When Ieshia Evans arrived on the scene of the July 9 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the road was already blocked off by two cop cars, and police in full riot gear were lined up across the street — the way they appear in the "iconic" photo that catapulted the young woman to internet fame this month.Police had directed protesters to stay on the grass on the side of the road. The protesters were raising their voices, but they were peaceful. It bothered her that police pushed them to the side like that.
Then she saw a police officer raise his gun in the direction of the crowd. Before, the barrel was pointing down, and now he had it pointing forward. He wasn't aiming it at the crowd, and it wasn't in a position to fire, but to her it wasn't right."That got me angry. If these people are doing what you told them to do, and you told them to go into the grass and they did so, why are you changing the position of your gun?" she said in an interview with VICE News.She didn't want to be pushed aside. She wanted to look the officers in the face. So, she walked out into the street.
"They were like soul-less soldiers," she said. "They were heavily armed, heavily padded down, suited and booted and they looked like they were ready for war."She wondered how they slept at night when days earlier one of their fellow officers had shot and killed a man, Alton Sterling.As she stepped into the street, she felt anger and sadness, but no fear.
She heard another protester yell, "They told you to get out of the street or they're going to arrest you!"But the woman in the photo didn't consider moving."We were there for a reason. It's part of a protest. I'm not going to be pushed off [to the side], we're not going to have our issues and our feelings and our lives pushed off to the side and swept away like they swept away Alton Sterling's life, they swept away Freddie Gray's life, they swept away Sandra Bland's life, Tamir Rice's life, you know, countless others. I'm not going to get pushed off to the side."
So she stood there in her dress as two officers dressed in black helmets and body armour ran toward her. They grasped her under her armpits and turned her around, walking her toward the line of police. The line "opened up like doors" for them to walk through, and then closed up again.That's how Evans came to be the subject of the photo that has been compared to the video of the unknown man standing in front of the tanks as they rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989. And the photo of the 1967 Vietnam war protester who held a flower in front of armed guards outside the Pentagon. And the 2013 image of Amanda Polchies, the woman who knelt in the road holding an eagle feather toward a line of Canadian police during a stand-off over fracking in New Brunswick.
"I'm just a regular girl from Brooklyn," Evans says. "It just happened. I got caught in the moment."It was the videos of Sterling's shooting that pulled Evans from her home in Pennsylvania to the protests in Baton Rouge. The 27-year-old Brooklyn-raised nurse had plans for the weekend, but they changed as soon as she saw the first video."It was disgusting, despicable," she said.The videos show two white police officers pinning a black man to the ground in a Baton Rouge convenience store parking lot. Sterling's on his back when one of the officers whips out his gun and aims it at the man's chest."You fucking move I swear to god," someone, likely one of the officers, yells. Not a second later, the officer fires his gun at close range into Sterling's chest, killing him.
It didn't take Evans long to find a group, the civil rights organization Young Minds Can, that was planning to travel down to Baton Rouge for the protests planned for that weekend. She contacted the group's founder, Jay Morrison, and he paid for her flight down.
In July 2014, when Eric Garner died in NYC after an officer put him in a chokehold, there were mass protests in the city over police brutality against African Americans. Evans opted to go to work rather than join the protests and later felt guilty that she had missed it. In this case, she decided she wasn't going to sit at home and do nothing.She's happy the photo traveled so far online, not because it's made her famous — she could care less about that — but because it's highlighting the issue of racism in America.Evans has had her own experiences with racism."I live in Pennsylvania, so I'm out here up north and I've had people drive by me, roll down their windows and scream, 'Nigger!'"One of her first experiences with racism was when she was 18. She was on her way home from her job at Victoria's Secret, wearing a long pencil skirt and a blazer, when an officer stopped her."I got stopped in the road, asked for identification, and he decided to broadcast in front of a crowd of people that he wanted to make sure that I'm not a prostitute."
'I live in Pennsylvania, so I'm out here up north and I've had people drive by me, roll down their windows and scream, 'Nigger!'
More recently, she faced discrimination at her local pharmacy, where she goes to get medication for her and her son, who is six, and doesn't understand racism yet. A white woman was repeatedly rude to her and ignored her, but was respectful and helpful to white customers.When it happens, she thinks twice. She questions herself before she believes she's witnessing racism. "No, that didn't just happen, right? No, I'm going crazy right?"
In that case she was sure, and she complained to the pharmacy. She's also witnessed first hand "young brothers pushed up against the wall" under New York City's widely-condemned stop and frisk policy, which overwhelmingly targets African Americans and Latinos."I want people to know it's bigger than me. We have a systemic problem here."As a mother, she's trying to navigate how to empower her son and preserve his innocence as a young child, but also teach him that he has to be a bit more careful because he's black.He's half Puerto Rican and looks mixed, she says. Some people say he looks Italian or Middle Eastern."I try to make sure that he knows he's black," she says. "I try to make sure that he knows, if you are ever pulled over, or arrested, you are a black man. This is how you'll be seen."She hopes the photo will be evidence to him that she fought for his rights."The peace needs to be disturbed in order for our voice to be heard," Evans says. "Even medically, if something ails you, if you have a pain, if you sit there in silence you could potentially bleed internally and bleed out. So by sitting in silence you're doing the most damage."Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont