Rayna Zemel is a Los Angeles based playback engineer, guitarist and side photographer who documents protests across the city, and the country. Her photographic focus centers around injustices, chiefly against people of color. Zemel found her passion in 2020 when protests and rallies broke out across the US, and the world. She grabbed her camera and never looked back.
When George Floyd tragically lost his life at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin and Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home by raiding officers, communities across the US immediately came together and demanded justice. People took to the streets with a sense of duty and solidarity. According to a project known as Mapping Police Violence (https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/), 1,134 people were killed by law enforcement in 2021 alone.
Zemel recalls a particularly insightful day she photographed at the United States capital. She decided to fly across the country from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to photograph a protest titled the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks. This march took place in wake of Jacob Blake's police shooting, who was shot 7 times in the back when he reached inside a vehicle. This shooting occurred in front of three of his children. The uplifting demonstration, organized by the National Action Network, was in the same location where Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech was delivered, near the Lincoln Memorial. The rally was led by Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III. These folks stood in protest of police violence, brutality and murder as speakers such as relatives of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake and Eric Garner addressed the crowd. Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech virtually as well. Up to 50,000 people attended that day. Zemel comments on this event, "it was inspiring and full of hope."
About six hours after the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, things took a turn. Zemel followed a march to Lafayette Square, where she witnessed about 800 police officers, members of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, enter in full riot gear. As she recalls the night, she states that a protestor threw a water bottle at an officer. This is what she says caused the scene to escalate into "total mayhem."
Zemel comments on one incident. According to her, officers fired a tear gas canister directly at a protestor. This person is a quadruple amputee and was in a wheelchair at the time of the assault. Zemel watched as street medics administered aid to this harmed woman.
Eventually, police officers barricaded the area from all other traffic. Zemel made the decision to prioritize safety and left the area at this point. Although she had her press badge, she did not want to risk a kettled arrest in a foreign state. Photojournalists are not always spared from arrest, even when showing proper credentials.
Zemel reflects on a night of resistance and violence. "The contrast between the overt display of police brutality following a national protest speaking out on the exact violence we were experiencing... It was a surreal experience to say the least."
Zemel however, does not only capture moments of brutal hatred and danger, but the joy and dedication that fills her community. This is where folks find power. Below is her work dedicated to celebration, laughter and love.