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WASHINGTON – Erika Totten prepared snacks for her two children while juggling a stream of phone calls. When the ringing paused, Totten grabbed her bullhorn. She concealed it in a large purse, told her kids to fix up their rooms and headed out.
A secret action was underway.
Totten and her protest partners had posted on social media for participants to meet at the Chinatown movie theaters on Dec. 12 with $20.
Totten and a handful of women bought tickets to a Chris Rock movie, but they headed into the opening night of Ridley Scott’s biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Not acknowledging each other, they sat sprinkled throughout the theater. Ten minutes into the film, Totten rose from her chair.
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we are hear to disrupt your evening,” she announced. “This film is racist and depicts Africans as slaves and white Europeans as Africans. Egypt is in Africa. This is white supremacist propaganda, and we are shutting it down."
One by one, the other protesters popped up around the theater, chanting: "No more lies! No more lies!” Within minutes, police arrived and demanded that the protesters leave under threat of arrest. But the film was already disrupted; the lights came on. As Totten exited with a police escort, 80 other protesters were waiting outside the theater, cheering. Totten raised her fist into the air. Together, they held a “die-in” on the floor of the mall atrium. Shoppers stepped over bodies to the loud chant of “Black lives matter!”
While the protests sweeping the country have focused on the deaths of black men, it’s black women who are leading the charge. Based on email sign-ups, the D.C. activists say about 70 percent of the participants in their secret actions are black women. And their goal isn’t just to highlight issues like racial profiling and police brutality, but to expose something larger and deeper: what Totten calls white supremacy over black people.
“For actions that are actually being disruptive, and shutting things down, it’s black women that are organizing, planning and leading these actions,” said Totten. “Sometimes in many places we're the better communicators. We don’t have a lot of ego that goes along with this, because we can connect with our sisters in knowing that this is my sister. What happens to her, happens to me.”
For three weeks, the women have been meeting to plan the secret actions. Instead of your standard protest in front of the White House or on the National Mall, their demonstrations erupt in unexpected places at unexpected times. They’ve blocked major highways, stopped the Metro rail and shut down intersections at the height of rush hour. Their goal is to disrupt business as usual and to stay one step ahead of police.
"For us, this is personal,” said Toni Sanders, Totten’s activist partner and founder of the group Think MOOR. “This is our everyday, this is our future, it's our everything and so our strategy is to fight for it. Which is why we say 'Fists Up! Fight back!’ and not ‘Hands up, don't shoot.’ What we are doing with these shutdowns is demanding our rights.”
The group's radical tactics have won them a loyal fanbase.
"I follow them because they are women,” said Emony Temple, a Howard University student at a recent action. “They are organized, think things through strategically and make powerful statements by making controversial and most [of the] time illegal actions like this possible.”
For Totten, it all started with Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator. After his killer was acquitted last summer, she said she fell into a deep depression.
“It was another confirmation that black lives don’t matter,” she said. “And that the value of my son and my husband, there is no value.”
I follow them because they are women. They are organized, think things through strategically...
Howard University student
In August, when Michael Brown was killed, she said she was glued to her computer and phone, tracking the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour coverage on social media. One day, she said, her husband came home, saw her in a state, and suggested she go to Ferguson, Missouri. She packed up her bags, and with four other activists, rented a car and made the 11-hour drive.
“I couldn’t believe how they launched a war on this community and it was a police officer that murdered him,” she said. “I was so outraged and couldn’t be still.”
Soon after her trip to Ferguson, she left her job as a teacher and therapist to dedicate herself to the movement full time.
The testimonies of mothers of young black men killed by police have helped energize and radicalize this younger generation of black female activists. On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the activist group CODEPINK: Women for Peace held an event on Capitol Hill, where a dozen of these mothers shared their stories. Among them was Jeralynn Bluford, whose 18-year-old son was gunned down in Oakland in 2012.
“They say cameras on cops will solve the problem,” Bluford said. “But Officer Miguel Masso turned his camera off before he shot my son dead.”
The Oakland police officer who shot him to death was exonerated after admitting he suffered PTSD as a result of his deployment in Iraq. She described the anguish of walking across the stage at what would have been her son’s high school graduation.
In the audience, Totten held back tears.
Another mother, Marion Hopkins, showed up to their recent action to shut down the busiest intersection in D.C.'s Chinatown.
"Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail!” shouted Hopkins. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!"
She carried a placard with a picture of her dead son, 18-year-old Gary Hopkins, Jr. He was shot multiple times by police in 1999 when he was leaving a party in suburban Maryland. Hopkins said that after the case was thrown out, she received an anonymous phone call and people were laughing on the other end. She believes they were police officers mocking her son's death.
"You could feel every word that mother was screaming, because she knows better than any of us what it is like to feel justice denied,” Sanders said. “A cruel reality she has to live with and many other mothers too.”
Following the shutdown inside the theater, the group of protesters got on the Metro and crossed the border into Virginia. Al Sharpton’s organization, The National Action Network, was hosting a national march the following day to protest the lack of indictments against the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and three busloads of Ferguson protesters had just arrived and waited in their hotel for their D.C. comrades.
"As we cross the border, remember Virginia police are not the same as D.C. police,” Sanders said. “Stay together.”
When the group arrived, the hotel was surrounded by Arlington County and Pentagon police cars. But jubilation filled the lobby. For many, it was a reunion.
"Hey family! So good to see you!" said Brian Mable, a Ferguson activist who filmed the shooting death of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis a week after Michael Brown was killed. He’d met Totten back in August.
The chants of solidarity – “D.C. to Ferguson!” – grew louder, and Totten took to the the bullhorn. She explained that if people who actually lived in Ferguson weren’t given the chance to speak at the protest, they had one choice: Shut it down.
Hundreds gathered for the march the next day, and Totten and Sanders organized their group at the front of the stage. They asked the organizers numerous times to allow a Ferguson resident to speak with no success. So, Totten dodged the stage security and grabbed the mic after the announcer walked away.
"We are here because Ferguson voices must be represented,” she shouted. “Let them speak! Let them speak!"
Her comrades lining the bottom of the stage joined the chants and the crowd of hundreds chanted back. The situation grew tense. An on-stage tussle between activist factions would play very bad in the media.
"We don't care how the media spin this," said Totten. "Let them speak!"
As the chants continued, an event organizer handed Johnetta Elzie the mic.
"I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, and this is about us, the young people who started this,” she said. “What I want you to do right now is put your hands up!"
In a wave, the sea of people raised their hands. “Don’t shoot!” they fired back.
"I believe this action was successful,” said Totten, after they’d left the stage and joined the march. “We felt the young people, the young activists who have been on the ground for over 120 days deserve the utmost recognition, because they started it and the crowd agreed.”
The group wound its way through D.C. for five hours, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and then the White House. Halfway through the city, they joined up again with their Ferguson friends.
"We are honored to have our Ferguson comrades marching in the nation’s capital – in the belly of the beast – with us,” said Totten. “We also have different protesting styles, so it's nice to learn the different techniques.”
Mable took the bullhorn.
"This is how we do it in Ferguson,” he yelled. “Back up! Back, we want freedom, freedom, all these racist-ass cops, we don't need 'em, need 'em!"
The crowd of around 60 joined in the chant and proceeded to shut down the I-395 highway and the streets surrounding Capitol Hill while Congress was in session. As police blocked the protesters from entering the Capitol grounds, Shantwa Jackson, another leading D.C. activist, approached a black officer.
"Our skin in the same color. Take off the gloves and look! Our skin is the same color," she screamed.
Moments later, the cop was removed by his commanding officer. He couldn't conceal his tears.