2020 | News

‘I can’t breathe’: Protesters march through downtown Bethesda, speak out against racism

Chants, signs used during peaceful event

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Protesters marched in the streets of downtown Bethesda on Tuesday afternoon.

Photo by Briana Adhikusuma

Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Bethesda on Tuesday afternoon, shouting, “Black Lives Matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” and waving signs.

Bystanders held up their phones and took photos and videos of the crowd.

It was the third straight day in Montgomery County of protests over the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who was pinned to the ground by a police officer on May 25. Floyd, who was black, was in handcuffs and told Chauvin that he couldn’t breathe.

During Tuesday’s protest in Bethesda, Montgomery County police officers blocked traffic with their cars and rode alongside the procession on bikes. The march lasted for several hours and weaved its way throughout the downtown area.

Earlier, the protesters held a rally at the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda, where several people spoke to a crowd of more than 1,000 people about their experiences with racism or their feelings about injustice in the country.

Protestors sat in the parking lot of the library and poured out into the streets as they cheered and chanted together.

“Your silence is violence.”

“This is what democracy looks like.”

“No more murder.”

Mareike Nebel, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, spoke to the crowd, along with several other local high schoolers who organized the protest.

Her voice quivered as she held a microphone and said she shouldn’t have to follow in the footsteps of her grandmother, who participated in the March on Washington.

“It makes me cry that all of the hard work that my grandfather and my grandmother did hasn’t made a difference,” she said.

Tatiana Johnson, a 17-year-old student at Walt Whitman High School, said people across the country have started to notice the need and impact of the protests.

“[A protest] like this doesn’t happen here,” Johnson said, gesturing to the crowd of protesters behind her.

Nebel said people are starting to pay more attention to racism in their communities because they’re exhausted from seeing police brutality and black people being killed.

The Rev. Dee Ledger of Bethesda United Church of Christ attended the protest with her 7-year-old twin sons. She said she’s had conversations with her sons to help them understand what is going on with racism in the community.

“I grew up in an area that was racist,” she said. “I want them to grow up in a world that honors all bodies. … It’s painful to see our society ripped apart.”

A group of friends, including Nebel and Johnson, organized the protest and started to circulate details about it on Instagram. As people began to share the event, more took notice, resulting in the hundreds who showed up on Tuesday afternoon.

Joe Zengerle, a Bethesda resident and Army veteran, spoke during the protest as well.

“I’m an old white guy. I’m around 78 years old and I just had back surgery,” he said, adding that he was advised to stay away from crowds because of concerns about COVID-19. “I wouldn’t miss this.”

Zengerle said love needed to be the answer to racism and would “win the day.”

“Think about the love you have for each other right now,” he told the crowd. “Keep the love that you have for each other here today.”

Richard Deabreu, 31, of Silver Spring, said that bringing a large group of people together who are equally outraged by racism seemed to be the only way to get attention.

Deabreu said he came to show his support.

“I want [others] to see me,” he said. “I think people are getting fed up. Everyone is tired of seeing [the violence]. When are you going to stop it?”

About 30 police officers were at the protest and another 30 to 40 were ready to respond if needed, according to Montgomery County police Capt. Sean Gagen, commander of the Second District station in Bethesda.

Shortly after the march ended, another group of hundreds of protestors lined Wisconsin Avenue and then marched along the sidewalks in Woodmont Triangle. Many of those protestors were from the East Bethesda neighborhood, east of Wisconsin Avenue.

Other Montgomery County protests or vigils over Floyd’s death have been held in Germantown, Gaithersburg and Chevy Chase, and others are expected this week.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.