In an attempt to prove his mettle in the face of nationwide protests, President Donald Trump decided on Monday evening to walk from the White House to St. John’s, an Episcopal church that had briefly caught fire the night before. Military police pounced on peaceful protesters at the nearby Lafayette Park with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and clubs in order to clear a path, reportedly on Trump’s orders. People fled the scene while chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Once reaching the church, Trump posed for cameras with a Bible and reassured reporters that he had everything under control. By Tuesday morning, amid criticisms that he had ordered an attack on peaceful Americans exercising their free speech rights in order to stage a photo-op, Trump was tweeting, “D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”
We were downtown in the hours after this occurred. Peaceful protests resumed. Then there was “overwhelming force” in the form of low-flying Black Hawk helicopters and baton-carrying federal officers. And there certainly were problems.
After demonstrators were forced out of the park, they regrouped in smaller protests around the downtown area. Military police sealed off streets with lines of officers in riot gear. Protesters stood in silence in front of them, arms raised, while others held up Black Lives Matter signs in front of armored vehicles. Almost everyone wore face masks; one man, who said he’d marched in the 1968 protests after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, was selling masks with Black Lives Matter logos. Police ordered people to go home and abide by the district’s 7 p.m. curfew , though clearly no one was in the mood to do so. (Volunteers did offer car rides out of the city for anyone needing transportation.)
The crowd was largely young and fairly diverse. Enraged by the military showing and by the aggression toward a nonviolent group of protesters, they expressed in interviews a mix of grief and anger. “How much are we supposed to keep taking it?” a protester named Jada said. “How many of our black young men and women have to die before something changes?”
Jada, like many others, was protesting for the first time. One protester said they thought the timing of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed some people to fully experience the emotional blow, without distraction, for the first time. “People are out of school. People are out of work,” they said. “Everyone’s tired and frustrated and angry. And this just added fuel to everything. There’s nothing to do but sit home and watch as people are murdered on TV.”
Eventually, a larger crowd coalesced and headed north toward U Street NW, away from the police. The tension eased and the mood changed. Protesters at a church along the way handed out water, granola bars, and other supplies. As the group moved into a residential area near Logan Circle, people came to their doors to watch. Marchers shouted at them to join. “The time for silence is over,” one woman yelled. The crowd broke into periodic chants and occasional cheers, and some protesters on bicycles played music.
At one point, at Thomas Circle, a few people scaled a statue of Union Gen. George Henry Thomas. One person burned an American flag, but everything was peaceful. Periodically, the marching stopped, and everyone took a knee in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police violence.
The anger was tinged by something like catharsis. “I’m on the front line,” Ksan, one protester, said. “I’m with my people. I’m great.” Another said he felt like there was more “righteous anger” in this protest than he’d seen at any other. “And I appreciate it,” he said. “I feel good to be surrounded by people who are like-minded—and I also feel furious at the police and the establishment.”
Others said they felt inspired by the sheer size of the now-international movement. “It’s stuff to make history books. I’m here to make history,” one teenager said. It was his first protest. “All I can think about is this literally happened 50 years ago, 60. It’s the same thing.”
At around 9:30 p.m., after the crowds had turned back south toward the White House, law enforcement renewed its efforts to disperse the march. Black Hawk and medical helicopters began hovering at low altitudes above the narrow streets of downtown D.C. The gust from their rotors kicked up a vortex of dust, trash, and glass from broken windows on the ground below. Limbs broke from trees and the streets were littered with baseball caps that had flown off protestors’ heads. The flybys effectively broke the crowd into segments and forced people from the streets onto the sidewalks, allowing police cruisers to pass through. This is a technique commonly used in combat zones to deter insurgents.
What was left of the disjointed procession pressed on eastward. Upon reaching an intersection near Union Station, protestors were met with a D.C. police barricade. After a brief confrontation, officers began launching flash-bangs and tear gas. Protesters stampeded back, only to be met by more officers firing flash-bangs wantonly into the streets. This seemed to be the crowd’s last stand, at around 11 p.m., as protesters splintered away in every direction to escape the projectiles.
No one said they had seen any aggression from protesters. A few had thrown water bottles at the police, but one witness swore that it had been retaliatory and that the police had acted first. There was some property damage in parts of the city, such as broken windows in Chinatown, though it was often not clear who or what caused it.
The tumult continued in smaller pockets around the downtown area. It was unclear where the police were, at first, and where they wanted people to go. A pair of protesters running from one block ran into a group running from the other direction. They warned them to turn around—helicopters had surrounded a confused crowd and police were firing tear gas. They said that one person had broken an ankle. One woman in the group looked uncertain. “Our car is that way,” she said. They continued on.