As temperatures neared 90 degrees Saturday afternoon, more than 100 people gathered at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and marched down Old Georgetown Road to advocate for anti-racist educational reform and to protest police brutality.
The organizers of the event, Matt Garfinkel and Nat Tilahun, are 2019 WJ graduates. They began their planning two weeks ago and publicized the event through social media.
“The key message has been not to sit by idly right now, because right now is the peak time for change,” Tilahun told Bethesda Beat before the demonstration. “I want to do something past just sign petitions. I want to be able to say I did something tangible to help.”
Garfinkel added that the distribution of the $2.6 billion budget of MCPS is highly skewed toward whiter areas, which he said should be solved by redistricting school boundaries.
“There’s an inequitable distribution of resources,” he said. “Schools like ours, that have higher percentages of white students, are receiving more [in the] budget, because we are getting more and more overcrowded, whereas other schools in other parts of the county are seeing fewer and fewer people enroll and are, as a result, having a drain of resources.”
“Desegregate Montgomery” was one of the protesters’ many chants.
WJ Principal Jennifer Baker attended and said she’s been working to boost anti-bias training for her educators through the Study Circles program, in addition to other ways of educating the WJ community about experiences with racism.
“My hope is that we’ll all be trained and be able to make some plans going forward about what will help make our environment better for everybody,” Baker said. “I’m going to use some of the Black at WJ Instagram postings to work with my staff so that we can really try to listen and hear what students are saying they’re experiencing.”
Protests have occurred regularly in Montgomery County and nationwide since late May, some of which have been organized by students at high schools such as Whitman and Bethesda-Chevy Chase.
The protests are largely in response to the death of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, died on May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck for several minutes during an arrest, while Floyd was pinned to the ground.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin and Council Member Will Jawando spoke at the event. Raskin has spoken at multiple protests, and on Friday, voted in favor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House, aimed at curbing police brutality and holding officers accountable.
Raskin acknowledged the “good cops” helping to manage Saturday’s protest, while Jawando called to defund the police and reinvest in other community services.
“The young people are leading us out of this nightmare,” Raskin said in an interview prior to the demonstration. “Each person here will become an instrument of change.”
Jawando, who is Black, said in his remarks that he has been stopped by police multiple times, once last year as a first-term council member. He addressed police incidents in Montgomery County, such as the shooting and killings of Black men Finan Berhe and Robert White.
Jawando emphasized the importance of education as one of many tools to dismantle systematic racism.
“One of the most heartening things about this period, even though it’s a very difficult time, is that you have these multiracial, intergenerational protests,” he said. “We’ve got to have a curriculum that reflects the real history of the country, and … we’ve got to remove police from schools.”
Khadijah Adamu — co-author of a petition with more than 7,000 signatures, calling for MCPS to institute anti-racist curriculum, among other anti-bias measures — also spoke at the event. She is a Springbrook High School alumna.
“People did not just wake up racist,” Adamu told Bethesda Beat while marching. “I do believe that if we are able to change how people are taught in schools, it will definitely make a dent in the disease that is racism.”
Adamu said the recent incidents of racially themed graffiti on schools reflect the need to reform the educational system.
Police officers blocked off several lanes of traffic for the protestors. Honks from passing cars rang out as the marchers walked the nearly two miles from the high school to the corner of Beech Avenue, before kneeling for 8 minutes and 47 seconds in memory of Floyd.
The marchers included many current and former WJ students.
Madi Grant, who just graduated from Walter Johnson and is Māori-American, said it was important for her to show solidarity with the movement to honor her bicultural identity.
“There’s a lot of overlap in the issues that are going on in New Zealand with police brutality,” Grant said. “I think it’s important, because I’m so separated from that culture, that I think I need to be here and fight for it where I am.”
Others, like Barbara Harrison of Bethesda, found out about the protest through their neighborhood listserv.
“I was stunned by the video of George Floyd dying,” she said. “This is a real thing that’s happened to black people for years, and I have not done anything. And the time has come to do something.”
Kate, 6, marched with her mom. She is Black and said the weeks of protests have not been scary for her.
“It just feels exciting,” she said.