Sunday, September 19, 2021

in-focus

Amid protests, D.C. police face perception they've chosen sides


WASHINGTON -- The tension and violence at last month's "Million MAGA March" has cast a long shadow, with ideologically opposed groups facing off again Saturday in the nation's capital as police try to walk a line somewhere in between.

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Washington D.C. protesters who have spent months calling for criminal justice reform say they were outnumbered and violently attacked by Proud Boys and other far-right agitators while police stood by on Nov. 14. At least three suffered knife wounds.

Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, accused the District's liberal leadership of allowing D.C. protesters to harass and set fire to the property of supporters of President Donald Trump.

As these two dissonant sides meet again, police in the role of peacekeepers will be forced to contend with the growing perception that officers have chosen sides.

District officials say police did their best to minimize harm in a delicate and difficult situation. But officers' behavior at the November rally - posing for photos with Trump supporters, standing back as demonstrators in Make America Great Again garb vandalized Black Lives Matter signs, standing back as arguments escalated to physical conflict - has prompted many to question the role personal politics play in policing.

When Trump's most fervent supporters gather Saturday, urging him to continue his fight to overturn the results of the election he lost, D.C. activists will not be waiting along Pennsylvania Avenue to meet them.

Instead, protesters will gather in Black Lives Matter Plaza, ready to defend what they see as theirs: the fence on which signs and memorials have been hung, the pavement that bears the slogan "Black lives matter," the very city itself and the people who live there.

Officials expect a smaller crowd than the thousands who converged days after Democrat Joe Biden was declared the victor of a bitterly fought presidential race. But the threat of an unpredictable and potentially violent day looms.

Police have said they stood back as Trump's supporters destroyed signs because authorities do not believe it is illegal to tear them down and officers thought stepping in might exacerbate tensions. Roger Mitchell Jr., the city's interim deputy mayor for public safety and justice, conceded in an interview that the optics were poor.

"I can absolutely see how people would see it as taking sides," he said. "I'm not supportive of any law enforcement officer taking sides. . . . Their job is to be neutral and be there to protect whoever is there, whatever their political affiliation is."

Pro-Trump rallies this weekend are expected to draw thousands of his most ardent supporters to the nation's capital.

Events are scheduled to begin about 9 a.m. Saturday with a prayer rally at the Capitol. Other pro-Trump demonstrations will convene about noon near the Washington Monument and in Freedom Plaza. Demonstrators are again planning to march to the Supreme Court, where speakers will address the crowd from the marble steps. Among those invited to speak is Trump's recently pardoned former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russia's ambassador during special counsel Robert Mueller III's probe of 2016 election interference.

A Trump supporter is forced out of Black Lives Matter Plaza by demonstrators on Nov. 14 in Washington D.C. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein

A National Park Service permit issued Friday indicates organizers of the March for Trump, likely the largest of the rallies, expect about 15,000 attendees. Another "Million MAGA March" rally will convene at the National Sylvan Theater on the Mall, with about 500 people expected, according to a separate Park Service permit.

The Proud Boys - a male-chauvinist organization the FBI has deemed an extremist group with ties to white nationalism - plans to return to D.C. this weekend. Counterprotesters say at least three D.C. activists were stabbed in violent clashes with men wearing the Proud Boys' signature gold-and-black uniform last month.

These incidents, along with more than six months of tense encounters with police, have convinced many D.C. protesters that police will not protect them, so they have been preparing to protect themselves.

Rotating shifts of anti-Trump demonstrators plan to patrol Black Lives Matter Plaza through the weekend, looking for attempts to tear down signs or vandalize protest murals. Dance protests and live music are scheduled alongside anti-Trump and anti-fascism rallies.

But D.C. police shut down the plaza early Friday, effectively evicting anti-Trump demonstrators and uprooting an ongoing peace vigil. D.C. activists noted on social media that the street slated to host their protest was closed on the same day the Park Service issued permits allowing Trump supporters to gather.

Dustin Sternbeck, a police spokesman, said police closed streets in the area of Black Lives Matter Plaza "to ensure public safety is maintained." The police department did not respond to concerns from activists about their demonstration space being blocked.

Activists have warned about anti-Trump protesters being a possible target of violence Saturday and offered alternatives to showing up in person, including donating cash and supplies to protesters and lobbying the city to enforce its mask mandate. Street medics, who volunteer at rallies to care for injured demonstrators, have for weeks been recruiting reinforcements.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have accused the District's Democratic leadership of allowing Trump's supporters to be bloodied in scuffles last month with counterprotesters over Trump flags and MAGA hats, which anti-Trump protesters later burned.

The group behind the March for Trump has deemed Black Lives Matter Plaza a "no-go zone" and discouraged supporters from venturing far from its rally point along Pennsylvania Avenue.

At a briefing with D.C. Council members this week, interim city administrator Kevin Donahue said he hopes protesters "get out of town as fast as possible."

