WASHINGTON — An act once filled with familiarity is now charged with menace, as a mother is asked to make a solemn promise to her 9-year-old, before she leaves for another peaceful protest.
“Please don't die,” Toni Sanders’ stepson said, after they both came within feet of the tear gas and rubber bullets used to clear protesters from the street in Lafayette Square last week.
"I cannot even make that promise to him,” Sanders said. “Based on the events that happened to me as a peaceful protester, complying by all the rules that had been set. In the end, we became victims at a rally for victims, after I told my stepson he would be safe."
Sanders was in Lafayette Square on June 1, because she and her wife had explained to their third grader what led to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. She said they needed to stand together as a family, for America’s countless black victims of police brutality.
But her son was afraid to go. He saw images of violence and rioting on TV, and his parents told him the same scenes would not unfold during the day at the White House.
“It was a protest that was beautiful and surreal at first,” Sanders said. “My stepson started to relax, people were handing out snacks, and it was calm enough where we took a family picture, to show we were doing this as one.”
Memories of that moment then drift into dark recession. Sanders heard three flash grenades at close range. She was standing in front of St. John’s Church, giving an interview to a local news reporter, and then ran.
“At one point I could see my wife, she grabbed the hand of my stepson, but, everything was happening so fast,” Sanders said. “And then, once we could get to an area where we felt safe enough to stop and take a breath and check in on one another, I asked him, ‘Are you okay?’ He told me, ‘I cannot believe I just survived my first near-death experience.’”
The trauma for Sanders' stepson hasn’t faded 10 days after that indelible moment. In the initial instances of chaos, Sanders said there was no time to cry, and no time to be angry.
But she is now incensed that the actions of federal law enforcement and the White House have driven her grade-schooler into therapy, and that his innocence has been lost with such intensity before the age of 10.
“He actually said to one of his teachers, which is what prompted us to say hey he's not handling this well, that there was a war, and that the government was trying to kill black people,” Sanders said.“At that point, I said to myself, ‘I, I can't offer him comfort, because that is what's going on.’ And it's hard because you're a nine-year-old. And this isn't something that you should have to think about, this isn't something that you should have to carry with you, but you're carrying it with you.”
Sanders is now one of the named plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, Black Lives Matter v. Trump. The suit alleges the Trump administration conspired to violate protesters’ constitutionally-protected rights of assembly, free speech, and safeguards against unlawful police seizure.
“What I want to show my stepson, is that we're not going to take this lying down,” Sanders said. “And no matter who you are up against, no matter what their title is, or what their position is, you have to stand up for what's right. That's what I want him to walk away from this situation.”