The video has been widely shared — and celebrated — on social media: a lone Black woman sits in the street to protest police violence as another Black woman stands up to police who are closing in.
“How you doing, sis? You OK? What’s up? Can I sit with you?” Phoenix Robles, the 36-year-old activist, photographer and social worker can be heard asking as she films the situation and walks toward the peaceful protestor, identified in photos as Dorcas Monari. “We’re having a mental health crisis,” she tells officers, pleading with them not to make any decisions in haste. “I want to talk to her.” When Robles asks Monari why she is sitting in the road not far from the police station — in Brooklyn Center, Minn., where Daunte Wright was fatally shot during a traffic stop earlier this month and just miles away from where Derek Chauvin’s trial in the shooting death of George Floyd was underway — Monari simply says, “For George Floyd.”
Robles recorded the footage on April 18 after she encountered the situation while driving to a George Floyd memorial, as Derek Chauvin’s trial was still in session, and decided to step in an attempt to deescalate what she knew could be a potentially fatal interaction.
“I recognized she was in a state of distress [and] I knew why she was in a state of distress immediately, so I just, in that moment, wanted to focus on her,” Robles, who has degrees in human service and social work, tells Yahoo Life. “In my head, when I got out of that car, I knew I was either going to get them [to go] away, or one of us was going to die today. … I knew that they potentially were going to give me a hard time [and] that was going to be one of their options.”
While Chauvin was found guilty on all counts on April 20 for the killing of George Floyd, the New York Times had reported that “since testimony began [for the Chauvin trial] on March 29, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead,” averaging over three killings a day. Among those killed by police during this time period have been 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant and Adam Toledo, 13.
Further, a recent study has found that “on average, Black Americans reported an increase in ‘poor mental health days’ during weeks where more than one deadly racial incident was in the news,” adding that although these incidents included hate crimes, “most involved police killings of Black individuals or legal decisions to either not indict or not convict an officer involved.” The same study “found no change in white Americans’ mental health ratings during those weeks.”
Dr. Ajita Robinson, a Maryland-based therapist with expertise in grief and trauma, explains to Yahoo Life, “The unique and unshared experience of Black people, particularly in this country, is a collective, ancestral trauma [and] a full body experience.”
With that in mind, and despite being afraid, Robles knew it was imperative that she continue to advocate for Monari, lambasting both the officers and bystanders for not doing the same.
“She is protesting for your Black lives!” Robles shouted at onlookers, “You’re too complicit! More Black people should be out on the street with her! You’re video recording instead of protecting her! Protect Black women! Protect Black lives!”
Robinson says that plea “Protect Black women” carries deep meaning, and a need to “truly give us a place where we feel emotionally and physically safe.” Further, it asks that people do that in a way that includes, but is not limited to, amplifying Black women’s voices without judgment and “holding white men and women accountable for the ways in which they weaponize our bodies, our hair, our features and our skin tone.” She adds that it also entails “accepting the full range of their emotions,” and allowing Black women to be “the experts in their experience.”
That protection given to Robles by Monari, and the show of solidarity between them, clearly resonated widely. The image of the two sitting in the street, as captured by a Reuters photographer, was praised as one of the best photos of the day in The Guardian. On Instagram, many expressed how they were moved by the standoff.
“God bless this warrior protecting our sister who was unarmed and peacefully protesting. We need more of THIS,” wrote poet, recording artist and founder of “Black Women Rock!” Jessica Care Moore as she shared the video. Spoken-word poet, playwright and LGBTQ-rights activist Staceyann Chin also reposted the footage, with over 21,000 views there, noting, “It made me weep for the power of the Black sisterhood.”
It’s just the latest moment in an ongoing public conversation about protecting Black women. Last year, actress Keisha Knight-Pulliam told RevoltTV, “We have to protect ourselves,” adding, “I feel like it starts with us and protecting one another, and not always necessarily relying on it to come externally. Yes, it should be globally where people are protected, where all people are taken in the same regard. But we know that’s not the case, and we also can’t wait around for someone else to do it.”
Robles, who heeded that call, explains to Yahoo Life that if Monari was indeed experiencing a mental health episode, officers and EMTs crowding around her was not the way to help.
“If someone’s having a mental health crisis, the person on the opposite end and/or causing the trauma cannot dictate how the situation is going to go — we have to follow the flow of the person who is in distress,” she says. “And if the person who is in distress is not causing herself or anyone else actual harm, then let her be.”
Robinson, in reviewing the video as a mental health professional, points out what Robles did correctly. “She met [Monari] as a human being first, [while] recognizing one’s personhood is a fundamental right that is often not afforded to Black people,” she says. Regarding Monari blocking traffic, she adds, “Yes, she might be doing something that violates the law, but [there was] an opportunity to protect [her] first amendment rights to assemble and express her views — to protest [which] includes sitting on a public street.”
In regards to what officers could have done better, Robinson says, “If we’re able to honor people first, [officers] might have been able to ask her what she needed in that moment, and it didn’t require the significant show of force. They treated her as hostile, and were surprised when she matched their energy.”
After the officers and ambulance left the scene, Robles tearfully embraced Monari as photographers captured the moment. But what happened next was not caught on film.
“We helped her hold space for a few hours because that’s what she wanted to do, and our model is when a Black woman speaks, to listen,” says Robles, explaining that Monari was alert and sharing her own experiences as related to police brutality. During those hours, she adds, they were subject to many verbal and physical attacks, some of them racist in nature, and from those who disagreed with her methods. Since the video has gone viral, she says she’s received an outpouring of both love and hate — including death threats.
Despite some naysayers, Robinson defends both women in the video, saying, “There’s a collective pause that we have to be willing to take, and identify what is actually showing up for us that’s causing [some] to say that the way this woman protests — that isn’t harming any one’s body or property — is unacceptable. How might you require someone who is suffering and in pain to be polite when they’re simply asking you to stop harming them? You don’t get to make that request.”
She adds, “If we are able to set aside the way that the society of police was formed in this country was really to capture slaves and [instead] pretend that they’re honoring their code and are truly committed to protecting and serving, then we’ve got to hold them accountable to the serving. That is a reasonable request for every person — not citizen, but person — in these United States to be able to make.”
Robles says stepping into volatile situations is something that she does often because of what she sees as the consistent overpolicing of Black women and girls. “We continuously see the abuse [and] arrest of Black women for stealing, petty crimes, for protecting themselves, drug abuse, prostitution — all in which stems from systemic oppression,” she notes.
According to the Women’s Prison Association, the number of women in U.S. state prisons has increased by 834 percent over the last four decades, and although over 80 percent of women in jaiI are held on nonviolent charges, most prison interventions are designed for men. Further, approximately two-thirds of women detained in local jails are BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), and poverty is the strongest predictor of recidivism.
Bottom line, says Robles, referring both to the incident with Monari and the most recent killings of Black youth by police coming in tandem with Chauvin’s conviction, “What we are experiencing right now is harrowing. We can’t even get through a success without a murder of two Black babies.”