Last month's rally brought two discordant views of America onto a crash course in the nation's capital, with Trump supporters insisting without evidence the election had been stolen. They waved flags and chanted profanity-laden slogans from Freedom Plaza to the steps of the Supreme Court, where a small crowd of counterprotesters waited, wearing all black and using bicycles and homemade shields to create a barricade.

Violence between the two groups later broke out five blocks east of the White House. The groups charged each other as they approached the same intersection, brawling for several minutes before police cleared the area.

In the melee, a D.C. fire official said, a man in his 20s was stabbed in the back and taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Street fights continued into the night.

"Anytime there is violence in this city, that's not a win," Mitchell said.

Nearly two dozen people were arrested during the November rally, including several on gun charges, according to D.C. police, who said four officers also were injured.

D.C. activists said at least two additional counterprotesters were assaulted, including one who was wearing body armor and said his vest stopped a blade from penetrating his skin. Another received four stitches to close a knife wound in the arm, protesters said.

The demonstrators did not file police reports, and officers did not make arrests.

Dub, a 25-year-old street medic who declined to give a full name, out of fear of being targeted by the Proud Boys, said a woman came to medics seeking treatment for a cut on her neck after she said she was caught in a Proud Boys attack.

"I'm worried about the next one," Dub said of Saturday's protests. "I don't want to see my people get harmed again."

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said last month that officers followed every big group of roving demonstrators and tried to intercede before factions collided. He said there were people on both sides determined to fight.

Washington D.C. police face counterprotesters as Trump supporters amass outside the Supreme Court on Nov. 14. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein

"The police department was put directly into the middle of it," Newsham said, adding that the main goal of police is "to prevent violence . . . without choosing sides."

But police actions during the demonstrations led many protesters to assume officers had done just that.

Trump supporters waving flags bearing a thin blue line, a pro-police symbol that critics have long claimed also stands for white supremacy and opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, cheered officers as they passed. Several lined up for photos with officers, who smiled and flashed thumbs-up gestures for the camera.

"This is a volatile time," Mitchell said. "I'm hearing more and more politicalization of policing, and our law enforcement is in the middle. We want them to act accordingly to maintain the civil rights of our community, and when they don't, they need to be held accountable. When there is a perception that there is a side being taken, then our job is to mitigate that perception."

Outside the Supreme Court, where thousands of Trump supporters faced off last month with a small crowd of black-clad counterprotesters, Proud Boys members tried to leap over metal barricades assembled to separate the groups. They were pushed back by police as the crowd chanted an expletive at counterprotesters. Moments later, officers in riot gear arrived and stood with shields up, facing the anti-Trump demonstrators.

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As more officers with crowd-control munitions converged, counterprotesters glanced up from peeling clementines and drinking water on the curb of Maryland Avenue.

"This is disgusting," said Jen Nick, 28, a Navy veteran who stood on the front line with a contingent of veterans donning "Vets for BLM" T-shirts. Looking at the row of officers, she said it seemed police were doing little to protect D.C. counterprotesters from the largely out-of-town crowd.

The administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, declined to allow Newsham or other police officials to be interviewed for this report. Newsham is soon leaving the department to become police chief in Prince William County, Va.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises law enforcement agencies on best practices, said it is not enough for officers at protests to have good intentions - they also need to be aware of the optics of their actions.

"We are living in an age where reality matters, but so does appearance," Wexler said. "It's hard when some group is trying to react favorably to the police. But I think police chiefs are aware that the appearance of fairness is as important as the reality."

While many of the confrontations that happened last month did not culminate in violence, activists said being confronted by dozens of barefaced Trump supporters in the midst of a national surge of coronavirus cases made them feel unsafe.

Dozens of D.C. police officers have tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks since the November rally. As of Thursday, 74 remained in quarantine. Police have declined to draw a direct link between demonstrations and the spike in infections among officers.

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Harry's Bar, a pub in the Hotel Harrington that has become known as a meeting point for Trump supporters and Proud Boys, was slapped with a fine for violating the mayor's order mandating mask use and banning large crowds - the bar's second offense since October.

D.C. police said officers will not be enforcing mask rules this weekend or issuing fines to those who flout the mandate or social distancing guidelines.

D.C. Council members and their staffs have received hundreds of messages from constituents ahead of Saturday's rallies, urging the city to do more to enforce coronavirus restrictions. Chairman Phil Mendelson, D, encouraged residents concerned about the spread of germs at the demonstrations to "protect themselves from the dangers of this potential superspreader event by staying away from it."

"Regardless of one's views about the ideology of the rally, we have to be careful to respect the First Amendment right to demonstrate," Mendelson said in an emailed statement.

Organizers with Women for America First, the pro-Trump group behind the rally at Freedom Plaza that also led the only permitted march on Nov. 14, sought to distance themselves from the violence that erupted.

"We hope everyone is peaceful and respects the right of all Americans to peacefully protest and have their voices heard," said group spokesman Chris Barron.

Published : December 12, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Marissa J. Lang, Peter Hermann