The District of Columbia never planned to host the RNC, but the coronavirus pandemic brought the Republican Party’s quadrennial convention here anyway. As President Trump planned to accept his party’s nomination in the Rose Garden Thursday evening, protesters turned out.
One plan to disrupt Trump’s speech was a truck bearing musicians playing go-go, the city’s official music, at the intersection of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest—once the entrance to a pedestrian plaza by the White House but ever since the George Floyd protests, a usually fenced-off reminder of President Trump’s defensive crouch toward the city he lives in.
But perhaps to due to road closures, the go-go truck never made it to 17th Street Thursday. Washingtonian reporters first spotted it near Freedom Plaza, on the other side of the White House, where the band played, people shot hoops on a bus fitted with basketball goals, and others danced on the streets or on top of a van.
Near Lafayette Square, where police had deployed rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas to clear the area for a Trump photo op a few months ago, there were some moments of tension after people some in the crowd called conservative provocateurs drew attention from protesters and ended up getting escorted out of the area by cops. Some suggested one of the people was conservative activist Jacob Wohl. Wohl sent video of himself and Jack Burkman, his partner in numerous unsuccessful smear campaigns, at Lafayette Square, though it appeared to have been filmed earlier than the events Washingtonian reporters saw.
Whatever the cause of the agita, police pushed back protesters on H Street to make way for someone, infuriating some in the crowd who shouted at them as they moved west from Black Lives Matter Plaza toward Connecticut Avenue.
Things were much quieter at the former site of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, where DC artist Robin Bell was projecting quotes from Stephen Miller, Joe Arpaio, and others on the First Amendment tablet out front. It was part of an effort from the group UnidosUS Action Fund, a Latino advocacy organization that published what it called an “Indictment of White Nationalism in Today’s GOP” on Wednesday. “We wanted to use a public way to show the extreme comments,” the group’s president, Janet Murguia said. “We recognize that this is the biggest election of our lifetimes, and we’re going to show up on Election Day, and make sure that we have the largest turnout in the history of our country for Latino and Latino voters.”
Nearby, two trucks bearing artwork from the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer idled in front of the National Gallery of Art on Constitution Avenue. The trucks had been in DC since Tuesday and had attracted a lot of photographers, its driver said.
The go-go-truck and its attendant party moved onto 15th Street, across from the walled-off Ellipse. The band chanted “Trump gotta go!” The sounds could “be heard here from the south lawn of the White House,” Reuters reporter Jeff Mason tweeted. Many protesters carried signs that said “SEASON 2 CANCELLED.”
The party moved south on 15th Street toward Constitution Avenue, which appeared to be a tactical mistake: Police blocked the corner, making it unlikely that their sounds would carry over the Ellipse toward the South Lawn, which featured two enormous Trump campaign signs.
Near the entrance to the Ellipse parking lot on Constitution Avenue and 16th Street, a much smaller group tried to make noise by blowing air horns and banging pots and pans. U.S. Secret Service Police in riot gear appeared behind a fence at one point and moved forward, with some of the officers seeming to hype themselves up for a confrontation by bouncing up and down. This infuriated several people on the other side of the fence, who began kicking at it until the officers just as quickly moved away, out of sight, as protesters sang Steam’s “”Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).” Nearby, a man wearing a loud, red Trump hat watched the proceedings in peace.
As President Trump’s acceptance speech went on late into Thursday, much of the night’s energy seemed to flag, occasionally bolstered by surprises like the appearance of a group of people on ATVs on 15th Street. Some in the crowd jeered at people leaving the White House grounds via Alexander Hamilton Place. A bit south, a group of about 20 people assembled Lite-Brite-style signs that read “TRUMP LIED 180000+ DIED.”
At around 11:35, a promised fireworks display began at the Washington Monument, and they held up their signs, creating an appropriate split screen for a fractured time. “It looks like the end of the world,” one person said.