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Black Lives Matter IRL And Online28:31
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A young protester yells "Black Lives Matter" in the street near a Wendy's restaurant on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in Atlanta. The restaurant was where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by police. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
A young protester yells "Black Lives Matter" in the street near a Wendy's restaurant on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in Atlanta. The restaurant was where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by police. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Over the last few weeks, Endless Thread has been asking for stories that have caught your attention as millions of people around the country and around the world have come together to protest systemic racism and police brutality. Today, Juneteenth 2020, we present some of those stories.

This episode deals with sensitive subject matter and contains strong language.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Amory Sivertson: Over the last few weeks we’ve been asking you what stories have caught your attention, as millions of people around the country and around the world have been coming together to protest systemic racism and police brutality.

Ben Brock Johnson: Today, which if you’re listening on the day our show comes out is Juneteenth, you’re going to hear less from us. Instead, you’re going to hear mostly the voices of others. Starting right now.

(music)

Allison Lane: I’m Allison Lane and you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit. We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Today’s episode: Black Lives Matter.

Amory Sivertson: When we asked you guys for stories about what’s happening around the country, one of the first responses we got was from a listener named Jewel who wrote to us about her friend: Allison and Allison’s new friend, Rahul. Allison and Rahul met a few weeks back, during a protest in Washington D.C. on June 1st.

Ben Brock Johnson: This was when police and members of the National Guard used pepper spray, tear gas and other crowd control efforts to disperse protestors and make way for President Trump to walk from the White House to St. John’s Church and get his photo taken in front of it holding a Bible. That show of force, which surprised many people, was how Allison and Rahul eventually met.

Allison Lane: I'm Allison Lane. I'm from the DC area. I've lived in DC for nine years. I've been a bartender and podcaster for the majority of that time.

Rahul Dubey: My name is Rahul Dubey. I live in Washington, DC on Swann Street. I'm a healthcare innovator and entrepreneur.

Allison Lane: On June 1st, I actually went on a bike ride with some friends and I was heading home. I actually walked to pick up a friend from work. We went to go meet a couple of other friends at the White House. I hadn't been protesting this week, or hadn’t intended to, because of COVID.

Rahul Dubey: It was a gorgeous night. It was a three quarter moon, I live on a gorgeous street, Swann Street, beautiful Mediterranean sky it was just this weird kind of blue and I walked over to the Masonic Temple, which is a couple of blocks away from me. And I know it was past curfew, but I live in a nice neighborhood and I'm kind of a night owl, so I wanted to go stretch my legs a little bit. 

Allison Lane: We saw the police officers on horses pushing back the crowd for the president's photo-op in front of the church. We had no idea it was happening. When they got a block, we were stopped by police so we kind of tried to walk around towards the front of the White House and at that point, they started pushing protesters in different directions, more towards Georgetown, more towards Chinatown.

Rahul Dubey: I saw police on 16th Street lining up, kind of screeching off in different directions, kind of in formation. So I walk back, I get back to 15th Street and there are 40 riot geared up officers at the end of my street, which is Swann and 15th. And then I looked at an officer, there were literally all kind of like robo-cops. It was really weird. This isn't D.C. police, because I know D.C. police and I've lived in D.C. and Swann Street for around 17 years. So, I see one one of these robo-cops with his helmet off so I figure he's the officer. I said “I live right there,” and I point to my house, “My house is the fourth house in.” And I said, “I need to get in.” He goes, “You can't go.” I go, “Sir, something's going on,” and I go, “I just need to go there.” So he goes, “OK, go ahead.” I take four steps in toward the three deep barricade of robo-cops and I get pushed up against the wall, like pushed is a nice word, I mean, I kind of flew. And the guy that I was just talking to says, “Hey, he lives there, let him through.”

Allison Lane: We get to around Belmont Street. But we couldn't go any further. We can’t go any further north because there are still police officers in front of us, you know, kind of blocking your access to Columbia Heights. So we had to march south and they push us into Swann Street. Nobody intended to be at Swann Street that night. We didn't want to be in a residential area. We were marching back actively towards the White House. But we get pushed into Swann Street.

