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In protest, there is community and joy rising

Headlines will have you believe that protest is violence and mutiny. Protest is many things. Love is at the foundation of most of them.

Black photographer OJ Slaughter has documented many Boston-area Black Lives Matter protests and the March on Washington during the continuing coronavirus pandemic. They have a show, "The History of Right Now," on display at Windy Films, in East Boston.
Black photographer OJ Slaughter has documented many Boston-area Black Lives Matter protests and the March on Washington during the continuing coronavirus pandemic. They have a show, "The History of Right Now," on display at Windy Films, in East Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

What I remember most about the Say Her Name March & Rally: I was happy.

The summer sun seemed to kiss our foreheads with love that Fourth of July. It should have been sweltering, the streets flooded with over a thousand people, masked and marching in the name of Black womxn. Maybe it was. But all I remember is the solidarity.

For almost three miles, I danced in the streets from Nubian Square to Boston Common, celebrating our lives, loving our lives, delighting in the richness of our Black beauty. I wore Breonna Taylor’s face on my face, a mask donned with daisies made by Boston writer and artist, Arielle Gray. I danced for Breonna.

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The march stopped at Harriet Tubman House where Black Lives Matter Boston and other organizers honored fellow activist Monica Cannon-Grant. They called for us, Black women specifically, to shake something and let joy move us. The speakers boomed with Beyoncé's “Brown Skin Girl.”

We formed a circle as women with ebony skin filled the center, hips swaying, arms in the air, smiles wide and filled with magic. As a light-skinned Black woman, I stood on the outside, cheering them on, my fist in the air, holding sacred space for my beautiful sisters who are hurt the most.

Then their hands, rolling like waves, a current of energy pulling me in, called to me to join them — an intimacy as strong as any hug between sisters. We are Black girls and we dance together.

Overjoyed is a state I’ve only been immersed in once in 2020. It was in that moment. And that moment, to me, is my most powerful act of protest.

A month later, a friend spotted me in a picture taken by fine arts photographer OJ Slaughter. They had captured that precious time and space on Fourth of July. They capture most of the moments at Boston protests. Their work is on display in a show, “The History of Right Now,” at Windy Studio in East Boston. Their eyes are a gift documenting our lives, ensuring the narrative isn’t looters and shooters, but instead a love language spoken in the tongue of liberation. .

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Episode 3: Protest is a beautiful resistance
A Beautiful Resistance: Black joy and Black lives, as celebrated by culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt. Join us on Instagram @abeautifulresistance. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff, Commentary & concept by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff)

“When I first started making photos, the process allowed me to slow down and really watch a room move and understand the way people connected with one another,” Slaughter said.

That is the gift of Black folk telling Black stories. They not only witness the connectivity, they too are part of the bigger picture.

“For as long as history has been told, white people have controlled the narrative of Black history,” said Slaughter, 27. “When we tell our own stories we are letting others speak their truth on their history. Owning our own narratives is key to liberation because it puts power back in the people’s hands.”

Because the gatekeepers are white, historically, the story of protest is mostly told through the lens of violence. The songs, the dance, the community, the smiles go overlooked. Protest is many things. And happiness is one of them.

“The joy in protest is in the details,” Slaughter said. “The sound of moving feet, watching people hug each other at first with hesitancy and then unbridled appreciation, the smell of hand sanitizer, the cadence of a chanting crowd. Joy is there if you pay attention. Joy resides in watching your community cope and thrive. I feel joy every time I’m at a protest and I see folks taking care of each other. That’s what we are there for.”

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Leandrew Belnavis, founder of Unnamed Run Crew, posed for a portrait in downtown Boston. For the past five years, Belnavis has been organizing community runs as a way to protest injustice and to decolonize fitness.
Leandrew Belnavis, founder of Unnamed Run Crew, posed for a portrait in downtown Boston. For the past five years, Belnavis has been organizing community runs as a way to protest injustice and to decolonize fitness. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

For Leandrew Belnavis, the protest, the joy, happens every Tuesday.

Sometimes they meet in the Seaport or the South End. Other times, it’s Revere or Castle Island. Always together, they run.

They are Unnamed Run Crew. Belnavis, a Connecticut native, started the collective when he moved to Boston in 2015 and noticed the running culture here is a predominantly white space. No matter where one lives, running while Black isn’t easy.

“It’s really hard to navigate white spaces, but there is power in movement,” he said. “Seeing a group of Black and brown people running through the city of Boston is a powerful thing. We are coming in all colors and shapes and redefining what it looks like to be a runner.”

They are also creating a safe space.

Both of his parents live in Georgia now. When Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in the state while jogging, Belnavis’s mother was upset. So was he. They both knew it could have easily been him. Unnamed Run Crew, as it had done before, ran in the name of Black lives. Together with other activists, they organized a Run for Ahmaud. And another against racism. They teamed up with cyclists and rode for Breonna, too. You couldn’t miss Belnavis, behind the mic, rallying the riders before taking route.

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“Being in the same space with all of those individuals, the woosh of people going by, is the most beautiful sound,” said Belnavis, 33. “We are there to protest injustice but we are also there to celebrate life and joy. The balance is important. At the end of the day, you can’t take our joy.”

Mariel Novas, an organizer and education advocate, posed for a portrait at her home in Dorchester.
Mariel Novas, an organizer and education advocate, posed for a portrait at her home in Dorchester.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Community is found in protest and power. Mariel Novas lives her life according to that principle.

“In a society as disconnected as ours, the process of building relationships is the process of building those bonds that have been broken,” said Novas, a community organizer and education advocate.

“It’s beautiful work. It’s joyful work,” Novas said. ”You come alive when you remember that you are powerful, your sister is powerful, your neighbor is powerful, and you are building things together.”

By day, Novas is assistant director for partnerships and engagement for Massachusetts at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit working for education equity. Off the clock, the 32-year-old works to fight disenfranchisement by partnering with everyone from the Millennials of Color in Boston to City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Novas moved to Boston with her family when she was just five years old. From a young age she learned the first steps toward freedom start with family.

“As a Black woman, as someone who was an immigrant to the country, the messages that I am not powerful, that I don’t belong, that I have nothing, are abundant. For me to stand my ground with my community, to prove to my community through actions that we are powerful and we have a lot to contribute and we deserve to be heard? I feel most alive when I am in pursuit of my liberty.”

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As Black people, the stories of our struggle, of our pain, of our rage are plentiful. But our fight for freedom is rooted in our love of ourselves and one another. And our resilience, our beauty, our joy despite it all –– that’s a beautiful resistance.

Coming next: Vogue is a beautiful resistance. Sign up to be notified of the next episode. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Playlist, Episode 3, curated by Dart Adams, below, and also on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music. See more at Globe.com/ABeautifulResistance.



Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.