Having missed the excitement on Friday night, I went around on Saturday to see what the DC protests might be about. In recently years I’ve been to plenty of demonstrations in Washington and they've all even been pretty chill; the protesters and their marshals know their part, and MPDC knows theirs; even the gargantuan Women’s Day March on January 21, 2017 was energized but in control.
The George Floyd case, being even harder to pass off as cop-said skel-said than your run-of-the-mill police-involved death, was not going to be like that. Nonetheless the first event I attended seemed at first close to the playbook — a fired-up crowd of about 500 marching down Pennsylvania Avenue from Archives/Navy Memorial to the Grant Memorial at the Capitol reflecting pool.
They did hands-up-don’t-shoot and say-his-name at full intensity the whole way and moved at a fast pace I struggled to keep up with. I’d say 90% of the crowd was under 25 and they weren’t inclined to slow it down for the seniors. (Since your racist uncle has probably told you different, I will also note the racial mix was close to 50-50.)
At the foot of Capitol Hill a slate of speakers kept the crowd keyed up (“This place was built by slavery! It was built with our blood, our sweat, our tears!”), but no higher than I’d seen before. It was easy enough to tune out that I went home — and then I saw reports on my phone of tear gas, arrests, and mayhem by the White House.
I rolled back and found Lafayette Square, the traditional gathering spot for White House protests (you can’t get closer since the space was militarized in the Bush days) locked down by riot cops. I went down to the Ellipse and over to 17th Street, biking past marchers either regrouping or retreating, as well as family-weekenders on scooters and all kinds of people that might or might not be in on it — because protesters are just citizens, after all — and finally got to the Renwick Gallery at 17th and Pennsylvania, near a park access point, where I saw two cop cars festooned with demonstrators and BLM graffiti; one had its windshield smashed in. Past them, a line of protest signs; past them, a scrum of cops, very still and attentive.
The protesters — about as many as I’d seen at the Grant Memorial, but not necessarily the same cast — were hot and poised; some bounced on the cop cars but most were just milling, talking on phones, staying fluid for the next phase. “This is your second warning!” I heard from the cops inside, followed by a roar of outrage.
I noticed a photographer lying in the street behind, trying to get a low-angle shot of something down Pennsylvania Avenue, which turned out to be a line a riot police with shields and batons out. I wondered if maybe we were being kettled. Then everyone started to run very fast away from the scene. There was that feet-beating sounds and otherwise silence, feeling like all higher frequencies have been sucked away; I pedaled up 17th Street, amazingly not hit by or hitting anyone — as happens in car spin-outs or wrecks, every movement became super clear; a couple of kids halting to avoid a collision with me happened at half-speed. I aimed toward H Street, but there were cops there, too —
“Hold up hold up hold up!” a girl screamed. Suddenly everyone stopped. The higher frequencies returned; there was nervous, angry chatter; the protest space backfilled. And I stood there with my hair standing up, in full flashback to Tompkins Square 1988, when the mounted police suddenly charged down Avenue A. I carefully found my way out.
I circled the perimeter and then, as if by summons, the protestors started dispersing, down 17th Street to Constitution going east. They carried themselves as if undefeated but not satisfied either — a tactical, not a final retreat. They passed the Museum of African American History and the food trucks parked outside honked in appreciation:
That theme was picked up by the part of the BLM caravan protest I came across on my way home: A flotilla of cars sporting Black Lives Matter signs had crowded up 8th Street. There were people in doorways and on the streets cheering them and holding up signs, and other cars honking — those going the other way in appreciation, the ones going the same way in frustration because they neither expected or wanted to be stuck in a traffic jam. The caravan protesters, who showed no sign of having smashed or occupied anything, were cheerful and I would say positive, even when their signs said “ACAB” and “Abolish police.” Because why shouldn’t they be? They knew the town was with them.
I thought about that as I saw the news later about further violent clashes on Saturday night and Sunday. I doubt many Washingtonians are in favor of vandalism. But I doubt graffiti on government buildings and smashed cop cars are very high on their list of concerns, either. There’s a lot of black people here and they’re under no illusions about what's happening, nor about whose side the cops are on, and many of the rest of us are catching on. So the Rod Drehers and Dan McLaughlins and all the other wingnut wackoffs will just have to find someone else to lecture on law and order. As with Trump, I doubt even they expect anyone to believe their pretense at giving a shit about George Floyd.
I’ll tell you something else. I know the stuffed shirts and talking heads are saying this will make people more rightwing and draw them to the Republicans. But I’d say the fascists have already got on board all the citizens they’re going to get. The people who say we must have lawnorder were saying it when Spiro Agnew was in office. They’re going nowhere but the graveyard. The rest of us are getting a chance to say where we stand on the real issue, which is not Trump’s Antifa bullshit but rather whether we wouldn’t prefer to have the decent and just country that he and his scumbag friends have been telling us we can’t have. And we also know that the fire and smoke all around us means we’d better at least try.