Sunday, July 25, 2021

in-focus

Protesters gather for massive day of rallies in D.C.


WASHINGTON - More than 10,000 people poured into the nation's capital on the ninth day of protests over police brutality, but what awaited this sprawling crowd - the largest yet in Washington - was a city that no longer felt as if it was being occupied by its own country's military.

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Gone were the 10-ton, sand-colored tankers in front of Lafayette Square and the legions of officers braced behind riot shields, insisting that citizens stay away. In fact, few police were visible anywhere. And when protesters did see law enforcement - authorities in camouflage, grouped in twos or threes and seldom armed - they did not scream abuse, as many of them had in previous days.

Few of Saturday's demonstrations were choreographed, as protesters flowed from one impromptu gathering or march to another. Those who came out in Washington - and San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and dozens of other cities across the country - understood that this was a moment in America when change seemed possible. They wanted to be there for it.

In city after city, both large and small, vast numbers of people clogged streets and halted traffic, circled government buildings and insisted that the leaders of their communities do more to protect the lives of black people.

At the same time that George Floyd was being memorialized in his North Carolina hometown 340 miles south, the crowd in Washington packed into six blocks along 16th Street NW to honor his life and condemn his death in police custody.

"No justice!" they chanted. "No peace!"

But the man in whose direction they shouted couldn't hear them. Nearly two miles of metal fencing now surrounded the White House, as if it had been locked in a cage, and inside, President Donald Trump was raging.

He retweeted himself, sharing a message from the day before in which he described District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser as "grossly incompetent, and in no way qualified to be running an important city like Washington, D.C."

An hour later, nearly to the minute, Bowser, a Democrat, stood on the stretch of 16th she'd had painted with "Black Lives Matter" in huge yellow letters and named in the movement's honor.

She denounced Trump administration officials for authorizing federal officers to fire chemical irritants and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, clearing them from Lafayette Square so the president could get his photo taken with a Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church. Now, on the section of fence there, hung protest signs, an American flag, and a torn yellow strip of police tape that read "Crime Scene."

"Today we say no," Bowser told the crowd. "In November, we say next."

Nearby, Nile Joyner-Willey, 4, sat on her father's shoulders, wearing a rainbow-colored tutu. She held a Black Lives Matter sign as her father, John Willey, 37, who lives in the District, gently bopped her up and down. This was the first day the family had attended the protests and the first day that Nile's parents had talked to their daughter about racism.

"Why are so many people taking my picture?" she asked her mother.

"Because you give people hope," answered Krystle Joyner, 34. "We're doing this for you."

As they'd done all week, the protesters gathered near Lafayette Square, but also spread throughout the city. They marched down U Street's historic Black Broadway and past Chinatown's brightly painted Friendship Arch. They gathered on the Capitol lawn, beside the National Mall's Reflecting Pool and under the bronze Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park. They knelt beneath the folded granite arms of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. 

Their freedom to roam, unimpeded by police, was by design. Almost all District police were working or on call, a city official said, but they stayed away from demonstrators as much as possible. With a swath of downtown cut off to traffic, it made it easier for police to monitor the demonstrations and easier for protesters to get around.

A buzz overhead, however, was a reminder of how different these streets had been just a few days earlier, when National Guard helicopters flew as low as a two-story building, scattering broken glass as they terrified the protesters and journalists beneath them.

"The battle space" was how Defense Secretary Mark Esper had described the city, but the resulting shows of force meant to send a clear message to protesters - stay home - had inspired them to do the opposite. By Saturday, the battle space had morphed into what felt like a carnival.

Some in the crowds - which exceeded 10,000, as people came and went for hours - took off their shoes, revealing feet red and swollen from past days' marching. Kids played in the water, splashing their parents. A father helped his daughter clamber onto an electric scooter, hopped on beside her, and took her for a slow ride around the rim of the Reflecting Pool, explaining Lincoln's fame as he did so.

On 16th Street, children followed their parents to ice cream trucks. A teenager blew bubbles into the crowd. The music thumped all day, from speakers hauled in and running on generators.

Instead of marching around the city in one unified mass, thousands - young and old and all different genders and races - moved around downtown in clumps, making stops to do the wobble in the streets, to stop for a free hot dog or Gatorade, to stand where Trump stood in front of the church. 

"We have effectively surrounded the White House," one man said on his phone.

"I think it's officially under siege," another protester said.

In many moments, though, the mood shifted, returning again to what had brought all of them out that day. For hours, Jade Ashford had watched the snacking, the dancing and the selfie-taking happening on the crowded streets in front of the White House. So when someone passed her the megaphone, the 24-year-old Bowie State student knew exactly what she wanted to say.

"It looks like a fun time over there - well, it's not fun. My people are dying," she cried. "Do y'all hear me?"

"Yes!" the protesters around her called back.

"No, I don't think y'all hear me, because it's mad quiet," she said.

She asked them three more times, then, frustrated, handed off to the man beside her.

"I want them to hear me over there where they're shaking and jiving!" he called.

Ashford shook her head, her long braids sweeping back and forth across her back. She'd come here because she was studying criminal justice, because she planned to become a criminal defense lawyer, someone who could change the system from within. Until then, she was thinking about all the things she could do that her ancestors couldn't, including taking to the streets to scream, to march - to make demands.

"It's starting to lose its purpose and message," she said. "It's just throwing me off because it needs to be serious right now. It's not a joke. It's not a carnival. My people are tired."

By 4 p.m., DeShawn Rasberry, 6, and his younger brother Davian, 4, were pooped. They had been at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street since noon with their mother, Janessa Smith, 28, handing out water, Gatorade and granola bars to the protesters passing by.

The brothers had never seen so many people before - and neither had Smith. It was the family's first protest.

"Do you know why all these people are here?" Smith asked her younger son. He stared blankly at the crowd, munching on the granola bar that had crumbled to pieces in his tiny hands.

"They're out here for you," Smith said.

Davian, dressed in a Superman cap and matching T-shirt, smiled and nodded. "Mmhmm," he said.

Smith had explained to her sons that they were here to "protest" - which means standing up for something, she said - and to help others. She hadn't told them that the protest was against police brutality, spurred by the killing of a man in police custody.

"They're so young now, still so young," Smith said. "And right now, they're in love with law enforcement. . . . I don't want to spoil that. Not yet."

The brothers, who live in Prince George's County, both wear their miniature police uniforms at home as often as they can. DeShawn, squatting in some gravel, said he thinks he may want to be an officer when he grows up.

"They helps peoples," he said.

And was he afraid of them?

"Nope. Nope, nope."

Smith looked at her sons, both just barely coming up to her waist, their hands gripping cold water bottles. One day, she'd have to give them "the talk" about police officers, she thought to herself.

But not today. 

 

 

Published : June 07, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Samantha Schmidt, Jessica Contrera, Rebecca Tan, John Woodrow Cox · NATIONAL, POLITICS, RACE, MEDIA