When Michael Agyin saw a flash of red and blue lights behind his car, his body grew tense with fear.
He was heading home from a friend’s house that night 13 years ago, driving along the 110 Freeway in South Los Angeles. A California Highway Patrol cruiser following close behind, he left the 110 and made sure to drive to a spot where streetlights cut through the darkness.
After parking, Agyin, who is Black and deaf, turned to what he calls “survival tactics”:
Don’t try and sign to the officer, because quick hand movements can look violent; don’t try to talk (Agyin learned to speak through speech therapy as a child), because the officer will think you are lying about your deafness.
Play along with whatever the officer says or does, if you can manage to read the officer’s lips; keep your hands on the steering wheel; only remove them to grab a hearing aid that is not functional but serves as evidence that you have a hearing disability.
While stretching out a hand to grab that hearing aid from inside his glove compartment, a pair of CHP officers pulled out their weapons and fixed their aim on him, Agyin recounted.
With hands raised, staring into the barrel of each gun, Agyin said, he was able to show he was deaf by patting his ear.
The officers holstered their firearms and communicated with him through pen and paper. An officer told Agyin they pulled him over for “driving erratically,” he said. The pair left without writing a ticket. Agyin drove the rest of the way to his nearby home, rattled.
“It’s scary. It’s straight up scary,” said, Agyin now 42. “The injustice deaf Black people face is twofold: being judged by their race and their deafness – one seen, the other unseen.”
Agyin, a disability advocate and founder of an American Sign Language group, the Compton ASL Club, carried these experiences with him while joining the thousands of protesters who have poured into Southern California streets advocating for racial justice, from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, Long Beach to Chino Hills.
Four million people who are deaf or hard of hearing call California home, according to an estimate by the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness. For deaf protesters, their ability to fully participate – to learn the stories and messages of speakers, to take part in the chants – depends on whether an interpreter shows up.
Anger mounted for Rorri Burton.
Each month seemed to bring news of another Black man or woman dead at the hands of police or accused white vigilantes: Ahmaud Arbery in February, Breonna Taylor in March, and George Floyd in May.
The Long Beach resident needed a place for her anger and decided to take it to the streets.
On May 27, two days after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, alongside hundreds of other protesters, she marched onto the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. For about 25 minutes, the group shut down the 101 during rush hour while yelling Floyd’s name and calling out, “No justice, no peace!”
The march was the first of 50-plus days of continuous protesting in Los Angeles.
“You feel like your’re alone in your anger,” Burton said later. “But when you get together, that power in numbers, that group action, it makes you feel like, ‘OK, we can accomplish something with this.’ “
Burton, 42, is an American Sign Language interpreter who has been interpreting for Los Angeles County’s streamed and televised updates on COVID-19, a disease disproportionately killing Black and brown Americans. She works for an interpreting agency that contracts with the county.
Burton saw a need to provide access to the racial-justice movement with equal urgency. She put a word out to her colleagues and friends who are ASL interpreters. They all decided to show up at protests, stand next to speakers, and just start signing.
The group started with three interpreters at a rally at USC that drew a modest crowd on a Saturday in June. The next day, the group signed in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators who flooded Hollywood streets – perhaps the county’s largest march since Floyd’s death.
“You have Black deaf people,” she said. “They are at the intersection of Blackness and deafness. How much more susceptible are they to police violence?
“This revolution has to be accessible.”
Agyin’s decision to protest was not an easy one. He is immunocompromised and considered his chances of getting the coronavirus infection from the large crowds.
A Compton resident, he stayed close to home, attending the Compton Peace Walk on June 7 when motorcycles and the Compton Cowboys on horseback led the way.
Agyin had posted a request on Facebook days earlier for ASL interpreters to attend the event. Burton and her group showed up.
Words from a varied list of speakers were signed, as Compton residents, city leaders and professional basketball players decried police violence and expressed a desire for unity, peace and building a better city.
Agyin, who learned ASL as an undergraduate at Cal State Northridge, met other deaf protesters there. They were able to fully grasp, with the interpreters’ help, the speakers’ words and take part in the chants.
“Because of that, more (deaf) people are like, ‘I can join this fight, too,’” he said.
