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Activists Challenge D.C. Mayor To Do More After 'Black Lives Matter' Street Mural

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, many people have seen a giant new mural here in Washington. Mayor Muriel Bowser had Black Lives Matter painted in yellow near the White House. It's on the street where police pushed back protesters last week. Mayor Bowser talked about it on All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MURIEL BOWSER: And the message, Black Lives Matter, is a affirming one for people who are demanding that we have a more just criminal justice system.

MARTIN: The mayor is challenging the president. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement is challenging the mayor. The mural reveals a lot about the symbolism and substance of police reform. Steve Inskeep had a look.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Black lives matter.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We just passed the letter L, heading on to the giant letter A, getting closer to the White House.

This was Saturday night, and thousands of protesters stood on the 2-block-long side.

Not a lot of social distancing here.

Clouds glowed pink over the White House at sunset. A band played from the back of a truck, which was parked right near the giant letter M. This mural is inspiring similar messages in other cities. Yet on top of some of the letters here, someone has painted their own messages.

This bit of graffiti says, we want change, not a mural.

The Washington, D.C., chapter of Black Lives Matter says it disagrees with the mayor about funding for police. We found a member of the group in the crowd of protesters.

Hi.

DOMINIQUE HAZZARD: Hi. Hi. Hello.

INSKEEP: Hi. I'm Steve with NPR.

HAZZARD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is Ashley (ph).

HAZZARD: Hi, Ashley.

ASHLEY, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What's your name?

HAZZARD: My name is Dominique Hazzard (ph).

INSKEEP: Over the chants and the bullhorns, she spoke of the mural. We were standing near the letter R.

HAZZARD: The paint on the street is a beautiful symbol. It's very nice. But you need real actions for black people here in D.C.

INSKEEP: Activists are calling to defund the police, by which they mean reducing the police budget. In recent years, the mayor and city council have been increasing that budget.

HAZZARD: We need to divest from that money and invest that money in things that actually keep people safe, like housing, health care, food, confliction resolution and services on our streets. That's what we need to keep us safe. And if black lives matter, those are the kinds of changes they'll make.

INSKEEP: She maintains fewer police would make her feel more safe. After George Floyd's death in Minneapolis and others across the country, this view is gaining support. So we went to Washington's police headquarters to question the chief.

Sorry not to shake your hand. But obviously, you know.

PETER NEWSHAM: Next time.

INSKEEP: Next time.

Peter Newsham has been a cop in the nation's capital since 1989.

NEWSHAM: I've been on the police department past the midway point in my life.

INSKEEP: And he says the video of George Floyd's killing shows a form of policing that is foreign to him.

NEWSHAM: You know. You watch that video and you say, how in the world could that happen?

INSKEEP: Mayor Bowser promoted Newsham to chief several years ago. He is aware that by approving the mural, his mayor took up a slogan of a group that challenges police.

NEWSHAM: I think she just wanted to make a statement that she understands that there are issues with policing in this country that need to be resolved.

INSKEEP: Answering the move to defund the police, Newsham argues the district needs enough police to face the challenges of a major city, including the protests against police brutality.

NEWSHAM: Where would we have been if we didn't have police to restore order? In Washington, D.C., we have a very, very serious gun violence problem. Our murders last year were at a 10-year high. Police are working every day to solve those issues and hold those people accountable. I'm not sure what we would do if we didn't have folks that were dedicated to doing that work.

INSKEEP: If I understand your public statements correctly, you have said the precise opposite of what BLM has said. They've said cutting a police budget would reduce police brutality. You've argued that raising it would reduce police brutality. How would that be the case?

NEWSHAM: I can tell you by my personal experience here at MPD that one of the major contributors to our police department being as bad as it was in the '90s was a lack of appropriate funding.

INSKEEP: And you were here in the '90s. You're speaking from experience.

NEWSHAM: I was here in the '90s. In 1999, The Washington Post did a series of articles about the Metropolitan Police Department. And for me as a police officer, it was embarrassing. And what those articles said is that the Metropolitan Police Department used excessive force; they had poor hiring, poor training; they had poor investigations.

INSKEEP: The chief maintains his department has spent two decades embracing expensive reforms, from better training to body cameras.

In spite of those reforms, there were some statistics that came out last year. And your department found that 70% of those arrested were black even though the population of D.C. is nowhere near 70% black. What happened?

NEWSHAM: So you have to look at the focus of our agency. Our agency focuses on violent crime here in Washington, D.C. And if you look at lookouts that are given to the police department when violent offenses occur in our city...

INSKEEP: A lookout is a crime victim describing a suspect.

NEWSHAM: ...In the area of 90% of those lookouts are for young African American males.

INSKEEP: Newsham maintains that statistic does not reflect police bias but a persistent lack of opportunity for many in Washington's black community. Now, up to this moment, we haven't mentioned the race of anybody in this story. The Black Lives Matter activist is black. Mayor Muriel Bowser is also black. The current police chief is white, though a majority of officers are black. And the debate in Washington points to the complexity of race in policing.

Rashawn Ray of the University of Maryland has studied the D.C. police force.

RASHAWN RAY: My research shows that the race of the officer really has no bearing on the likelihood of, say, a black person being killed by the police. And it's important to note why - because the training that officers receive is the same. People, I think, overestimate the optics of diversifying a police department.

INSKEEP: He says it matters how those police are trained and how well they collect data to study what they're doing. Ray says D.C. is pretty good there. A police department is not an individual. It's a system.

Amid gradual reforms to that system come the periodic shocks of police killings across this country. After George Floyd's death, a political upheaval came in Washington. In a primary election, an incumbent member of the city council lost his seat to a challenger who wants to defund the police.

JANEESE LEWIS GEORGE: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey.

LEWIS GEORGE: How are you?

INSKEEP: Janeese Lewis George, who is very likely to win the general election, met us at the Black Lives Matter mural standing on the letter B.

LEWIS GEORGE: I think it's awesome. Do I think it solves the problems we have in our city? Absolutely not.

INSKEEP: Before running, she was a prosecutor.

Did you have a moment while working as a prosecutor when you said, I am working in a racist system?

LEWIS GEORGE: Absolutely. All the time.

INSKEEP: That informed her proposals to divert some of the police budget to community improvements and violence reduction programs.

LEWIS GEORGE: You know, I've seen, you know, how much we just lean on doing the same thing and expecting a different result, which is like - let's just put more officers there, and that'll the problem, which is not the only solution. You've got to put more resources into the community to do that.

INSKEEP: In the end, local debates like the one in Washington are the debates that matter. More than the mayor's confrontation with the president, local voices will shape the future of policing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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