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George Floyd DC Protest
Police stand guard during Monday's peaceful demonstration in Washington, DC Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

D.C.’s 16th & H: Network Reporters Talk About Covering A “Surreal” Week Of Protests Near The White House

The TV network coverage at the corner H and 16th streets near Lafayette Square Park in Washington, D.C. this week went from late-night shots of buildings on fire to protesters fleeing police on horseback, then a robust militaristic buildup, and then hundreds of peaceful demonstrators singing, in unison, Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

By Friday, the intersection had taken on the air of a street fair, the words BLACK LIVES MATTER were painted down 16th to end at the corner.

The protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd have produced impactful moments across the country, but a focal point has been this spot, within view of the White House, and network reporters who have been there this a week describe it as disconcerting, surreal and hopeful. Their coverage continues on Saturday, when the largest crowds yet are expected to show up for demonstrations.

Donald Trump Bible
Donald Trump poses with a bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday in DC Shutterstock

Perhaps no other night drew the attention like Monday, when police cleared out hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas and smoke bombs in advance of President Donald Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church, where he held up a Bible for a camera photo op. It remains one of the most contentious moments of the week, as the White House argues that police were provoked by projectiles thrown their way, while many reporters said that the demonstrations were peaceful.

In separate interviews, Deadline talked with five correspondents at the scene this week — CNN’s Alexander Marquardt, ABC News’ Rachel Scott, MSNBC’s Garrett Haake, Fox News’ Kevin Corke and CBS News’ Kris Van Cleave — about how they covered the story and what they saw.

Sunday: “The church is on fire”

Buildings are damaged and fires are set, most prominently to a basement section of St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the “church of the presidents.”

MARQUARDT: There’s a public toilet on the northern edge of the park, and that appeared to be where more of the things were being thrown at police. And then at one moment right around 10 o’clock, there was a fire set at the base of it. And that’s when I thought to myself, “OK, things are starting to get worse.” The wheels are starting to come off, and then behind that on H Street, right outside the church was a huge fire. People were ripping branches off of trees and throwing them into the fire and kind of dancing around the fire. And that’s really the moment that we knew that things were about to get worse.

CORKE: We were basically set up for a live shot. That particular night, you got a sense that people were just bent on breaking things and knocking out glass, and so when I saw them set fire to the restroom facility across the street, we moved across the street, across H Street, for safety. And then just behind me, I was literally at the door, behind me people started breaking glass. That happens. I knew that was going on all over. Then someone yelled, “Get off the church. It’s on fire.” I turned around, and I saw the orange glow from the windows. So [photojournalist] Mark Bautista and I walked over to see what was happening. Sure enough, we opened that door. You saw a big hole in the glass, which someone had smashed with a hammer, and … we walked right into that area and you could see flames just literally crawling up the wall in a corner, and lots of toys, plastic melting, lots of smoke. It was a lot hotter than it looked. So we just got good pictures and got the heck out of there.

HAAKE: We were standing right in front of it, and at the time there were no visible flames anywhere. You are looking at the church itself. That’s right about the time that we got pushed back. While there were fire alarms going off at that point, there wasn’t anything visible to where we were on the street before we had to clear out of the street.

CORKE: I didn’t see who did it. I can just tell you that when I heard people yell, “The church is on fire,” I turned to my left, and running up the stairs away from the room where there was a fire, a bunch of kids, they looked like they were 20 years old, four or five of them running. You just don’t know. They just looked like they were young skinny kids with hammers, and I don’t know who said what, but it sure did go up quickly.

That was intense not just because this is what I observed all night, breaking things and setting fires. But what really got me was the church — it is historic, and there are ways to be heard without just destroying things. It was really awful. For me personally, it was awful because I love this town, and I love history so seeing that thing happen was really sad. But you know, you stuff your emotions in a box, and you can do the job, and that’s what we did.

[Firefighters arrived in time to put out the fire before it spread to the main structure. Haake also was struck that evening, while he was live on air, by what appeared to be a rubber bullet. Later in the week, he said, “I have a pretty nice color bruise today.”]

Police move demonstrators away from St. John’s Church on Monday Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

Monday: “Back up, back up, back up”

Police in the park move in to clear protesters from the area, as Trump gives a speech in the Rose Garden.

MARQUARDT: I have been out there for several days, watching the landscape change of the different types of law enforcement in the park, and of course protesters had been up against that northern edge of the park for several days. And you would watch these different types of officers switch out, whether it was D.C. National Guard or Park Police or Secret Service, and so we got used to the flow. And then at that moment [around 6 PM] I saw guys in suits, and that was strange. So it looked like a different kind of security detail, and then we spotted [Attorney General] Bill Barr. I was with our White House cameraman Peter Morris, who immediately trained his camera on Barr and we watched him, walking along walking through [with the] officers. As many others commented on our air, it was almost like a general surveilling his troops.

So it did feel like something was going to happen. And then we got word that the President was about to make a statement, and around the same time, the officers in the park, D.C. National Guard, the Park Police, the Secret Service, had moved their positions from farther away from the fences, right up to face the protesters. And so we knew something was afoot, and the protesters started to get a little jittery. And then, at 6:35, this crackdown started.

VAN CLEAVE: We had gotten into position for the CBS Evening News at about 6 o’clock, right at the corner right across 16th from the Hay Adams [Hotel]. Between 6 and 6:30, you could feel tension rising and from where I was standing. You couldn’t see law enforcement, but I remember continuing to look around because there would be a couple times to the crowd would start to move towards us sort of a like a wave, as though something had happened. And that sort of raised my mind that things were tensing up, but it wasn’t clear why. I wasn’t seeing anything from where I was, and there were no announcements that we could hear from our location, from law enforcement. And then it was about 6:35, just shortly after we finished our Evening News hit, the flash bangs started, the crowd started running, and here came the police in the riot shields right at them.