Rahul Dubey: Swann Street is full now, almost full. And I'm just like, “What is going-- why are they holding these people?” And the crowd is chanting, “Let us go, let us go.” Very peacefully. Nothing's going on. In fact, one person stepped out of line and everyone just kind of was like, “Hey, relax!” I mean, it was very peaceful.

Allison Lane: I don't know how long we were there, but I was nose-to-nose with a police officer. We were chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “hands up, don't shoot.”

(A clip from the protest, protestors chant: “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!”)

Rahul Dubey: And then hell opened up and America changed for me forever. 

(A clip from the protest, a protestor says “we’re being charged,” followed by screams.) 

Allison Lane: The police start pushing and pepper spraying and our only warning was “move.” After two pushes, I kind of stumbled back and somebody grabbed me up and pulled me to the side and all I hear is “go, go, go.” And then I see this kind man, who is just on his porch, is telling people to get in their house, you know, “go in any room, just get in the house, go upstairs, downstairs, just get in the house.” 

Rahul Dubey: Plastic from shields screeching, vapors... I don't even know what it was. And I did not stop saying, “get in the house, get in the house” as this human tsunami is coming. And I literally, you see bodies like a wood chipper flying off. I saw someone fall on the ground and someone tried to pick them up with their arm and got pepper sprayed. I saw someone get clubbed on the head. They were running away from the police and they were spraying them in the back of the head. I got pepper sprayed on the side, the left side of me, as I'm wedged in between the door and the railing and helping people that are crawling up my steps because they're getting pepper sprayed. 

(A clip from the protest, protestors tend to those hit by the pepper spray: “Oh my god they’re being maced! Are you OK? Do we have milk? Does anyone have water or milk?”)

Allison Lane: And then the scene in there is this like a group of mostly younger kids, you know, pouring milk all over each other and, you know, tending to eyewash.

(A clip from the protest, a protestor eyewashes another: “There you go there you go, go for it, go for it yeah. Get him water, put water on. Good job.”)

Rahul Dubey: I mean we couldn't see anything. There's vapor and fog like someone fumigated on the first and second floor. Nobody knew each other, which makes sense because everyone's been protesting in DC, arriving at them in packs of one and two. This is not a rally point, ten thousand people call to arms. This is, we're sick and tired, let's go grab a sign, let's walk over there and just be with our brothers and sisters. And when I looked out the window after we got away, they were waiting for us. They were pissed we were inside. They could not get us. I'm the one that went out first and they told me, “Get back in the fucking house or we will put you fucking down.” They knew it was my house. This is, what, one hour later after the mayhem and pepper spray had dissipated. So I went back in, I waited an hour and a half and I came out and I said, “Look, I have a situation here. I am requesting that I talk to somebody.” They said, “You're not talking to anybody.” I said jokingly, “Should I call 9-1-1?” And they looked at me, deadpan and said, “Yes.” And a couple of them started laughing. You know how fearful that is, when you have no one that you can call? 

Allison Lane: I guess there were a hundred people in the house. It was a strange... I don't even know how to describe it. It's really chaotic. There was a kid downstairs who was like, “oh, my God, this is like like, Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad,” and he started playing Kirk Franklin's Revolution. And I was like, this is weird because they're definitely still pepper spraying. There are cops trying to look at us through the window. But this kid has found some sort of joy in this moment. And you kind of had to deal with, like a lot of emotions, people were scared. I think the youngest in the house was 16--

Rahul: — to 50.

Allison Lane: Different races, many genders and different disabilities as well. So, I mean, there was a pretty good sample size of America at that home.

Rahul Dubey: OK. Let's answer the question: if it was potential looters and rioters, OK, why is my house still standing? Why is the alley not burned down? Why were they asking if they could clean the place? Venmo me? “Thank you, Rahul.” Again, 10 hour ordeal and being an Indian American kicked in, when you have guests in your house they are God. And those 70 plus were my God. And they protected me. We made the decision that it is safest if everyone stays here for the night, hunker down, make yourselves at home and let me know what you need, because the minute you hit that street, they are going to arrest you. 

Allison Lane: I want to go out and say something else about Rahul. I will say that he kept that house calm and we felt very safe in his home and under his leadership. And like how he was handling the police, it was honestly super inspiring to a lot of people that we were talking to in the house because, you know, you can be afraid, but you also need to stand up for yourself and know your rights and he was an excellent display of how to do that for a lot of us. You know, I think we tried to get a lawyer at one point into the house and they wouldn't let him in the house. You know, to see what our rights were, so they were really blocking off any resources that weren't on the Internet. 

