When Richard Bird was around 5 years old, he woke up in the middle of the night to a loud sound. It was an axe coming through the front door of his family’s Burtonsville home.
“It was when Operation Desert Storm was happening,” Bird said. “It was when they went and bombed Saddam Hussein for the first time.”
“There was a period of hatred toward brown people,” Bird said.
Bird, who is Indian American, said the intruders shouted racist slurs as they tried to break down the door. His father shouted, “Go get the gun!” — but he was bluffing.
“They ran away after that,” Bird said.
Bird, 35, came to America with his family when he was 6 months old and has lived in Maryland ever since.
“We had problems adjusting and being a part of the community, but for the most part, people treated us like we were their neighbors,” Bird said.
Earlier this year, when the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd sparked global protests and conversations about systemic racism and police brutality, Bird was reminded of his experiences of racism.
“I started having flashbacks,” Bird said. “These little moments in my life where I experienced these extreme racist events.”
“While I don’t know what it’s like to be Black, I know what it’s like to feel the pain of racism,” Bird said. “And I know what it’s like to see my friends and people that I call family in pain due to racism and hate.”
Bird co-owns Home Court, a sneaker and clothing shop on Philadelphia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, near where East West Highway turns into Burlington Avenue.
Bird’s business partner, George Dominguez, 35, had the idea to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the street out front.
“They had just done the Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C.,” Dominguez said. “I thought it would be great to show our support in Silver Spring.”
The business partners, who both live in Silver Spring, met when they were students at Briggs Chaney Middle School. They later attended Paint Branch High School together.
Bird told Dominguez that if they were going to paint the message, they’d better do it right.
“I didn’t want it to be a disrespectful, sloppy mess,” Bird said.
In late June, Dominguez, a graphic designer, mocked up the lettering on his computer, then stenciled it on Philadelphia Avenue.
“I was there for like six hours,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez, Bird and some of their friends and other local business owners finished the work over the next couple of days.
By June 30, it was complete.
This was not the Home Court owners’ first bout of activism. Dominguez and Bird said they’ve made donations to racial equity organizations like Know Your Rights Camp and the National Bail Fund Network.
Dominguez and Bird said they also joined the protests in Washington, D.C., and led a protest of their own in Burtonsville in June.
“At this point, you can’t just sit around anymore,” Bird said. “You have to stand firm in the things you believe in.”
Dominguez, a first-generation Ecuadorian American, has had his own experiences of racism.
He said he was racially targeted by the police multiple times as a teenager. He recalls an incident that happened when he was walking home from school one day and had an encounter with a police officer.
“He said I fit the description of someone who stole an iPod,” Dominguez said. “He tackled me to the ground, took my bookbag and drove off in his car.”
Dominguez said the officer came back and returned the backpack once he found it didn’t contain the stolen iPod.
Dominguez saw a more positive example of police rapport during the current pandemic. When he visited his mother in Silver Spring Section 8 housing, he saw police officers bringing bagged lunches to neighborhood kids.
Dominguez said that if officers were more familiar with the communities they cover, there would be fewer incidents of police brutality.
“Just more of that,” he said. “Cops interacting with the community they’re patrolling. That way, the community knows them and gets familiar with them.”
Bird also advocates for police reform. He said he and his friends don’t believe in abolishing the police altogether.
“We don’t vilify cops,” Bird said. “We have a ton of customers who are cops. We have friends that are cops.”
But Bird believes some police funding might be better spent on more training and on community programs.
“We’re just trying to get on a level playing field,” he said.
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