WASHINGTON — Official violence creeps up before it explodes.
From my vantage point at the barricade between protesters and Lafayette Square, just north of the White House and a hair west of 16th Street, I could see and feel it moving forward with military precision. Even if I didn’t realize at the time that the objective would later turn out to be a presidential photo-op.
Members of the Washington, D.C., National Guard marched up to the front line, joining the ranks of U.S. Park Police and law enforcement officers from various federal agencies to form a wall.
They were all wearing riot gear. But there was no riot.
Around 6:10 p.m., Attorney General Bill Barr, who has repeatedly portrayed the president’s critics as dangerous saboteurs of the government, walked briskly between the lines of the interagency police force. But no one was threatening the police. It was an entirely peaceful protest, the kind that occurs in Washington without incident, seemingly every day.
The dissonance between the show of civil obedience — a peaceable assembly petitioning its government for a redress of grievances — and the display of state power was unnerving. It wasn’t exactly tanks in Tiananmen Square, but the potential for the armed troops to take what the military likes to call “kinetic” action against a docile crowd grew by the minute.
I remembered I had seen an email about the president delivering a speech on the civil unrest around the country.
“Guys,” I wrote to my editors, “there’s such a build-up right now I think POTUS might be speaking from here.”
Colleagues near me quickly agreed there was no way that was going to happen.
“From the Rose Garden,” one of my editors wrote back.
“At 6:30,” another wrote.
Trump’s going to unleash this force as he speaks, I thought. That’s his style.
I shared the thought with my colleagues on the ground, who had been putting themselves in harm’s way to report on the protests — and rioting — for a few days. On a conference call earlier in the day, Trump had called governors “weak” for not using more force to crack down in their states. He would want a demonstration of his machismo to accompany his remarks.
My colleagues were more receptive to this idea than the notion that Trump wanted to leave the White House to deliver his speech from Lafayette Square.
At some point, I realized I didn’t have anything yet in my notebook about the sentiments of the crowd and that I might be running out of time to interview people. I spoke to Alisha Earle, a 43-year-old longtime Washington resident who still refers to South Carolina as her home state. She said it was her second day of protesting. She hadn’t come out every day because she wasn’t “with” the looting going on in the city.
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“I understand it, but I’m not with it,” she said. She said she hoped that the protests would draw attention to injustice the way that broadcasts of police abuse of black children in Birmingham, Alabama, who were attacked with fire hoses and dogs in 1963 helped sway public opinion toward new civil rights laws.
“We’re tired,” she said, adding that she felt compelled to demonstrate, despite her discomfort with looting and rioting, to honor 400 years of oppression, civil rights activists, her grandparents and future generations of her family. People who focus on the looting rather than the injustice “might be part of the problem,” she said.
Then the troops in Lafayette Square advanced toward the barricade. They were so close I could see the fear in the eyes of one young police officer through the face-shield attached to his bright blue helmet. And I could see anticipation, perhaps even excitement, in the eyes of others. After a few minutes they moved back a hundred feet or so.
I had no idea at the time that Trump would praise peaceful protests as he was crushing one less than two blocks from where he stood, and all for a political purpose.
Someone announced over a loudspeaker that the city’s curfew — 7 p.m. — was approaching and the crowd would be hit with force if it didn’t disperse on its own. But few could hear the warning clearly. A Park Police helicopter’s blades chopped loudly through the air overhead. The crowd chanted for officers to “take a knee” to show solidarity with the cause of ending the extrajudicial police killings of African Americans.
When members of the National Guard stepped back from their line and fell to a knee, the protesters cheered. But they had only lowered their profiles so they could put on gas masks.
It seemed obvious that the peaceful crowd would be hit with a frontal assault. But the federal authorities were a decoy.
That’s to your left, it’s the East side of H Street. Not a gunshot. Not a firecracker. What does a “flashbang” sound like?
People began running toward me.
There’s smoke. Police on horses. Are those D.C. police? Don’t get caught between the crowd and the cops. Is this the day they start firing into crowds with real bullets?
I moved with purpose, at a trot, as I tried not to outpace the crowd moving in front of me while looking back to take in what I could for reporting purposes.
We were driven by police on horses and foot up 17th Street. I felt something hot hit my lower leg, like a baby spark. What is that? Do rubber bullets have shrapnel? Maybe a remnant from a “flashbang?”
Whatever it was, it amounted to a sensation rather than pain. But I was afraid. I’ve covered countless events with larger crowds and never felt real fear for my safety — particularly not from the military or law enforcement.
This kind of aggression is why the protests are happening. Many law-abiding Americans have more to fear from authorities than from criminals.
I moved farther back, toward the periphery of a group of protesters who had stopped running when the police stopped chasing, halfway between H and I streets on 17th.
Don’t get pinned down in an area where arrests are being made because of curfew violations. Wait, it’s still not 7 p.m. Try to find someone to talk to about what just happened.
A young white woman cried as she leaned against a young black man on the I Street sidewalk between 17th and 18th Streets. I approached and asked if she wanted to talk. They politely declined. Around the corner, protesters knelt in the face of a police force, fists raised in the air.
Then my editors told me the president was speaking from outside St. John’s, the “church of presidents,” where a fire had been set in the basement the day before. As I had arrived a little more than an hour earlier, St. John’s parishioners were handing out food and water to protesters. They understood the difference between peaceful protests for justice and criminal actors who use the unrest as a cover to loot and vandalize.
Trump was blurring that line, even as he claimed to support nonviolent protest.
Forget what he is saying. He is showing that it doesn’t matter whether people are protesting peacefully or rioting, he will meet both with the full force of the state.
I eventually found two women holding signs and walking down 17th Street toward K Street, which is known as the home of lobbying — the center of “the swamp.” Two small armored military vehicles sat at the corner. They identified themselves as veterans of the Army and the Air Force, respectively.
“We have a right to peacefully protest,” said the Army veteran, who asked that her name not be published out of fear of retribution from co-workers who support the president. “This is America. … This is bull—-.”
It’s America, I thought, but it’s a different America.