(A clip from Rahul’s house, protestors say: “Everybody put all this on they Twitter? I got folks trying to send this to CNN right now.”)

Allison Lane: So there were a few people. Me on Twitter, and then Mekka, I think he was on Instagram. There was a girl, Jenny, who went viral on YouTube. 

(A clip from Jenny’s YouTube video inside Rahul’s house:

Jenny: Rahul, please talk to me. 

Rahul: Yeah what’s up. 

Jenny: They think on the news that we broke into your house. 

Rahul: No, you did not. 

Jenny: Are you giving us shelter? 

Rahul: Yeah. 

Jenny: We’re OK here?

Rahul: Yeah, you are.

Jenny: Is everybody in this house OK here? 

Rahul: Yeah.

Jenny: Thank you. If we were to sleep here, is that OK with you? 

Rahul: Yeah, as long as it takes. 

Jenny: Thank you so much, God bless you. 

Rahul: Get on the news and tell them I said that. )

Allison Lane: People were watching this live happen via our social media.

Rahul Dubey: The magic that happened and the capabilities of 20, 30 year olds and the technology that they had is the reason why we were able to get out. I did not make a single phone call to a journalist, yet I did four interviews. They were handing me phones. A guy who was running for Councilman in Ward 2, Kishan Putta called me, actually messaged me on Facebook and said, “I heard what's happening. What can I do?” I said, “bring me food, please.” So I called Duccini’s directly, I recognized the guy's voice. I’m like “hey brother, this is Rahul Dubey. He’s like, “I know, because your number pops up.” I go, “we have a situation.” He goes, “I know.” I go, “You don't know.” He goes, “No, I've been watching.” I go, “I need pizzas.” He goes, “I got you, brother.” I'm like, “no, you don't understand.” He goes, “I got you. I'm coming down and I'll come down the alley on 14.” And I'm like, “God bless you, man.” 

(music starts)

Allison Lane: About 30 minutes before we were, the curfew was lifted. We did an interview that was televised. Media freedom was right outside the door, kind of watching the house. So that gave me a little bit of comfort. Also, right before that, we had organized with Freedom Fighters, D.C. and the D.C. Bartenders Guild to provide escorts for people to leave the house. And we got that organized. And honestly, my mood leaving the house was just like, all right, I hope we can get home.

Rahul Dubey: For me personally, coming out of this was you know, that's a wakeup call for me. And I'm an Indian American first generation here. I'm very proud of that and every minority group that's come here and we have our own troubles and our own struggles. But I am very, very upset with myself, first and foremost, and I am upset with my baller brothers and sisters from South Asia that we have been indifferent. We have not done anything. I have to search my Rolodex to find a Black friend so I can talk to them about what I'm feeling after this happened. It's a disgrace. So what it comes out of this is that, yeah, it's a wake up call. But the main overarching issue is a lack of humanity. This has to do with everyone being thirsty and everyone being fed up. And I'm really, really excited that this happened and I'm sorry it happened. You can't change without being extreme and I'm tired of just sitting back and listening to “I can't do that, I can't do that.” So that's where I’m at. 

Allison Lane: I think that there is a lot of reckoning that people who are not black are having, people are honestly trying to get a feel good spin on it. And I'm really glad that Rahul has been so forthcoming with making sure people recognize that this isn't a feel good story. He sheltered people from getting abused by the police, which is a real issue that we're talking about in America. You know, the whole rise of, you know, defund the police and dismantle our systems is because they don't work for us. And like I've grown up as a black woman in America, I've never had a trust for the police. I can't. To protect and serve whom? To protect and serve the ideals of white privilege and white supremacy. That's what's happening. That's what's been happening. And it's more apparent now because it's being recorded. And there's no excuse anymore because the Internet exists and the Internet did this work, honestly. You wouldn't be hearing about this if people hadn't used the tools that they had at the time. I didn't have a sign. I didn't have a weapon like the police officers have a shield. All I had was a phone. And that's what we used. And that we will continue to use to make change here in America. 

