Thousands of demonstrators fanned out on streets throughout Washington, D.C. for the largest day of protests since the death of George Floyd.
The intersection of 16 & H streets near the White House — the site of volatile confrontations earlier this week — instead was peaceful, as a diversity of marchers shouted Floyd’s name and other protest chants. Instead of one organized march, the day saw different groups break away to walk from the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial.
The fence that now separates the intersection from Lafayette Square Park is now dotted with signs and messages from demonstrators, including one that read, “Defund MPD,” referring to the city’s Metropolitan Police Department.
A smattering of officers were on the other side in the park — a more subdued presence in contrast to the line up of authorities in riot gear from earlier in the week. But the White House itself is now separated by fencing and concrete barriers, stretching a block or more on each side, and even extending to Constitution Avenue to the south.
Crowds packed onto 16th Street for blocks, at times breaking out in dance and song. At the order of Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted in large yellow letters down 16th street to end at H Street, while the corner of 16th and I streets was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. The Motion Picture Association, which is located at the intersection, placed “Black Lives Matter” posters on its boarded up windows.
Bowser spoke to demonstrators briefly on Saturday, chiding the Trump administration for clearing away protesters in a chaotic clash on Monday, followed by the president’s walk across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church, where he held up a Bible for camera.
“If you are like me, on Monday, you saw something that you hoped you would never see in the United States of America: Federal police moving on American people, peacefully protesting in front of the People’s House,” Bowser said.
She added, “If he can take over Washington, D.C., he can come for any state and none of us will be safe. So today we pushed the Army away from our city. Our soldiers should not be treated that way, should not be asked to move on American citizens.”
On Saturday, groups gathered at St. John’s to sit down or snap photos. At the front of the church, near where Trump stood just a few days earlier, one man dressed up as the Holy Bible, and waved a sign that read, “Use Me Not For Your Bigotry.”
Nearby, Basil Abdul Khabir, 57, of Washington, sat near the boarded up front entrance of the Hay Adams Hotel — one of the toniest in the city — and handed out crackers, cookies and water, a gesture to honor his deceased wife, he said.
“I think it is beautiful,” he said of the scene. “I think it is a good spirit that is going on. It is a good positive energy that is flowing through the crowd. We seem like a socialist country today, because everybody is out here helping one another. Everybody is out here passing out stuff, feeding people, being hospitable to one another. Everybody is on their best manners. Everybody is being very cautious and overly manner-able.”
He said that get grew up as a “militant young guy,” but that his father was involved in the 1963 March on Washington, as he worked for the company that made the signs for the event.
Khabir said that the recent protests gave him hope that voices are being heard, but he doubted that significant change would not happen without more tumult.
“What I am seeing is Dr. King’s dream and Malcolm X’s message come through, because Malcolm X’s message was that ‘By any means necessary,’ and Dr. King’s message was that we would see white kids and black kids hand in hand,” he said. “And that’s what we said.”
Near the fence along Lafayette Park, there was a heated argument between some demonstrators and a woman with a bullhorn holding a sign that read, “Democrats use Black lives to get votes.” But the situation did not escalate, after a man stood in the middle of the crowd and said it was “a waste of energy, a waste of time,” to argue with her, and told them to focus on the November election.
Other marchers included a group of medical professionals and students, calling themselves the White Coats for Black lives, a bit of a reminder that the protests are taking place in the middle of a pandemic. Most of the demonstrators throughout the city wore masks, but six-feet social distancing was difficult.
Ayah Davis-Karim, 49, of Oakton, VA, broke away from a stream of demonstrators making their way along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Asked why she felt it was important to come out on a hot day, she said, “We’re tired. I’m the mother for four black boys and one black girl,” said “When is it going to end? They are scared to go out. They are scared to interact with police. They’re asking, ‘Am I next?”
She added, “My eldest is 23, and my youngest is 10, and my youngest sent us a graphic the other day with all these names of black people who died as a result of police brutality. And it just broke everyone’s heart because it was like, he’s so young for that to be on his mind.”
Davis-Karim held a sign with the message of “We Built This” and an image of the American flag with the Stars and Stripes taking on the colors of the Black liberation flag.
“Clearly this country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, on stolen land, and I just want to remind people when we say, ‘Black Lives Matter,” we have just as much if not more right in the say of how this country is run. The colors are the color of the Black liberation flag, and I just wanted to stress that we want freedom and we want it here in America.”
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