Americans converging in D.C. question freedom's meaning
WASHINGTON - More than two centuries after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Americans converged on the National Mall on Saturday for the Fourth of July during a season of protests over racial injustice, bringing with them clashing notions of what freedom means.
"Freedom looks like being able to take a run in a neighborhood without being shot down," said Shyrah Perkins, 28, of Baltimore, referring to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while jogging. "But that's not America. America is about stealing; it's about taking opportunities from people. It's about taking freedom away."
The holiday has lost its lofty meaning, said Perkins, who is African American; Juneteenth would be her new freedom day. "July Fourth now is just a day that people like to celebrate with their family, have a fun party."
Bill Seibert, who had roared to the Capitol grounds from Easton, Pa., as part of a biker contingent of supporters of President Donald Trump, might as well have been standing in a different country.
"When I hear about racism, I don't see it," said Seibert, who came with his wife, Chris Curto. To the white couple in their 50s, freedom means the right to speak freely as Trump supporters as well as freedom of religion and the right to bear arms - all under threat, they believe.
"Watch the news," said Seibert, a small-business owner and Fox News fan.
"There are U-Hauls arriving with antifa. It's scary," Curto chimed in, referring to an unfounded rumor circulating online. "Think of everything the country got through. Slavery, then we overcame it. Now it feels like we're going backwards. "
The crowds that typically flow into the District of Columbia on Independence Day to line the streets for a parade or to get a prime spot on the National Mall to see the fireworks were markedly thinner this year - and often headed in different directions. Hundreds flocked to Black Lives Matter Plaza, which has been the gathering place for more than a month for demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by police in Minneapolis. Hundreds more ventured to the National Mall for protests or to celebrate the nation's founding.
They gathered a day after Trump chose to underscore racial and political division, delivering an ominous speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore in which he characterized the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country as a violent "left-wing cultural revolution" that sullies the legacies of the nation's presidents.
"The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice. But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society," Trump said in South Dakota, in an apparent attempt to rally supporters.
Friday's event, which culminated with fireworks over the granite monument, was the first in what White House officials had billed as a weekend of celebrations around Independence Day that will continue with the president delivering another speech and presiding over more fireworks in Washington on Saturday night.
Public health officials had warned Americans to avoid congregating to celebrate the holiday to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Those who ventured out - most masked, some without - represented a kaleidoscope of different Americans.
Some were there simply to catch a break and celebrate, in red, white and blue garb and waving flags as they chatted amiably and snapped photos of the sights.
There were, however, few sightings of the flag or celebration in the sweating throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters, congregating at the Capitol or on Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Bands of Trump supporters strode about in telltale Make America Great Again hats, bearing signs and shirts declaring, "We support the president!" and "We support law and order."
Mostly, the groups passed each other peacefully; occasionally, they collided.
That happened about noon near Black Lives Matter Plaza, when a small crowd of people in Jesus and Trump hats walked down H Street, blowing shofars. Black Lives Matter organizers ran up to them, shouting through bullhorns over the shofars.
John, who is white and spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said he drove 10 hours from Michigan with a group from the Disciples of God.
"The shofar is God's voice declaring over this city that he will take it back," said John, 21. "I am here to defend freedom, which is the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution."
A maskless man in John's group stood a few feet over, engaged in a heated conversation with protesters.
"Covid is a hoax," said the man, who is white.
"I hope you get covid," a female protester shouted back from behind goggles and a mask.
A short time later, Trump supporters on motorcycles thundered around the Capitol as a group of about three dozen men from a group known as the Proud Boys cheered them on after finishing a march from Harry's Restaurant in Washington. Members of the all-male far-right organization, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, arrived as a contingent of Black Lives Matter protesters set off on a march from the Capitol.
The group's Cuban American chairman, Enrique Tarrio, said members have made the holiday jaunt to the mall an annual tradition and are mainly there to celebrate and watch fireworks, not to mix it up with protesters.
Wearing matching black polo shirts with yellow trim and few masks, the group gathered behind a statue of Ulysses S. Grant across the street from the Capitol.
"Let's tear down the statue!" a Proud Boy joked loudly, drawing laughs from the group, which erupted into a chant of "USA! USA! USA!"
A Proud Boy who would only give his name as Bobby Pickles, who is white, said he had come from Florida to show his patriotism and symbolically defend the city's statues, which he said represent the nation's history and heritage.
"I understand Black Lives Matter a little, but I think a lot of this energy is misdirected," the man said of the Confederate memorials that have been torn down or defaced in recent weeks.
The state of the nation is perilous on this Fourth of July, he said. "This is the craziest time," the man said. "It's '1984.' Conservative voices are being silenced."
When a group of Black Lives Matter protesters passed on the opposite side of the street, the Proud Boys launched into a chant of "Four more years!"
The miles of fencing that enclosed the monuments on the National Mall seemed a visible reminder of the nation's divisions. The silver wire extended down East Basin Drive and around 15th Street, preventing an early wave of Black Lives Matter activists from converging at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as they had planned. They met up instead at the National Museum of African American History and Culture before pausing in a shady patch near the Washington Monument.
Patty Wood, 67, stood talking to Ebony Johnson, 32, who had draped a blue flag with white stars atop her Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
"After seeing what's going out here today, I'm not sure what this flag represents," said Johnson, who describes herself as African American and Native American. "But for some reason, it makes me feel safe."
"No, it's OK," consoled Wood, who is white. "The Republicans have stolen our flag and our country, and we need to take it back."
During such an unrestful time in the nation's history, it might be hard to imagine that anyone would visit the District on the Fourth of July just to relax. But as they spread out under a tree, Mark and Joannie Hines looked out from the spot where Johnson had earlier stood and saw a largely empty expanse of tranquility.
Mark had spent months away from his wife and three children while battling the coronavirus as a nurse in Delaware. Joannie had never been to the East Coast and flew out here to meet Mark for the weekend. It was Mark's 38th birthday, and they had never seen the national fireworks before.
"It's been hard - a lot of loss," said Mark of his work with patients. "This is a little weekend reprieve."
Mark, who is white and an Army veteran, and who is so far virus-free, said he thinks the unprecedented health crisis has left people more receptive to social change after the killing of Floyd.
"It's a time of change. It's needed change," Mark said, citing change in stances by NASCAR and the National Football League. "The country as a whole has kind of done a 180 from where it was four years ago."
Then Mark turned to the more mundane concerns that normally occupy people on the Fourth of July. "We've got the ice chest. We've got the shade," he said. "I think we've got the prime spot."
Not far away, Patt Cannady was laughing with her siblings as she stretched out in the shade. Cannady, 27, who is white, said she has a good life and is happy a lot of the time. Even so, she was reluctant to truly celebrate, considering Americans who have a different experience of life in her country. Chants of "No Justice, no peace!" rode on the air as she spoke.
"I am thinking a lot about how other people think about the holiday and how your privilege sort of affects how you can view this holiday," she said.