News & Politics

Grasping for Metaphor, Reporters Flock to Burning DC Garbage Can

Photograph by Evy Mages

As chance would happen, many of the people upset by the presidency of Donald Trump took to the streets of Washington today to express their displeasure with the new administration. Shortly after Trump was sworn in, a large march organized by the DisruptJ20 protest group set out from Union Station to McPherson Square, where it is holding a large rally.

When the march passed by 13th and K streets, Northwest, some in in the demonstration broke away and started throwing newspaper boxes, garbage cans, and other objects in middle of K Street and set them on fire, using Trump T-shirts as kindling. And as any event involving the combination of garbage, fire, and a large crowd—coupled with its convenient location right outside the office of a major news organization—does, the small blaze caught the attention of seemingly every reporter within sprinting distance.

Okay, we get it. A garbage can is burning on the same day of the inauguration of a man whose campaign made a GIF file of a flaming dumpster one of the most widely shared images of 2016. The metaphor is right there for the taking!

On one hand, a pile of Trump T-shirts getting flambéed in a trash bin outside the Washington Post can make for a brief, destructive story. But it also underscores just how quickly protest reporting can become repetitive and dull. There are only so many angles media can derive from a garbage can set on fire as part of an anti-Trump protest: one, exactly. But flooding the zone on the garbage roast—or the vandalism of a few storefronts, also committed by members of the march’s anarchist “black bloc”—is easy.

The larger group of protesters who are demonstrating peacefully aren’t as fun as window-smashing anarchists, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely devoid of interest. All morning, I kept seeing social-media photos of a protester tugging a small herd of llama through the streets. Did anyone stop to interview the llama guy? BuzzFeed News’s Charlie Warzel did.

To be sure, Warzel also grabbed a photo of the garbage fire, but at least he added some value to his protest reporting by getting that llama farmer on the record. This is not difficult journalism. Anyone who five years ago covered the Occupy Wall Street movement, many members of which make up today’s demonstrators, should know that protesters will talk to anyone who approaches them. Most of the time you’ll get the boilerplate message about inequality and justice, but maybe you’ll get the llama guy!

That’s true for any protest story. But in the case of Trump, mass fixation on the most obnoxious, but small-bore, antics also serves the President’s preferred narrative that any organized opposition to his administration is actually a media-driven plot to get him with paid activists.

In reality, the organizers of the DisruptJ20 activities will openly tell you they have no love for Hillary Clinton or any other non-Trump political figure. Anarchist protests are broadly anti-authority. But today, we got a bunch of photos of one burning trash can, and now we’re going to wait for the President’s response on early-morning Twitter.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.