On the late afternoon of June 1, Toni Sanders headed to Lafayette Square, near the White House, with her wife and nine-year-old stepson. For days, Sanders had been out protesting the pattern of police brutality that was killing a growing and alarming number of Black people. The 36-year-old and her wife had also started talking to her stepson about why she was attending these rallies.
“We wanted to have a conversation with him about what was happening in the world — about Black Lives Matter, about the people who’ve died, and about why protesting was important,” Sanders tells Refinery29. “We asked him if he felt comfortable going out to a protest, and we assured him he’d be safe.”
So the three of them made their way to the White House. They intentionally went around 5 p.m., well before that night's 7 p.m. curfew. At first, the protest was peaceful. The family snapped a photo to commemorate the salient moment in history — for the three of them and for the nation. Sanders says her stepson was in awe of the activism happening around him. “He actually made the comment that he was surprised there were so many white people there,” Sanders remembers. “He said, ‘They care about us,’ and I said, ‘They do.’”
Around 6:30 p.m., Sanders was asked to do an interview with a TV station and was just starting to explain to a camera why she was there. “Then, suddenly, we hear ‘boom boom,’” she says.
“I see her grab his hand and we took off running towards where we parked our car,” Sanders says. “We see the smoke, and we start coughing and… chaos. We were right there by the church when this happened.”
You may know the church she’s talking about. It was St. John’s Episcopal. That day, Sanders and other protesters were forcibly cleared from the area, seemingly to make way for U.S. President Donald Trump’s photo op. The one where he stood in front of the church holding up a Bible.
Now Sanders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter D.C., and others are suing Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and additional government officials in a class action case. The defendants have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, explains Kaitlin Banner, a lawyer and the deputy legal director of Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who is representing Sanders.
“We had a group of protesters who were gathered to raise their voices against the racial injustice they see and experience every day in their communities and neighborhoods,” Banner explains. “They were targeted by the police and other law enforcement agencies… That violated both their First Amendment right to protest and assemble, as well as their Fourth Amendment right to be free from bodily harm and seizure by the cops.”
Barr defended the actions taken that tumultuous day in a press conference on June 4. He said that authorities had a right to disperse the “increasingly unruly” protesters, and that the actions had nothing to do with Trump’s photo-op. "There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president's going over to the church," Barr said. Yet, the criminal complaint maintains: “Defendants had no legitimate basis to destroy the peaceable gathering.” The department of justice and Trump's press office have not returned Refinery29's request for comment.
Sanders says that she wanted to take part in suing the president not just because what happened was wrong, but because of how it impacted her son. “I don’t know how long it took us to run to the car, all I know is that I wanted to get this child to safety. He was the only thing I was thinking about. Once we knew we were safe, we gave him some water and we tried to calm him down. ‘Tell me how you’re feeling,’ we said... We didn’t listen to the radio on the way home, we just tried to debrief with him.”
Sanders says she hopes the lawsuit will bring about accountability. She doesn’t want another U.S. citizen to have to go through what her son did. “I don’t want another child to experience that type of trauma,” she says. “It broke our hearts to see that our government was attacking us while we were peacefully assembling, which is our right. We were being compliant, and we genuinely thought that it would be safe for [my stepson] to be there.”
“We thought, as long as we leave before the curfew, he’ll have a good experience and he’ll see what legal civil disobedience looks like,” Sanders continues, her voice cracking. “But in the end, he said that instead he felt like he had his first near-death experience.”
Now, Sanders says her son is having trouble sleeping at night, particularly when she goes to protests without him. He’s afraid for his stepmother. He makes excuses to stay up until she gets home. In the mornings, he asks, “Were you safe last night?”
But Sanders says she continues to go to rallies because she believes she’s doing what needs to be done for her stepson’s future.
“Right before everything happened, I was giving that TV interview, and I was explaining that we were not just there for George Floyd, but for Aiyana Stanley, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and all of the Black people who’ve been killed by police,” Sanders says. “And I could see my family standing across from me and I could see my stepson looking at me as if I was a good example. You know, when little kids give you that look? Like: ‘Wow, you’re doing something good, and the things you’re saying are wonderful.' I hold onto that moment of him looking at me, and that’s why I do this. He was kind of in awe... You could tell that what I was saying meant something to him."
And then, she says, "it was all ripped away."