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Batman In Ward Eight

On extreme perspectives.


We all got to get our relax on,” Bilaal Muhammed told me as he directed my attention to a table stacked with the finest collection of scents, essential oils, and all-natural soaps this side of the Anacostia River. It was late June, and Muhammed was making a killing out in Black Lives Matter Plaza. Ever since Mayor Muriel Bowser at the beginning of the month designated the first few blocks behind the White House as a protected protest zone, Muhammed, along with a score of other vendors, claimed this stretch of Sixteenth Street. They hawked T-shirts and tote bags all day. Muhammed said it was a good business, especially since so many of the protesters who came down here to scream at the Metropolitan Police Department were new to the game and needed guidance from old hands. “I tell them that life is all about vibrations—and we got to be creating our own vibrations, instead of being subject to what’s coming in from the outside,” he said, gesturing toward the White House, still enclosed by a tall chain-link fence. Down at that fence, a faithful chorus chanted “Black lives matter!” incessantly. A few bold souls yelled over the mantra to address the line of black and Hispanic police officers directly. They told the police hard truths: All cops, even black cops, are bastards. Black cops are unwitting racists. Black cops married to white women are nothing better than slaves. Ice cream trucks parked outside the plaza refreshed the protesters with frozen treats when they tired of their lecturing. Of course, during the peak protest days, once night fell, everything in the plaza changed. Muhammed and his crew went home. The chants multiplied and overlapped until they became a wall of sound. Vandals redecorated the city’s walls. Protesters and police clashed. Sometimes, but only rarely, violence erupted. One night, as I was walking through the plaza, I found myself trapped in a rather one-sided conversation with John Cheeks, a middle-aged man who mounted a disastrous campaign for a seat on the D.C. city council in 2016. Cheeks heaved deep sighs as he told me how Episcopalianism, Catholicism, Methodism, and Presbyterianism are, historically speaking, the most racist religions in the United States. While he spoke, Cheeks pointed at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, which, as of that night, had become the “Black House Autonomous Zone” when protesters stormed its portico and spray-painted “BHAZ” on its columns. Cheeks predicted a future in which black magistrates take up residence in the church and calculate how much money each white Christian owes his black brother. “Now y’all have to pay,” he said, jabbing the air with his index finger. “You take that back to your pastor and tell him that it’s time to pay.” A man with a megaphone overheard our conversation and began shouting, “Pay! Pay! Pay!” Cheeks joined in. I excused myself. But as I was exiting the plaza, Batman stopped me. Now, I am no fan of comic-book characters roaming about in public—keep it in Times Square!—but I made an exception for the Dark Knight, as well as heavy-set men dressed like him. “I’m here in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” he said. “But, of course, I have my own agenda.” Batman (he refused to reveal his real name) explained that he did not think Black Lives Matter Plaza was going to usher in a new era of racial justice. More likely, he said, it’ll become a cheap symbol. Democrats and Republicans alike will satisfy their consciences by repeating the empty slogan which Bowser ordered to be painted on the street. And all these protests, he added, pointing toward the White House, will only succeed in “soothing the consciences of Caucasian people.” Once the seasons change, Batman added, the activist class will get bored with protesting, but the persistent problems that black people face won’t go away. Schools will still suck. Families in Ward Seven and Ward Eight (the poorest parts of Washington) will still be crammed in public housing unfit for human habitation. City leaders will still ignore these families’ needs in favor of gentrifying the neighborhoods near Capitol Hill. This is just how D.C. has operated for the past few decades—and it has long frustrated Batman, who lives in Ward 8, and sees his neighbors’ children struggle daily to break the cycle of poverty. When he first spoke up about the problem at public meetings, no one listened. Only when he put on his costume and showed up at protests did people pay attention. “For some reason, Batman is a savior to these people,” he said. “I had one man—I thought he was joking—but he nearly cried. He was just so glad, he had some sense of—” He paused for the right word. “Of comfort. That something might go okay here.” The Caped Crusader himself isn’t so hopeful about the city’s future. He cursed the “symbolic” plaza and lashed out at the “performative” actions that Bowser had taken since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Nothing will change; nothing ever changes, he said. “Bowser knows she can get away with doing nothing, and meanwhile poor families are struggling just to survive,” he said. “No one cares about them. But we have to stand for the children. We have to stand for the least of them.” Batman’s lament reminded me of an observation that Pope Francis made in a 2018 interview: “Young people suffer greatly because they were born and raised in a society that has made the culture of discarding its supreme paradigm.” The culture of waste is readily apparent in Washington. Of course, that suffering on the margins of society—of both the young and the old—is often hard to see, simply because so few people actually care to look for it regularly. I certainly don’t. But when it reveals itself, the cruelty inflicted is almost impossible to miss. A few weeks after meeting Batman, I was standing at the base of the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park. It had become, at the end of June, a subject of heated controversy. Although financed entirely by freed slaves and dedicated by Frederick Douglass, the memorial’s detractors called it racist because it depicts a black man crouching beneath Lincoln. And since the statue represents the black man’s condition immediately upon receiving his freedom (shirtless, still breaking out of his chains), they said, it is an outdated understanding of black people. Glenn Foster, a twenty-year-old Harvard student, gathered these criticisms into a coherent body of thought, which he posted on Instagram. Then, he riled up a crowd by shouting, “We are going to tear the m———er down!” at a rally. What else are you going to do when the coronavirus cancels your internship? Foster’s declaration, of course, triggered every sort