Black youth stage Emancipation Day protest for D.C. inmates amid COVID-19 crisis
Courtesy of Claudia Jones School for Political Education

WASHINGTON—Emancipation Day, a day recognizing the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, which freed 3,000 slaves in the District of Columbia—remains a symbolic date, given that many Black people in the United States are still locked in cages. And on Emancipation Day this year, organizers from the No New Jails D.C. coalition—which includes Black Youth Project 100 D.C., Black Lives Matter D.C., and Life After Release—led a 100+ car caravan in front of D.C. correctional facilities to expose local officials’ inaction on the public health crisis currently taking place and to demand an immediate release of inmates.

In the coronavirus pandemic, jails and prisons have become grounds for rapid spread due to inmates’ inability to social distance and properly protect themselves. This has led some local mayors and district attorneys to release elderly, at-risk, and non-violent inmates as a response.

Courtesy of Claudia Jones School for Political Education

With many still behind bars, though, widespread contraction of COVID-19 remains a risk, especially given the lack of protective equipment for those detained. For example, at Riker’s Island correctional facility in New York City, 304 inmates and 518 staff had tested positive as of April 10, with two deaths.

In D.C., the local ACLU and D.C. Public Defender Service have been demanding a release of inmates given the poor conditions in the D.C. jail. Mayor Muriel Bowser has so far granted release to 36 prisoners in the jail. Local activists say this is not enough.

The Emancipation Day car caravan, with sign-covered vehicles and honking horns, ventured through the city, stopping at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital, Hope Village halfway house, and the D.C. jail. All of these facilities have known cases and fatalities of COVID-19, with the D.C. jail having 65 positive cases, St. Elizabeth’s four deaths, and Hope Village having two fatalities.

The car caravan is an alternative mass protest tactic born out of social distancing precautions. Activists hung signs on their cars saying: “Free Them All,” “COVID-19 in jails + prisons = genocide,” and “Cage less, care more.” They blew their horns and raised their fists outside their car windows in protest of the conditions.

D.C. traffic was blocked and slowed down as the activists drew attention to what was going on. While maneuvering through predominantly Black and working-class neighborhoods, people walked outside their homes or peeped outside their windows to show support for the protest.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.