In the history of bonkers events that have taken place in Lafayette Square, Thursday’s flag-burning and scuffle between ideological opponents barely registers. Still, at around 5 PM on Thursday, the park and plaza on the north side of the White House felt like a notable center of American insanity, 2019 edition.
One man was broadcasting his thoughts on government via a portable address/possible livestreaming rig he had attached to his person. Tourists gathered in front of the White House, taking selfies and portraits. A guy in a “Make America Great Again” hat blasted through on a rented scooter shouting “USA.” A person with a golf umbrella festooned with anti-Trump slogans (“Trump Is a Dick,” “MAGA Hats Are the STD’s”) argued with a Trump supporter and shouted “Anus! Penis! Putin!” The White House Peace Vigil looked on quietly, a month and a day into its 39th year.
I was there because I’d heard there might be a flag-burning. The activist Gregory “Joey” Johnson had announced more than a week earlier that he planned to burn a flag as a counterprogramming protest to President Trump’s retooled Fourth of July event on the Mall; Washingtonian photographer Evy Mages had run into some people promoting the burning the evening before at the Lincoln Memorial.
It had rained for a couple of hours at this point. I’d come from the Mall, where people were using Trump merch as rain gear and things were also rather weird: for instance, the couple I met who were toting masks of John F. Kennedy Jr. wearing a MAGA hat. They weren’t exactly sure why someone had handed them the masks at the morning’s parade on Constitution Avenue, but they both thought Kennedy might have been a Trump supporter, perhaps even his running mate, if he were alive today. In fact, the masks were part of the bizarre and sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Kennedy faked his own death and would reemerge at Trump’s “Salute to America” event to reveal himself as a member of Team Trump. I saw a lot of QAnon gear on the Mall Thursday.
Just before 5 PM at Lafayette Square, a small group of people, including Johnson, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue from the east chanting “1-2-3-4! Slavery, genocide, and war! 5-6-7-8! America was never great!” They were greeted by another group of people chanting “USA!” Johnson produced a microphone, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. And then, he lit a flag on fire.
A man in a sleeveless MAGA shirt and a camo bucket cap ran up and grabbed the burning flag, running it toward the White House side of the street. A woman in a striped jumpsuit began screaming about how “fucking disrespectful” the protesters were and rushed toward them. A man in a nontraditional MAGA cap—it said only “MAGA”—wearing a high-visibility red vest and maybe a live-streaming rig got into it with a bearded activist.
The police moved in, and hustled most of us off Pennsylvania Avenue, raising yellow “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape along the sidewalk. The flag-burners linked arms and kept chanting. The man in the bucket hat approached them and began waving the burned flag in their faces. The police got him off the street. A man in a jumpsuit Evel Knievel might have worn stood at the side with a microphone; he appeared to be live-streaming as well. “What do you not understand about the street being closed!” a cop shouted. “It’s not that difficult!” The protesters and the cops were the only people left in the street. The protesters burned a second flag, which the cops put out with fire extinguishers.
I caught up with Jerome Duprey of Orlando, the guy who grabbed the flag, and Greg Aselbekian of DC, who asked someone to get a photo of them to “make this go viral.” As DCist’s Rachel Kurzius later reported, Aselbekian is scheduled to speak at Saturday’s “Demand Free Speech” rally in DC alongside Laura Loomer, Roger Stone, Milo Yiannopoulos, and other far-right activists. Duprey told me he singed his hands grabbing the flag, but it was worth it.
Someone else who was live-streaming described the flag-burners as “Antifa,” which did not appear to be the case, but whatever. The police arrested one of the flag-burners.
Around this point, a number of Proud Boys, many of them wearing black and yellow Fred Perry shirts, showed up. One particularly tall fellow with a camo backpack was encouraging people to attend Saturday’s rally. A number of smaller arguments broke out among people standing along the pavement. The Proud Boys crowded around one disagreement, and then there was a brief scuffle.
The cops pulled one person out of the scramble but enough people shouted they had the wrong person that they eventually let them go, returning again to grab someone wearing a “Make America Gay Again” shirt and apparently arresting them on the other side of the tape. “You’re going to jail!” the Proud Boys chanted. They and others jumped up and down and chanted “Fuck Antifa,” a group whose members, and I’m not sure if it mattered to them or not, did not appear to be present.
The police deposited the person arrested after the scuffle back on the sidwalk. The person said their name was Jessica and “I’m not going to fucking tell you that” in response to follow-up questions, though they said they were okay and no longer under arrest. A live-streamer kept trying to “interview” Jessica, which apparently meant loudly stating his own political theories. Half the park at this point was chanting “USA!” and the other half appeared to be live-streaming. “He hits like a girl, and I should know, because I am a girl,” said Jessica.
The police, blowing whistles, began moving the crowd toward the H Street side of the park. Along the path someone had placed a dog crate with a figure of a child with long black hair inside as part of a protest against conditions on the US’s southern border. Some people shouted “Fuck AOC,” and a man who’d been hopping up and down alongside the Proud Boys got inside the cage and appeared to begin humping the doll while scrabbling at the crate’s walls. He was cheered on.
The cops got everyone out of the park, and the Proud Boys dissipated. Some people stuck around to yell at one another. Less than 30 minutes had passed.