The house where the Colellas and Madiha Nawaz sheltered protesters
The house where the Colellas and Madiha Nawaz sheltered protesters Credit: Ashish Malhotra

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22-year-old Rashad Murray looked at a manhole cover his friends were trying to pop open and thought it might be the only way out.

It was around 9 p.m. on the night of Monday, June 1, which many D.C. residents may forever remember as the “Siege of Swann Street.” Murray and his friends were on their third night of participating in the wave of protests that have broken out across the world against systemic anti-black racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The protestors had been marching near U Street NW, but with a citywide 7 p.m. curfew in place, police boxed them in on Swann Street NW—a crowd control tactic known as ‘kettling’—blocking off all potential exit points between 14th and 15th streets NW. As protestors scrambled to find a way out, police, decked in riot gear and carrying pepper spray, began closing in.

“I was just trying to get comfortable with the idea of being arrested,” says Murray, who thought it was almost inevitable that he’d be spending the night in jail.

The only other option seemed to be the sewer.

“[My friend said] ‘If we really don’t want to get arrested, our last option is to hide in the sewer, look for another one on the way out, and try to pop out and run home.”

Murray recounts the story cooly and calmly, as if the plan was fool-proof, but quickly makes it clear that it wasn’t.

“That wasn’t what we wanted. We didn’t know how long we would have been inside the sewer. But we knew it would be better taking that chance than letting the cops arrest us,” he says.

It’s a jarring and desperate calculation. But it serves as a reminder of what the tens of thousands have been protesting to begin with—institutional racial injustice and police brutality that is overwhelmingly directed at black people like Murray.

“It’s something that hits home,” he says. “I’ve seen police brutality ever since I was little, you know, cops picking on my brother’s friends, my brother, and my father.”

It was through that lens that Murray stared at the sewer as his friends opened the manhole cover above it. But just as they did, another option arose.

Madiha Nawaz had spent the entire day wrestling with the guilt she felt for not being out on the streets herself. The 30-year-old graduate student and development worker had just moved home to the U.S. a week earlier after spending four years overseas. Though Nawaz grew up in Virginia, where her parents still live, she had rented an Airbnb on Swann Street NW so she could self-isolate before seeing them due to concerns about COVID-19. That also meant no protesting.

When I got back and I started seeing everything that was happening, I felt so guilty because I wanted to participate but I couldn’t,” she says. “You post stuff on social media but you want to do more … I listened to Trump‘s speech around 6 in the Rose Garden, and after listening to it, I cried. I remember saying, ‘God, I just wish I could help, but I know I have to be safe and smart, and I can’t.” 

In frustration, Nawaz disconnected from her phone and looked for a distraction. Little did she know the opportunity to help would come knocking on her door a few hours later.

When she noticed the chaos outside, Nawaz came out of the basement apartment she was staying in, and stood behind the gate to its patio. A journalist approached and explained that police were closing in from both sides and asked if he could stand with her on the other side of the gate. She gladly obliged.

As the situation began to escalate, one of Murray’s friends asked if he and a few others could join them.

“He saw what was happening, that we were really out of options,” says Murray.  “He finally got the courage to just ask if we could come onto the stoop or something … If she would have said no, there would have been nothing left to do [but go in the sewer].”

For Nawaz, it was a no-brainer. Over the next few minutes she encouraged more protestors to join her on the other side of the patio gate, hoping that being on private property would keep them safe from police action. 

As she and the protestors stood outside, a man in the upstairs apartment of the house loomed above, looking outside the window.

As a temporary guest, Nawaz didn’t know if the man would want her to take the protestors inside, or, if he was even OK with her bringing them onto the property, but as the police began advancing further down the street, what she needed to do became clear.

“We were standing there, I was getting nervous, and I started to see the police coming from the 14th Street side with the full shield yelling ‘Move back, move back, move back,’ in unison. There were all these frazzled protestors in the street. They started shoving them. They did not give a damn. They weren’t stopping. They weren’t giving space for people to move back,” she recalls. “You are yelling “move back” and just straight shooting down Swann Street. That is not OK, because people have nowhere to go. When I saw that, I was like, ‘Everybody in the house now.’”

As 14 strangers followed Nawaz into the apartment, she wondered what the Airbnb host upstairs was thinking.

It turns out the man upstairs wasn’t the host. Mario Colella and his brother Michael are renters, and like Nawaz, had been agonizing over how they could support the protests while maintaining social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Mario, a 28-year-old graduate student who focuses on China, where the coronavirus originated, the concern was further heightened.

“[I was concerned] from the very beginning, even in January and February,” he says. “Because I study China, that’s something very present to me.”

But as Mario watched the street in front of him break into chaos, he knew they might have to put social distancing aside for the night to be allies to the movement they support. The brothers, who are white, agreed that if someone knocked on their door in distress, they would open up.

“How much you value something is what you’re willing to give up to obtain it,” Mario says. And I think for me it’s extremely important that we maintain best social practices with coronavirus, and we do everything in our capacity to stop and prevent this disease. But racial equality is hugely important and the disparities in justice and police treatment of minorities in the U.S. is appalling. If what we’re giving up is breaking this quarantine in order to make some small contribution towards that, [then] absolutely, right?” 

