After a few hours in front of Lafayette Square on Saturday night, an observer might discern a rhythm to the demonstrations near the White House. There would be lots of motion and chanting among the protesters, many of them carrying signs, lots of them wearing face coverings. Chants of “Shut it down,” “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe.” And, while facing the Park Police and Secret Service Police decked out in riot gear in front of them, “Quit your job!”
Then, a provocation, often involving a firework. Maybe someone would set one off in the street, or toss one into a burning Dumpster, or chuck one at the cops standing three rows deep in riot gear along the edge of the park on the north side of the White House. Whatever the cause, the police would beat their shields with their truncheons, making a horrible sound like aluminum being crinkled really loudly, and maybe move up a step or two toward the bicycle-rack-style barriers between them and the crowd.
This would often occasion a small panic. People would shout that the cops were shooting or were firing gas and lots would run, despite pleas from apparently experienced protesters to just walk quickly if they felt unsafe. Then things would settle down and the cycle would begin again.
The cops had closed off the park by the time I got downtown on Saturday evening. A small crowd had gathered on 15th Street, Northwest, next to the Treasury Building at the barricaded entrance to the Pennsylvania Avenue plaza, and about three dozen police stood silently as two men addressed them: How bad would it be if you put down your shield and joined us, one asked. Another, addressing a female officer, said he knew she’d been harassed and kept silent. Why not speak out now?
I turned west on H Street just as a procession of several hundred people walked east, chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” Near Vermont and H I saw a lot of people talking about the crushing pain they felt after George Floyd’s death at the hands of cops in Minneapolis. I also noticed people throwing water bottles high into the air so they’d land amid the police, some of whom carried body-length shields that were streaked with water.
A white guy wearing a hammer and sickle flag as a cape came up to me while I was taking notes and asked what I was doing. I introduced myself as a reporter. He said something I couldn’t understand and asked him to repeat. “COINTELPRO?” he stage-whispered.
The crowd was multiracial, multigenerational, and included the usual number of knuckleheads, like the kid in a DC flag shirt who carried a skateboard and who kept lighting the spray from an aerosol can near others. I saw people painting slogans on a crosswalk. I saw people praying. Despite the President’s tweeted ambition earlier that day, I didn’t see anyone in MAGA gear, and I didn’t see Antifa, or at least anyone dressed in all black and a bike helmet yelling at news photographers.
Up front, some people yelled at the cops, screaming at the whole institution of policing as well as the individuals in front of them. Some called them pussies, others urged them to leave their posts and join the protests. Others took a different approach, like the woman in a beige face covering who turned her back to the officers and silently held a sign that said “Stop killing us” with bullet holes drawn on some of the letters.
Sometimes the cops did spray gas. I was near Vermont and H when I saw clouds arc out from the police about 50 yards to the west of me. First I was coughing and then my eyes burned like all hell. I soaked a bandanna I had in my backpack with water and walked east for a few minutes to cool them down. I don’t know if it was tear gas or pepper spray or something else. I can report that it really sucked.
I ran into Washingtonian photographer Evy Mages, who’d lost her phone when someone threw something at the cops, hit her hand, and caused her phone to sail over the fence in front of the public bathroom across from St. John’s Episcopal Church. We hadn’t seen each other since lockdown began and talked for a few minutes before we remembered there was a pandemic on—oh yeah, that—and we probably shouldn’t be so close. Not that our caution made much of a difference: There was not a lot of social distancing going on around us. Then something exploded and Evy ran toward it.
After watching the protest rhythm for hours, I found Evy again and we walked to 17th and Pennsylvania, the site of a confrontation between protesters and police during the 2018 Unite the Right II rally after a puny number of racists showed up to find themselves surrounded on three sides by crowds who objected to their project. We walked back past the “ell” of Decatur House, former quarters for enslaved people that someone had tagged with the words “Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?”
There was graffiti on lots of buildings: “Fuck 12” on the corner of Connecticut and H. “I can’t breath” on Treasury. “Fuck Trump” on a window at Opaline.
At 9, when I walked passed 16th and H, the White House was lit up behind the rows of cops and protesters, and the Washington Monument loomed behind it. When I passed again a few minutes before 11 PM, the White House floodlights were off.