of reaction. Racial justice activists flocked to his side. Gun-toting memorial protectors vowed to fight back. Tucker Carlson talked about it on Fox News. And the United States Park Police put up a protective fence. On the day that Foster had appointed for tearing the statue down, I, along with seemingly every other reporter in the city, showed up at the memorial to see whether he’d actually do it. We were all sick with anticipation, so to calm myself, I wandered around the park and asked people for their thoughts on the memorial. Most people had no opinion or were too busy exercising to be bothered to form one. But two middle-aged women, who lived in the neighborhood nearby, stopped in the middle of their dog walk to chat. “It was paid for by slaves: Let it be. Who are we to read back into history what might not even be there?” said Sandy Reed, standing alongside her beautiful golden retriever. “People are so worked up by Covid that they need something to fight over.” Her companion, Anne Bridges, restraining a jumpy black lab, pushed back: “Well, you got to look at it this way,” she said. “Even with the fear of Covid, we have to commend people coming out because they’re just so passionate about this cause.” Reed wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know if it’s passion or just boredom,” she said. “There’s so much else that they could be doing: old, isolated people need people to call them, children need to be taken care of—but we’re doing this instead.” Reed then launched into a lengthy discourse on guns. She feared that if the statue came down, the police would get defunded, and then she’d need more firearms. Bridges started tapping her foot. Soon, her husband arrived, and saved her from the conversation. Later, as I was looking for Foster, Bridges approached me again. “I’m sorry, but I know you’re a reporter, so I have to tell you this,” she said. “What Sandy told you back there is an extreme perspective. In this neighborhood, we have no problem with taking that statue down. It’s offensive. And I can’t imagine how it must make black people feel.” “That’s right,” her husband agreed. Then they left. They should have stayed. Because, for the next hour, black activists with a wide variety of opinions told everyone present how they felt. Foster led the coalition in support of tearing the memorial down. The statue, he emphasized, was an example of black “disempowerment.” Foster’s other speakers chanted in agreement. But a sizable contingent of counter-protestors opposed Foster. They were led by Don Folden, a tour guide who specializes in Washington’s black history. Folden laughed and told Foster that he was “full of shit.” If Foster actually knew anything about the memorial’s history, Folden said, then he would be fighting to keep it standing. Foster didn’t like that rebuke, and silenced Folden, on the grounds that he was “old” and had missed his chance to fix the problems of racism in America. “Last time I checked, this was my event,” Foster said as he took Folden’s megaphone away. A crowd formed around Foster and Folden as the two struggled for the invisible conch shell. Folden’s partisans told Foster to give him his megaphone back. “Who are you to step in the way of him expressing himself?” one asked. “Even if you don’t agree with him, he’s an elder—and his opinion demands respect. At least hear him out!” “Wait, wait, wait,” Foster replied. “We’ve got cameras out here. Don’t do this to me.” Someone gave Folden a megaphone, and he began to speak again. But the crowd cut him short. “No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace!” they shouted. “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” Now, I have to admit, when this happened, I did something that journalists—and anyone who wishes to be taken seriously in this city— should never do. I chuckled. Immediately a protester corrected me: “Wipe that grin off your face—nothing here is funny! Stop it! This is not funny!” But I couldn’t help myself. The chuckle became a laugh, and the laugh nearly became a bellow. Foster turned toward me with his megaphone. “If you want to be a real journalist, be a real journalist,” he said. “If you’re not here for my story, go somewhere else.” And soon after, the crowd decided that it was time for me to go elsewhere. As Foster once again promised to tear the memorial down at a future date, people began shooting water guns at me, as well as several other journalists present. When they began shoving us, Folden stepped in to break up the scuffle. “Here, take my business card and call me later,” he told me as he led us away from the crowd. Of course, Foster never did try to tear down the memorial. And why would he? He received a greater prize: fame or, as the case may be, infamy. But I wonder if he was driven to rail against that memorial by something different, and frankly more depressing, than the simple desire for celebrity. I watched some of his old YouTube videos, posted toward the end of his first year at Harvard, and noted three things. Foster is “single as a pringle.” He is bitter that he was not accepted into one of the school’s prestigious Final Clubs. And he has a social media channel where he feels compelled to share this information with snoops like me. Beneath that thirst for fame, or even, maybe, a sincere belief in racial justice, there seems to be a deep loneliness. Not that Foster’s predicament is abnormal. It’s the same problem that Batman’s kids in Ward Eight face. Or anyone out protesting in the streets this summer. American society throws things and people aside, and the young people, who are still new to that experience, bear it poorly. I did end up calling Folden. We met in Lincoln Park in the evening on the Fourth of July. Foster was there, too. He and Folden did a podcast together where they discussed the need for the old and the young to work together in the struggle against racism. It was a strange sort of reconciliation, but it reminded me of another observation Pope Francis made in that old interview. The young and the old together, he said, will be the saviors of society. For they are less susceptible to the corruption of the world: the young through lack of experience, and the old through too much. The trick to getting them together, Francis added, is for the young to trust the old, though they are undoubtedly imperfect sinners. “Even an old penitent, who years before had been involved in corruption, can be useful to a young person’s growth,” he said. “Such an old man is, in fact, familiar with the mechanisms of corruption and can recognize them; he can show the young man how to sidestep them, by sharing his experience, and explaining how to avoid ending up like him.” Nic Rowan is a staff writer at the Washington Examiner.

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