Juneteenth, and groups Black Lives Matter D.C. and Chocolate City Experience also hosted a yoga session a week later on June 27 as part of a “police-free zone” that centered on restoring Black joys with yoga, painting, dancing, jumping rope, free food, and live Go-Go music.
Nee Nee Taylor of BLM D.C. says the event was a deliberate attempt to create police-free spaces rooted in Black joy was also a form of resistance, and signaling to police that they did not hold the power to “steal our joy.”
“We have no health care. We have no housing. And we are spending so much money on the police just to police Black Lives Matter Plaza. At night time they’re literally beating and pepper spraying people. So this is why we ask to defund the police.”
“Defund The Police” has been a near universal rallying cry from D.C. protesters, and Taylor was part of the instantly famous action on June 6, 2020 to paint “ = DEFUND THE POLICE” on BLM Plaza and repurpose what “Black Lives Matter” specifically means on a policy level. While the DFP movement has been gaining steam for months, the DEFUND THE POLICE bright yellow addendum instantly sparked an elevated level of mainstream media attention.
Depending on which protester you talk to, “Defund The Police” could mean cutting D.C.’s police budget from 25 percent to 50 percent, or abolishing the police altogether. What nearly all protesters agree on is that police resources should be reallocated to alternative community services of health and safety.
After six weeks of protests, Washington, D.C., leadership is doing the exact opposite: increasing policing, and cutting social services. On June 6, Black Lives Matter DC issued a damning statement condemning a proposed $45 million budget increase to MPD which has been coupled with recent proposals of up to $18 million in cuts to essential services, the type of outrage that had 80 people protesting outside the mayor’s house until 3:30 a.m. The BLM DC statement also notes that although Black people make up 46 percent of D.C.’s population, they were the recipient of 89 percent of police use of force (Office of Police Complaints Report).
Given the gap between performance and policy, protester after protester says the yellow paint commemorating Black Lives Matter “is a lie,” and what happens at night vs. the day is like ... night and day.
“This is supposed to be holy ground? Sacred ground? — This is a battle ground!” scoffs one of “The Earls,” a 22-year Navy veteran while listing the brutalities he has experienced at the Plaza after dark. “Been in combat four times. This is the real combat right here (while pointing to the ground).”
“This paint on the street has not created any systemic change… or get these cops off our necks,” says a protester and yoga participant. “After seeing everything I’ve seen on Black Lives Matter Plaza, you may as well take the sign down and name it 16th St. again.”
At the intersection of “A Tale of Two Plazas” is Midnight Yoga, the ultimate act of peaceful resistance grounded in healing just around that time when Black Lives Matter Jeckyll turns into Hyde.
Many D.C. protesters are committed to the long haul, there is language of “marathons not a sprint,” and historical reminders that The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over an entire year before change arrived. And Midnight Yoga has been implemented to help support that long-term reality, and short-term battle scars.
“I’m an extreme optimist,” says Lowal. “We have a group of people here that are devoted and will refuse to give up. We refuse to give up. We will be here as long as it takes. If it takes three years, we’re going to be here for three years to make sure that there is change. We’re going to make sure there is change.”