On Sunday night, the White House was dark, and a line of riot cops stretched across Lafayette Square, a public park directly across from the darkened building. Facing the cops were hundreds of protesters, demanding an end to police killings. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” they chanted. “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” Others hurled invective at the cops, and some even pelted them with water bottles and traffic cones. The cops responded with smoke canisters and flash grenades. Klieg lights cut through the fog of chemical agents and weed. The anger in was palpable. Tag artists climbed up on a bronze statue of the Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko—that had been there since 1910 when William Howard Taft was president—and spray painted “Fuck 12” and BLM on its base.
After three months of social distancing, on what would become the most violent night in a week of protests, I had donned a KN95 mask and waded into the crowd of people assembled in front of the White House to protest the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. Protests in Washington are part of the city’s furniture. You can find one here on almost any given day. Lafayette Square, in fact, has been the site of a permanent peace vigil started by anti-nuclear weapons protesters in 1981. In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched abortion marches (pro and con), anti-war protests against the invasion of Iraq, numerous tea party rallies, and the massive women’s march after the 2016 election. Just a few months ago, I covered a pro-Trump anti-impeachment protest.
But this past week has been different. In the first days, the collective action wasn’t so much a protest as a howl—a howl of pain over senseless death and violence and racism, none of which has been addressed by the political system. But since then, something remarkable has happened.
By the time I arrived at Lafayette Square after dinner Sunday night, the initially peaceful protest was growing heated. I choked on the tear gas that hung in the air, which was charged with danger from the electric mix of so many riot cops and people on the edge. Fireworks punctuated chants for justice. Explosions from M-80s seemed to come from nowhere and ratcheted up the tension. Designed for the military to simulate artillery fire or explosives, the M-80s were a destabilizing force, causing panic and chaos in the dark night. Every boom sent masses of people running away from the White House, unsure whether the riot cops were shooting at them or whether the fireworks might provoke the cops to start shooting at protesters.
Many there pleaded with the bottle-throwers to back off and de-escalate. But rage won out. The crowd surged against the barriers in the park, prompting the riot cops to push them back with more tear gas. Volunteer medics rushed in with milk and water to pour into the eyes of protesters. As the 11 p.m. curfew grew near, protesters built a bonfire in the middle of H Street and were dragging traffic barrels, plywood notice boards, and whatever else they could find to stoke the blaze. Men pushed past me to rip branches off trees around the Veterans Administration to provide fuel for the fire. The flames grew higher and higher until they were licking the leaves of a mighty oak tree that hung high above. From across the street, I watched as dark smoke engulfed its branches. An African-American protester standing near me looked on in horror. “This isn’t right,” he said with despair. “This is our city.”
This are getting out of hand by the White House. “This isn’t right,” a guy next to me says. “This is our city.” #DCProtests pic.twitter.com/u5sCvCy2TP
— Stephanie Mencimer (@smencimer) June 1, 2020
As the bonfire grew bigger and bigger, the police started shooting gas canisters into the crowd and everyone started running. I turned the corner around the VA and ran into a phalanx of police cruisers. Someone threw an M-80 at the cops that landed just a few feet from me and exploded. I jumped back and joined others running for safer ground, my pulse racing. It felt like a war zone. Once the smoke cleared, I crept back to watch the crowd reassemble in front of the VA. People cheered as some men climbed up on a traffic signal and rocked it until it fell over and shorted out the nearby streetlights, plunging the street further into darkness. I finally headed home as the park bathroom went up in flames.
Sunday night’s fires were an expression of years of pent-up frustration—what people do when nothing else works. It was utterly predictable and fully understandable. Even so, veering from pandemic to pandemonium in a matter of hours left me with vertigo. One day I was hoarding toilet paper and covering protests by a handful of right-wing activists pissed off because they had to wear a mask at Walmart, the next I was in the middle of the worst civil unrest DC has seen in decades. It was like the earth had suddenly shifted on its axis, and I was still trying to adjust to the disequilibrium. I thought of Joan Didion famously watching the social upheaval of the 1960s and quoting William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.” Didion’s commentary was a lament. But after witnessing the visceral anger on display in Lafayette Square this week, it was obvious that right now, the center should not hold. It just wasn’t clear where we’d end up once the spinning stopped.
The next morning, I was still so keyed up I couldn’t sleep, so I got up early and walked back down to check on the tree that had provided a canopy for the bonfire. It seemed like a noble sentry, something solid in the chaos. If it had survived the night, maybe the country would, too. The walk to the White House was like surveying the aftermath of a natural disaster. The bike store near my house had been looted. Sidewalks sparkled with broken glass. The charred remains of city trash bins lay neglected in the street. I saw a man scrubbing red graffiti off the side of the AFL-CIO building that said, “Burn it down.”
When I reached Lafayette Park, city workers were already cleaning up the night’s mess with an efficiency developed after years of practice. The traffic light was upright and under repair. Street sweepers, which had disappeared after the lockdowns started, spun away at the mess, preparing the street for another day of protests. All that was left of the bonfire was a patch of melted pavement. The tree was a little singed, but mostly unharmed.