(music continues)

Amory Sivertson: A lot of demonstrators like Allison are using their smartphones to document instances of police misconduct. And that footage is a galvanizing force in the protests themselves, a wakeup call for a lot of people now joining those protests.

Ben Brock Johnson: Viral video footage from smartphones is nothing new. But the pure volume of that viral video feels unique to these protests. For people viewing it and trying to make sense of everything that is happening it’s hard to keep up. Which is where Redditor "Freezman13" comes in.

Chiril: My name is Chiril. I live currently in Evanston, Illinois. I'm originally from Eastern Europe, a small country called Moldova. I cannot be at the protests, even though I'd like to. I am working towards getting a citizenship and so like an arrest would look really, really bad for me right now. Even peaceful protesters get arrested for no reason all the time, as I've noticed. So, yeah, I just wanted to do something, I guess.

Ben Brock Johnson: So Chiril started compiling a list on Reddit of all the recent videos posted or streamed online showing acts of excessive force and misconduct by law enforcement.

Amory Sivertson: He categorized them by state and city. And last time we checked, there have been 376 since George Floyd’s death. In the first week of working on it, Chiril says he was putting in 12-15 hours a day which takes a toll.

Chiril: There was one video of a teenager just standing on a hill and nobody was around him and he was just standing, not doing anything. And the police sniped his head from more than 100 feet away. He falls to the ground, you know, like a sack of potatoes, and they just leave him there. At that point, I had to go outside at 2:00 a.m. and just take an hour-long walk. 

(A clip from the protests plays, a protestor was hit in the head by a rubber bullet: “Medic! We need a medic now! Jesus Christ! Medic! Medic! Medic here now! They shot him in the head. Oh fuck.”)

Chiril: In other videos, you know, there's a lot of people, they shot in the crowd, maybe it was an accident. Like, who knows what happened, right? But this one is just a clear example of how bad things are. 

(The clip continues: “Just keep squeezing my hand until the ambulance gets here. Where else are you hit? Just the head?”)

Ben Brock Johnson: The teenager who got shot in the head, with a rubber bullet, is 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala, from Austin, Texas. According to his family, he’s recovering and stable. But this was the video that made Chiril realize he couldn’t do this all by himself, emotionally or time-wise. Especially because he watches every video completely, making sure it meets his own standards for whether or not there’s obvious misconduct actually happening.

Chiril: For example, say they rolled a gas canister and the video starts at that point, then I don't know if, you know, it's past curfew, if the police have attempted several times to say the crowd must disperse. So I just, you know, consider stuff like that. Are police actions, do they seem reasonable? 

Amory Sivertson: Chiril has teamed up with the newly-formed 2020PoliceBrutality subreddit, which has a team of moderators and more than a hundred thousands members. The hope is that it can be a resource for the public, for the press, and even for prosecutors and policy makers.

Chiril: It is my hope that somebody in the government would use this as a catalyst to create needed change. 

(music plays)

Amory Sivertson: Allison is trying to make change by protesting in the streets and broadcasting those protests online. Chiril is taking that kind of broadcast when it goes viral, and cataloguing it. And then there’s Reddit user The Yellow Rose, whose venue for making change is almost exclusively the Internet.

The Yellow Rose: On Reddit, I’m The Yellow Rose. I can’t share my real name because people try to find me all the time and do harm to me.

Ben Brock Johnson: There are tons of conversations involving race on Reddit. These conversations run the spectrum from combating racism, to celebrating identity.

The Yellow Rose: Black Reddit is not a monolith. We actually have a lot of differing opinions that we argue about. I'm actually mixed. My dad is black and my mom is from the Caribbean. There are some black people in my own subreddit that don't consider me to be black, even though I grew up with the black experience in America.

Amory Sivertson: In Reddit parlance, The Yellow Rose is known as a “supermod”-- someone who’s extremely active and moderates a ton of different communities. At least 100 of them.

The Yellow Rose: Most of my time on Reddit now is spent moderating my main community, Black Ladies. I also just hang out there as a user. We talk about hair, we talk about makeup, talk about culture, talk about politics. I learned how to build a gaming computer on Reddit, which I still really appreciate.

Ben Brock Johnson: Yellow Rose has spent the past 8 years diving down the Reddit rabbit hole, connecting with different communities, creating community. And like the communities themselves, she has also changed a lot during this time.

