News & Politics

Here’s What It Was Like in the Streets When Protesters Shut Down DC

Beginning as early as 7 AM, climate activist protestors succeeded in snarling traffic.

Photograph by Evy Mages

The scene at Massachusetts Avenue and 18th Street, Northwest this morning was a Dumpster fire. Literally. Around 9:20 AM, about 20 people blocking the intersection as part of a city-wide protest about climate change set a small Dumpster full of textbooks on fire, prompting authorities to dispatch a full truck to extinguish the flames. The scent of lighter fluid and charred paper hung in the air as a young woman approached the authorities, demanding them to return the property they had “stolen from them.”

And so it went at this intersection held by Shut Down DC, which planned to “bring traffic and business as usual to a standstill” in the District today to raise awareness about climate change. After the cops removed yards and yards of police tape, the group rushed to throw up a ladder in its place. César Maxit scrambled to the top. He yelled at police, accusing them of protecting the people in power instead of protecting the planet, becoming more agitated and impassioned the longer he yelled.

An older woman, Diane Perlman, approached him. “I’ve been a climate activist, I was at the first Earth Day in 1970, and I support what you’re doing, but the police are not against you,” she said. Maxit snapped at her not to tell him how to interact with police. “Are you white?” he asked. “Because you look white as hell. I’m not white, so the cops treat me differently.” Perlman agreed that his experience as a person of color was different than hers, but emphasized that she’d taken action in the past and just wanted to help. “Do you know de-escalation tactics?” Maxit yelled. “Because I’m stressed and you’re escalating the situation. Get the fuck out of my face.”

Activists rallied across the city. A group of interfaith protestors processed slowly down major streets. Healthcare workers held blood and glucose screenings. A group called Extinction Rebellion brought a big yellow-and-pink sailboat to 16th and K streets, Northwest, covering protestors with fire retardant cloth so they wouldn’t be injured when police sawed off the chains connecting them to the boat.

Photograph by Evy Mages

About 70 college students marched to take over New York Avenue and 395 around 7:25 AM. Within minutes, traffic started to back up and things started to get personal. A man on a motorcycle rode right up to the protest line and started shouting. “Move the fuck out the way,” he said. “Will you please get a damn job! You’re creating more pollution by having everybody standing out here in traffic! I have to get to work; are you going to pay me?” The protestors continued to chant “shut it down” in his face.

Photograph by Jane Recker.

As she walked to join the protest line, one of the protestors, Farzona, said she didn’t see any alternative to protesting. “I would much rather be studying,” she said. “But I haven’t done homework all week because I’ve been so anxious about climate change.”

Just ten minutes after entering the streets, the protesters succeeded in suffocating the inbound 395 ramp. Ten minutes after that, nearly the entire intersection of New York Avenue and 4th Street was crippled. Only cars traveling south on 4th Street onto 395 were allowed through. While most drivers looked over in disgust and even flicked a few birds, many shot some thumbs up towards the protest line and happily engaged with the protesters’ “Honk 4 Climate Action” signs.

The students became more enraptured with their goal, singing “We Don’t Need No Education.” As students linked arms and chanted “I’m the voice of my great-granddaughter, we’re gonna calm this crisis down,” and “I believe that we have won” to the banging of bucket drums, roughly 15 police vehicles and nearly 30 officers began to form lines in preparation of arrests.

Photograph by Jane Recker.

Police planned to warn protesters three times before making any arrests. First warnings were issued around 8:15 AM to the cheers of students. After the second warning, those choosing not to risk arrest scattered to the sidewalks, leaving a stalwart crew of roughly two dozen clumped together in the streets. One of the main organizers of the group, Joe, rallied the group with his loudspeaker. A lean, baby-faced young man with a shock of ginger hair, he had been leading the cheers and logistics for the past hour, surfing on the high of his own adrenaline. “I see 60 students,” he croaked. “I see 60 heroes. I see 60 revolutionaries.”

Shortly after, the police issued their third warning and began peacefully arresting people. As protestors were led to police vans, the group began singing “solidarity forever” to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As an officer zip-tied his hands behind his back, Joe looked back at the group he had led, the morning rays recasting his face like a dewy chiaroscuro. He beamed triumphantly at his cohort, then allowed himself to be taken into custody.

Photograph by Jane Recker.

Things were not so peaceful near Dupont Circle, where protesters erected large wooden flames and fire extinguishers that read “In case of climate emergency, put the fire out.” After spending nearly three hours in the morning heat, Maxit admitted he lost his cool when interacting with Perlman. “I was excessively agitated and I think I probably needed to be approached by someone that was on my team,” he said. “I don’t think she was wrong, but at the time I couldn’t hear the message. It wasn’t my best moment; I don’t think it was tactically smart; I shouldn’t have done it.”

Photograph by Evy Mages

While Maxit took a few minutes to grab some food and cool down, other members of the group continued to interact with the police. Shouting “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop” into his loudspeaker, a man leaped up and down and danced directly in front of the police line. “The police are out here to stop us,” moaned a woman poised on top of one of the ladders. “They don’t care about protecting us or climate change. They’re here to protect the people in power.”

The woman then broke into a series of call and responses: “The earth is on fire!” “Put the fire out!” “The Amazon’s on fire!” “Put the fire out!” “Africa’s on fire!” “Put the fire out!” Sometimes she closed her eyes and rocked gently as if she were having a religious experience.

Eventually, police dismantled all of the signs and scattered the protestors on the ground until only three ladders remained. One young woman kept scrambling back onto the ladder they had removed her from, leading to the police shoving her away and back onto the sidewalk.

Just as it looked like police would be able to address the ladders and clear the intersection, someone from the group yelled, “cavalry is coming!” About 50 Shut Down DC protesters came streaming up 18th Street chanting “backup is on its way.”

Photograph by Jane Recker.

The reinvigorated protestors turned toward the AEI building and began chanting “this is what hypocrisy looks like!” Unable to address the protestors on the ladders with so many people around, police continued to load the group’s plastic police tape into a giant garbage truck.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.