The District of Columbia government was born from the civil rights protests of the 1960s and ’70s, when activists demanded home rule for the majority-black federal city that had been governed by a federally appointed three-member board of commissioners, almost exclusively comprised of white men. Finally, home rule was granted in 1973, but the city still has no true autonomy as a state with full representation in Congress. The roots of protest here run deep, as does sympathy with it. That’s why DC’s municipal government helped restore order with street sweepers, while the White House brought out military hardware and paramilitary troops. (On Friday morning, the DC department of public works deployed its fleet of dump trucks to block off parts of 16th Street near the White House and helped activists paint a blocks-long “Black Lives Matter” banner in yellow traffic line paint in a stunning display of municipal resistance.)
In front of that same tree that had guarded the bonfire, peaceful protesters had gathered on Monday until federal law enforcement tear gassed them so President Donald Trump could film a campaign ad and wave a Bible in front of the historic St. John’s Church, which briefly had been on fire the night before. Later that evening, the administration sent in a helicopter, marked with a red cross, to terrorize the crowds, whipping up dust and glass on the streets and scattering terrified people—a possible violation of the Geneva Convention.
But as with George Wallace and his dogs and firehoses, the Trump administration’s use of paramilitary tactics on peaceful protesters has backfired spectacularly. Instead of scaring away the protesters with a militarized show of force, the protests have only gotten bigger, and not just in DC. People who have spent the past three months afraid to leave home have streamed out into the streets to raise their arms in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
The evening after the president’s photo op and the appalling show of force by federal law enforcement, I followed the protesters up 14th Street, where everything was boarded up with plywood in anticipation of coming disturbances. The mayor had imposed a 7 p.m. curfew, which was fast approaching. The streets were largely empty, until I got to the Luther Place Memorial Church. A historic Lutheran church whose first pastor had been an abolitionist, it was open, as it had been during the riots in 1968, when the church sheltered and fed thousands of people. Church members and volunteers were handing out water, snacks, and masks to anyone who needed them. Inside, they’d stocked the sanctuary with a remarkable collection everything from hockey helmets to duct tape to swimming goggles, donated by people wanting to show support for those who marched. The church may have provided the ultimate service to the people on the streets: It let them use the bathroom.
By around 9:30, I watched as DC cops herded protesters into a narrow city block and boxed them in, using a likely illegal tactic that the city council and civil libertarians have been trying for years to eradicate from the police department. Despite its deep experience of dealing with protesters, the Metropolitan Police Department has still suffered from many of the same problems with brutality as in other cities. As officers in padded suits arrived and swung batons as they walked toward the protest, I was sure the night would devolve into violence and that the police would crack some skulls.
Instead, as the crew of officers pushed in on the trapped protesters, a Swann Street resident opened his front door and let more than 70 people escape into his house, where they stayed until the next morning and evaded arrest. I later discovered that the resident was Rahul Dubey, whose son went to elementary school with my kids—a real-life reminder of how ordinary people sometimes step up to do extraordinary things.
A resident in Swann just let a tin of protesters run through their house to escape the cordon as cops started moving in yelling “move on back.” pic.twitter.com/m66QkIE8Cj
— Stephanie Mencimer (@smencimer) June 2, 2020
After I got home that night, I did a midnight interview with an ABC radio affiliate in Melbourne, Australia, which had seen my tweets about all that had happened over the past 24 hours. The host asked me if in all the unrest, I was hopeful for the future. I laughed and emphatically said no. I explained that these protests were a sign that American democracy is fundamentally broken. The voices of the people most affected by police brutality are the ones who have been intentionally shut out of the political process, through gerrymandering and voter suppression. I told the Aussies that right now, as a key effort of his reelection campaign, President Trump had enlisted sympathetic state governments and his attorney general to unapologetically try to make it harder for people to vote. What kind of democracy is that?
But now, at the end of the week, I might answer that question differently. On Tuesday night, hundreds and maybe thousands of people marched past my house and took a silent knee in front of Le Diplomate, the swanky French restaurant where Trump children and cabinet members like to dine. In 1968, that same street had been burned during the uprising after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, imbuing the scene with symbolism. Watching all those people engaging in silent protest brought tears to my eyes. I was so moved by the moment that I screwed up the video.
Meanwhile, the response by the White House has been to call in more troops, build more fences. But something has started that Trump can’t stop. On Wednesday night, even more people converged on downtown DC, laying down in the baking heat, in masks, on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Trump Hotel in memory of George Floyd. A man sang “Lean on Me,” and the crowd followed, waving their illuminated phones as the sun set.
Surreal, beautiful, peaceful scene outside the White House as a man sings “Lean On Me” and thousands and thousands of protesters raise lighted cellphones and join their voices with his. pic.twitter.com/iAr0WWYc3u
— Hannah Natanson (@hannah_natanson) June 4, 2020
The breathtaking images and the sound of all those voices in harmony restored my sense of equilibrium with the possibility of a new center, one that is more humane and reflective of our values than what we have witnessed the last four years. It left me feeling something I hadn’t experienced since that November night in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected: hope.