The Yellow Rose: Back when I first started on Reddit, I was not the best person, honestly. I thought I was the shit because I was light-skinned, I'm pretty, I’m mixed. And talking to people on Reddit and just seeing their stories and connecting with them made me realize, “Oh my God, I'm an asshole. I am an asshole! I come from a very privileged background. I went to a private, really good university. And I'm not better than anybody. These people that didn't go to college are as smart, if not smarter than me. My life is a lie.” And so I had to reevaluate my whole self and who I was. And that wouldn't have happened if I had not been exposed to so many different types of black people on Reddit. So yeah, Reddit, dare I say, made me a better person, helped me grow up.

(music plays) 

The Yellow Rose: I am a health inspector by trade. I have a flashy, I have a nice big metal badge that lets me into wherever I need to go. It's a lot of authority. And if I get arrested out at a protest, my job is gone. And because I can't go out in protest like I would really want to, I've been pouring myself into Reddit, especially the Black Lives Matter subreddit.

(music continues)

The Yellow Rose: I think at the beginning of the George Floyd stuff, we had maybe 8,000 subscribers and I wouldn't be surprised if we passed 50,000 already and I just didn’t notice. Yeah, we're at 50,284 subscribers as of today. The bulk of the subscribers are what I would call white people that don't know anything about racial justice and they want us to teach them, which Black Lives Matter was never meant to be a space where we taught them everything about race and why it's important. We kind of expect people to already know a little bit before they come in. But we've had to adjust because people really just don't know. They don’t understand. They want us to help them talk to their family members about racism because their families, like old, conservative white people, are like, “hey, what's this all about?” And asking the younger generation. And they kind of know what to say and then kind of don't, and they need our guidance. And so I think the bulk of our subscribers right now are those kinds of people that are kind of getting it, but maybe not 100 percent there yet. It's encouraging to me. I want us to be a place where people learn things. I can tell that a lot of these people are genuine in their questions and that there's nothing malicious behind it. It's just pure and solid ignorance on their part. And they know that, and we know that. And when we both know that, it's way easier to talk about. 

(music continues)

Amory Sivertson: The Yellow Rose and other Redditors we’ve heard from have echoed something that has been an issue for online platforms in general, including Reddit.

The Yellow Rose: I have been on Reddit for eight plus years. And we have been begging the admins to talk to us openly about race. We did get one comment from Alexis Ohanian and he said this is a top priority and then never heard from him again. So, yeah, racism on Reddit is something I've been fighting the entire time I've been on it.

Ben Brock Johnson: Earlier this month, The Yellow Rose joined forces with a number of influential Reddit users across the platform to publish an open letter addressed to Reddit, the company.

The Yellow Rose: It's been signed by, are we in the hundreds of other subreddits that represent millions and millions of users on the site? And it's basically listing what Reddit needs to do to combat hate speech on Reddit. So we outlined six things that we want. They've already gotten to one of them. They did hire a Black man to be on the board. But number one on our list is enact a site-wide policy against racism, slurs, and hate speech, because that's what I woke up to this morning. And that's what I've woken up to every day since George Floyd protests started. And, yeah, it just normalizes hate when it's everywhere. I mean, the internet is just a reflection of society at large and I think we can do better. It doesn't have to be like that. We can kind of change the narrative, I would hope.

Ben Brock Johnson: In response to criticisms of Reddit’s policies on hate speech, CEO Steve Huffman posted a letter to Reddit on June 5th. The letter said among other things that Reddit would update its content policy to address hate and racism. Reddit also began to reach out to moderators to create moderator councils to help inform how the company tackles the issue.

Amory Sivertson: Earlier this month, Reddit’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, stepped down from the company’s board and asked for his seat to be filled by a Black candidate. And it was, by Michael Siebel, CEO of the startup accelerator Y Combinator. The Yellow Rose has watched all of this but, as much as she cares about Reddit, she’s been around long enough to know a history that involves efforts and words that have come up short. As a user and a moderator, she says there is still work to do.

Ben Brock Johnson: If you had a message that you wanted to deliver to Steve Huffman or the other admins at Reddit, what would that message be?

The Yellow Rose: We need your help. You can't shut down on us. Please don't ignore us. We're going to keep screaming for you to do something. 

(music plays)

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