As people on the street looked nervously up at the steps to their house, Mario opened the door and ushered 11 people inside. He stationed himself at the front door, with Michael at the back, fearing the police might try to barge in to arrest the protestors. With two white renters at the doors, they might be less likely to do so.

Downstairs, Nawaz and the 14 people she’d let into her apartment sat in darkness, trying to avoid police attention. The sounds of the street gave them reason to be afraid.

“We started hearing people pleading,” says Nawaz. “There was one guy—I will never forget it—his screams were so loud. ‘You are hurting me, you’re already arresting me, please stop.’  And someone else saying ‘Why are you doing this? Please just let me go, I was just trying to go home.’”

The desperation he heard outside impacted Murray as well.

“That was probably the hardest thing to listen to because at this point we were safe, but I see their shadows and I hear him panicking, literally begging. It’s sickening … that’s how we got treated for just protesting,” he says. “We just got silenced because that’s what their police want to do. That’s their job.”

In addition to Murray, nine of the protestors in the house were black. Nawaz, who is of Pakistani descent, was particularly concerned about their safety. 

“You worry about them even looking out the window because you don’t know how the police are going to react. We’ve seen the videos of what police do, particularly to black men when they are stressed or afraid,” she says. “I remember sitting against the kitchen sink, completely terrified. I looked around the room and realized everyone was terrified. The guy next to me, a young black guy, was tearing up. I held his arm for a bit.”

Everyone in the apartment knew somebody who was being arrested outside. And several protestors told Washington City Paper they felt their march was purposely led onto Swann Street NW by someone who was not part of the protest to set them up for arrest. Two days after the arrest, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham offered his recounting of events at a press conference, but the department has provided no additional comments.

One protestor who stayed with the Collelas says he felt they were led onto the affluent street intentionally because whoever did it did not expect residents would help. For Murray, this was a real concern. Before he and his friends thought about jumping in the sewer, they walked past a home where a woman was at the window on her computer. She never even looked at them.

“Some people just have the privilege to do that, to ignore and try to look past things … I just don’t understand how anyone could do that. There are people outside crying and begging for help.” he says.

What Nawaz did was special.

“Being black … I go into a store and people already expect that I might do something wrong, you know? So for someone to bring me inside their home—where they’re staying, where they have all their belongings, where they sleep—and to not be afraid of me or question my intention … I don’t feel that often. It just doesn’t happen to me with the color of my skin,” he says. “People are ready to judge me before they even get to know me, and Madiha didn’t do that at all.”

The next morning, after the curfew was lifted, the protestors who had survived the night without arrest celebrated in the street. Rahul Dubey, a resident who sheltered around 70 people, gave a speech to them from the steps of his home. He told them he loved them. The atmosphere was joyous.

But the idea that not everybody took protestors in also became clear.. Of the roughly 50 houses on the block, only 4 homes opened up to protestors. And at least one white male resident of the street was openly unhappy that anyone did. Laura, a 22-year-old white protestor who spent the night at Nawaz’s, bore the brunt of his anger. As she stood on the patio, watching the celebrations unfold, the man confronted her.

“He just turned to me and goes, ‘So what did you guys actually accomplish last night? Like really? What did you accomplish? Because all you did for my family was to just scare the hell out of us,’” she says.

“I just stood there and I just didn’t say a single word to him. He got right up in my face and goes, ‘What, are you scared of me?’”

But Laura wasn’t scared, not after everything she’d experienced in the past 12 hours. A young professional who works in the healthcare sector, she says she’s always been interested in social justice and advocacy, but anxiety induced by large crowds had held her back from going to protests. On June 1, she conquered that fear for the first time.

“I just realized I have such an immense privilege as a white person that I need to do more and I need to get over [my anxiety],” she says. “I need to use my voice. I need to use my privilege and do something good.” 

Her experience on Swann Street NW only solidified those convictions.

“The fear and anxiety that I experienced for 12 hours of my life is not even comparable to the kind of fear that people of color face at the hands of the police and the military every single day.”

Looking back, Laura wishes she’d responded to the resident who confronted her about what they’d accomplished.

“We were able to start conversations about police abolition. We were able to expose how violent and terrible the police are to people who are just exercising their first amendment rights. That’s what we accomplished,” she says. “It’s so important that white folks step up and recognize their privilege and acknowledge that, like, we have been so complicit for so long in aiding and abetting a racist, violent police force and a racist, violent government.” 

It’s a conversation Michael, the younger Colella brother, is hoping to have with their neighbor. He intervened when the man yelled at Laura, and says he saw two protestors try to barge into the neighbor’s home the night before, desperately seeking refuge from the police.

“Something happened that primed his experience. His introduction to the protest was not like us, where we opened our door to it,” he says.

Michael feels that getting to the heart of why the man was not sympathetic to the protestors, is crucial to bridging racial divides that exist in the country.

“What is the setup that is causing people to take these actions?” he asks, in reference to the neighbor’s reaction. “I think it’s an important thing for white people to be having conversations about.”