A few weeks later, Burton and the interpreter group made it out to a Juneteenth celebration at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. In the crowd was Socorro Garcia, a Cal State Northridge graduate student and activist who is deaf.
She has been regularly attending rallies since May; most did not have interpreters.
“Without the interpreters, I would have just walked through – but I’d have felt somewhat disconnected,” Garcia said. “By participating in chants and things of that nature, I can feel as if I am actually part of the movement.”
By mid-June, Burton decided to make the group official. Working mostly through Instagram, the interpreters chose the handle “@ProBonoInterpreters” to show they won’t ask for a dime.
The group quickly became 20 members and does accept donations to cover expenses such as gas. The volunteers often move in pairs or groups of three or four to sign at rallies.
Most of the interpreters are Black, Indigenous and other people of color. They understand the cultural nuances. That is important to Agyin.
“They understand my language, my background, my ‘isms,’” he said.
Those are things that the hands of a white interpreter simply cannot express, Burton said.
Neil Cordova, 34, is fluent in English, Spanish and American Sign Language. The Spanish, he learned growing up in a Salvadoran household in Commerce. The sign language, he learned when living with friends in New York.
He also signs at Los Angeles County coronavirus news conferences and helps Burton run and organize Pro Bono Interpreters.
While interpreters may at times mouth words in English while singing, Cordova also mouths Spanish words when interpreting Spanish speakers at rallies, at times getting smiles from Spanish-speaking deaf members of the crowd.
Like Cordova, Burton is not professionally trained in ASL.
Her mother, a hearing woman who had a fascination with sign language. At their church in Chicago, when Burton was 12 years old, both befriended a family whose daughter was deaf. Burton learned to sign to communicate with her.
Later, after Burton attended Gallaudet University, which specializes in the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, Burton adopted a child who is deaf. Burton learned how sign in a way that was uncomplicated and personal.
Burton and Cordova have routinely attended the weekly Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles rallies in front of the Hall of Justice, where protesters have called for the resignation of District Attorney Jackie Lacey over what they say is a failure to hold officers accountable for fatal shootings and in-custody deaths.
At the center of these rallies are mothers, fathers, siblings and children of people killed by police or who died in their custody: Kenneth Ross Jr., Grechario Mack, Daniel Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Cesar Rodriguez, Eric Rivera and Wakiesha Wilson.
While the voices of these families crescendo with anger or grief, Burton and Cordova must capture those inflections, those feelings. Using facial expressions, they try to mirror the speakers’ raw emotions.
“They need to see the same pain that everyone else hears,” Cordova said.
At a previous job, Cordova and Burton both provided video interpreting, from business calls to doctor’s appointments, funeral arrangements to a call to a mother about a miscarriage.
“We are used to suppressing our own emotions to relay other’s emotions,” Burton said.
The group attends rallies to translate, but they are also there to protest.
Interpreters rotate every 10 minutes to give one another space to blend in with the crowds, to advocate for messages, or to stand in solidarity with victims. Away from the front, they breathe in and feel the weight of each story.
“This is not professional, its personal,” Burton said. “We get used to it in on one hand. But being so close to it, near to the uprising and upheaval, it’s very emotional.”
At the end of rallies, Cordova said, usually four or five people who are deaf will approach the group. Some follow the group on Instagram, others are news faces, surprised and grateful for the rare access they are getting to activism and protest.
Earlier this month, Cordova and Burton stood before cameras at the County Board of Supervisors building, interpreting for officials, signing the alarming news of a new surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Afterward, the pair shed their work pants and sweaters for T-shirts and shorts and walked south for two blocks to the Hall of Justice.
The pair found a spot in the shade as protesters trickled onto the block. Dozens of sheriff’s deputies lined up in front of the government building.
A white van pulled up with music thumping from large speakers tied to its roof. The crowd began to dance as protesters held up homemade signs: “Black Women Matter,” “Defund the Police,” “Jackie Lacey Must Go.”
Cordova carried a sign with a drawing of hands signing the letters “BLM,”, and on the other side, written in bold with a Sharpie: “Black Deaf Lives Matter.”
When the crowd swelled to about 400, Burton stepped onto the stage. As an organizer brought a microphone to his lips, Burton raised her hands to sign, the music from the van faded, and the crowd of protesters fell silent, some listening, some watching.