Alleged police assault shows lack of diversity at March for Science

Hip Hop Caucus leader demands protection for marginalized people in environmental movement.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, was allegedly assaulted by police on his way to the March for Science. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, was allegedly assaulted by police on his way to the March for Science. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.

A prominent environmental activist allegedly was grabbed by a Washington, D.C. police officer and slammed against a food truck on Saturday as he was walking to the start of the March for Science.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, was walking in a crosswalk near the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture when a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer approached him.

“What are you doing? Stop grabbing me,” Yearwood told the police officer during the incident, which he chronicled in an article for The Huffington Post. The officer told Yearwood to “stop resisting,” although the environmental leader said he wasn’t. “I dropped my umbrella, and put my hands up. I told him I was there for the Science March. He said he had to detain me because I ‘could be on drugs.’ Yes, he really said that,” Yearwood wrote.

The alleged police attack occurred at a traffic intersection on the National Mall in an area where Yearwood said he was the only person of color present at the time.

“For me to go through that amplified what a lot of people of color have told me — that they don’t feel welcome in the environmental movement, or they can be singled out,” Yearwood told ThinkProgress. “I’ve been in the climate movement for a long time, and for the first time, I felt out of place. At that moment, I was just a black guy who was stopped by the police, harassed, roughed up, and let go.”

After he was grabbed by the police officer, “the crowd didn’t really do anything,” Yearwood told The New Republic. “I saw how quickly they were to accept there was a person of color being detained,” he said.

Yearwood has not decided how he will proceed in response to the incident or whether he will pursue a lawsuit against the police department. The MPD had not responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment at the time of posting.

Yearwood said that after the initial alleged attack, he was surrounded by five police officers next to the food truck into which he had been slammed. “I was in fear for my life,” he wrote. “The officer then asks if I had an ID because he wanted to check for outstanding warrants. … I asked why he was detaining me and why he roughed me up. He told me to shut up and to give him my ID.”

Aside from the humiliation of getting roughed up by the police, Yearwood said he was extremely disappointed that the incident forced him to miss a speech given by Mustafa Ali, who earlier this year resigned as the head of environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency after a 24-year career. Ali now serves as senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus.

The Hip Hop Caucus, formed in 2004, seeks to connect marginalized communities with civic matters, focusing in particular on environmental issues. The environmental movement historically has been dominated by white men, although more women have claimed leadership positions over the past decade.

Van Jones, an environmental and civil rights advocate, often highlights how the mainstream environmental community has a diversity problem. He believes funders need to look to the grassroots where larger numbers of African Americans are leading efforts to clean up their communities and protect the environment.

Diversifying the donor lists of foundations would help black Americans in particular make their voices heard in the environmental movement, according to Jones.

The issue of diversity at the March for Science was a point of contention among organizers prior to the event. In the end, though, the organizers succeeded in getting a large number of women and people of color to deliver speeches.

Yearwood told ThinkProgress he was concerned by the comments of some people prior to the march who said science and climate change activism should not be about race. “It’s a little troubling that people want to have a segregated climate movement. That to me is almost more troubling than what the officers did,” he said. “We, as a movement, have to fix that so that people can feel comfortable coming to our marches.”

If the climate movement becomes more inclusive, it will change how the police view its members, Yearwood insisted. “If they see a diverse movement, then one black person is not going to stick out because it’s a hodgepodge of people,” he said.

The climate movement also needs to create a safe environment for people of color who might be discouraged to attend an event when they see what happened to him, Yearwood explained. “When vulnerable communities are coming to our marches, are we putting things in place to ensure that not only are they welcome but they are safe,” he said.

Yearwood still plans to attend Saturday’s climate march in Washington. “I’m not going to hold a grudge. This is not about me. It’s about the movement. I will be marching more forcefully come this Saturday,” he said.