On Monday, just before he tear-gassed peaceful protesters to get a photo-op at a church that despises him, Donald Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he declared himself “your president of law and order.” It was Trump’s first attempt to address the nation since protests against police violence had broken out all over the nation, but his show of force did nothing to deescalate the situation. And it certainly didn’t deter protesters from returning to the scene in the District of Columbia on Tuesday evening. While law enforcement officers in riot gear stood in a block-long formation behind the chain-link fences barricading Lafayette Square, the public park that abuts the White House, thousands of demonstrators filled the surrounding streets, filing around the military vehicles parked at downtown intersections. Most rejected the 7 p.m. curfew as a violation of their constitutional rights—an especially galling one given that the protest is about unconstitutional actions by police.
“It’s our First Amendment right,” Sean Solomon, a 34-year-old D.C. resident told Slate. “How dare you enact a curfew on people who are peacefully protesting?” Solomon said the demonstration was “about more than just George Floyd. For over 400 years, this country has been built on the backs of my people.” He added: “In 2020, we still aren’t seen as equal. So we have to be seen.”
A 20-year-old Baltimore resident who declined to provide his name to Slate agreed. “I’m here to protect my First Amendment,” he told Slate. This was his first protest, and he had joined the crowd in front of the White House for three days in a row. He described the scene as “exhilarating, scary, confusing.”
Booyya, a 16-year-old from Maryland, was wearing a cardboard sign around his face that read “POLICE TARGET.” It was, he told us, a repurposed Halloween costume. Booyya’s parents, Ethiopian immigrants, were worried about him, and planned to pick him up before sundown; he’d promised to stay away from the front lines. It was also his first protest—but, he told us, “it’s not going to be my last.”
Demonstrators surrounded Lafayette Square and St. John’s Episcopal Church for hours, chanting the names of victims of police killings and periodically kneeling in their memory. Protesters who’d lined up at the fence at the edge of the park rattled the links and shouted at law enforcement officers—including members of the National Guard and the Metropolitan Police Department—who stared them down with rifles, their vests laden with zip-tie handcuffs, batons, and flash-bang grenades. Organizers circulated with bottles of fluid for mitigating the effects of tear gas, though none had yet been dispersed. Some demonstrators burned incense; one man calmly strummed an acoustic guitar.
Wearing a T-Shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe,” one 21-year-old woman said she’d been participating in demonstrations against police brutality since 2015, when she acquired her shirt while protesting NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s killing of Eric Garner. “We don’t want our grandchildren to have to be out here too,” she said. This spate of demonstrations feels different to her, because the police brutality against protesters has further angered supporters who might have otherwise remained on the sidelines, sustaining the actions for a longer period of time. “That’s more of an incentive to come out,” she said. “You’re not gonna scare us into giving you power. That’s not how democracy works.”
Robbie, a 28-year-old Washingtonian, had also participated in racial justice protests in the past. He was not optimistic that the current protests will change anything “as far as systemic racism in my lifetime.” But, he added, “I want to be out here and be a voice for not only myself and my brothers and sisters but also my kids and my future grandkids.” A brother and sister who declined to provide their names were also skeptical of immediate change. They spoke about the trauma passed down through generations of their family: Their grandfather was killed by a police officer on Long Island, and their parents experienced persistent racial profiling. The sister, 27, said she wanted police to be “held accountable when they are doing things that are unconstitutional,” and that she wanted “a president who follows the Constitution. We’re the land of the free, but we’re being treated like slaves.” The brother, 23, said he simply wanted “my men to stop being killed.”
Davon, 32, of D.C., said it was precisely the fear tactics used by police to punish peaceful protesters on Monday night that prompted him to join Tuesday’s demonstration. “This is America. We have the right to protest and gather peacefully,” he said. He was bewildered by reports he’d heard that the protests were unruly and violent. On the way to Lafayette Square, he’d watched the crowd gently stop one demonstrator trying to pull down a street sign.
Davon attended the protest with Jren, 25, of Arlington, Virginia, who’d never participated in a political demonstration before Tuesday evening. She, too, was taken aback by the incongruity of the response to protesters and the tenor of the protest. “It was intimidating walking here, because we were literally passing soldiers” stationed around the city, she said. “But when I got here, I felt very peaceful and I felt a lot of harmony. I saw a lot of people checking: ‘Are you OK? Do you need water? Do you need snacks?’ ”
Jren was moved to attend her first-ever protest by the momentum she’s seen in the movement in recent days, as demonstrations have grown in number and intensity in cities around the world. She also wanted to show that she wouldn’t be cowed by the escalating violence law enforcement officials have been enacting on protesters. “I feel like they want you to be scared so you don’t show up, so that you don’t use your voice. We can’t let it silence us,” she said.
But the dual threats of COVID-19 and violent police suppression were not lost on seasoned activists in the crowd. S.A.S., a 24-year-old woman who would only provide her initials to Slate, said she’d attended three protests this week, and they felt altogether different from the many demonstrations against police brutality in her past. “It’s the first time I’ve been to a protest that I’ve been genuinely frightened. I’m here literally risking my life and my health,” she said. S.A.S. plans to get tested for the coronavirus on Monday, after a week spent marching and chanting in close proximity to other demonstrators. To her, the risk paled in comparison to the damage already done. “Someone needs to come out for the people that lost their lives” to police killings, she said. “They weren’t able to fight for their lives, so it’s our responsibility to fight for them.”
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