HAAKE: The protest on Monday had been entirely peaceful. It was sort of your standard operating protest. People were chanting and they were yelling and they were taking knees. They were a mixture of old and young, and it was really kind of an entirely peaceful moment. I am pretty tall, and I could see kind of over the heads of people that mounted police were out in the street on H Street. And that was the first time I had seen at any point that mounted officers were out in the street. And before you know it, people were running past us, and that is one of the most scary dangerous things, this feeling of a stampede, where people in the front, along that line, which became a line in the middle of the street on H Street, are just trying to run. They are fleeing. They are knocking people down.

Officers are advancing up the street. They are firing off flash bangs. There are officers along the fence line that are shooting those pepper balls into the crowd and at individuals, who I guess think [are] some kind of a threat. They are just retreating in the face of mounted police and police with shields and other running people. They are shooting smoke canisters. They are shooting tear gas, all of this stuff out into the street, and it was just an incredibly panicked moment.

CORKE: [The protesters] would run, and when the police would stop advancing, people would stop and they would sort of start coming back. It was sort of like a wave of people that would go back out to sea. And then they’d run again. So the first time they ran, I thought, “Well maybe they will go right by us, we’re press.” Then I heard something hit. I thought it was a rock. Then something else hit. And then something went off my shoulder and I flinched. I was shooting a prerecorded standup for a package, and I flinch and I said, “We’ve got to get out of here.” And my photographer and my security detail, in unison, we literally turned around and started moving fast, backwards, mind you. But we were moving quickly.

NBC News’ Garrett HaakeMy producer is screaming for me to back up, and the president in the other ear is giving a speech about law and order in the Rose Garden…

HAAKE: It was particularly surreal because I had my IFB [earpiece] in, so in my right ear, I am hearing the president’s speech. And I am hearing him talk about being a law-and-order president and standing with all peaceful protests, and in my left ear my producer is standing next to me, and she is screaming at me, “Go back. Back up, back up, back up.” So I have one hand on my camera guy. I’m trying to help him backpedal and shoot at the same time. My producer is screaming for me to back up, and the president in the other ear is giving a speech about law and order in the Rose Garden as we are watching all this happen.

MARQUARDT: We immediately put on our gas masks, because smoke started to fill the air. We were under the scaffolding on the on the northern side of the street. We had a very adept security team with us that was pulling us back while letting us do our jobs. I was essentially tethered to Peter Morris, our photojournalist, so that he could keep filming. And you saw those live pictures on the air, but then also at times I could jump in front of the camera and tell the viewers what was going on. So we tried to stay back so we weren’t in the direct line of fire, but close enough so that we could see what was going on.

SCOTT: It was a powerful image that I saw of people kneeling down. As the line of police officers formed with their shields, and [the protesters] had their hands up and they were shouting, they were chanting, “Don’t shoot.” They were chanting the name of George Floyd. Once tensions did escalate, it was just chaos, with people running trying to get out of the area and trying to move away people dousing out their eyes.

HAAKE: So as we got [pushed back toward] Connecticut Avenue, that was for me where the gas was most severe. That was when I had to put my gas mask on. People were washing out their eyes and having a hard time, coughing and breathing and all that.

It was weird because we all were wearing coronavirus masks. At one point I just ripped my coronavirus mask off my face so I could get my gas mask snug around my face enough that it would work. And that really does clear out pretty quickly. You take a couple of deep breaths through that and you could breathe a lot better. The people around me were washing out their eyes. They were washing out their faces. People were coughing. I have had a little bit of a persistent cough since then, and you sort of wonder what I’m still breathing in and out.

MARQUARDT: One of the most shocking scenes that I saw was a middle aged man … who had been caught in what looked like an alcove of a building, and the forces kept firing on him from these guns that look like paintball guns. Even though he was clearly in distress he was clutching his chest and protesters rushed forward to grab him still under a hail of fire, to bring him back.

SCOTT: All I could see were peaceful protesters. I did not see any projectiles being thrown at any of the police officers from my vantage point. So what I saw were people with their hands up, screaming “Don’t shoot.”

MARQUARDT: The entire time I was out there, which was almost four hours before the crackdown started, it was an entirely peaceful protest. I was remarking to my team around me how peaceful it was, because in days prior we had seen a lot more projectiles thrown at the police, and I kept turning to my team to say, “Have you seen anything?” Because I haven’t seen anything, and they said, “No we haven’t seen anything.” No water bottles. No eggs. No milk, like days prior. You know all this stuff had been thrown at them, they didn’t really react… So, when they did react on Monday it was really unexpected. And it was really swift, and we didn’t hear any sort of loud public warning over a loudspeaker for everyone to clear out. This was 25 minutes before the curfew.

CORKE: People definitely were throwing bottles. That has been happening the entire time we have been here. Usually [the police officers] ignore them. Sometime they will hit the guys in the [tactical] gear and they have their shields up and the bottles bounce off. We’ve seen that throughout the time I have been here. I’ve been here all week long, but that particular day, yep, definitely, people were throwing bottles. I saw at least two, maybe three, but I didn’t think much of it because that’s kind of been the thing. It only takes one kid to take a bottle and throw it, when everyone else is being fine, but it’s that one bottle. I don’t know if that’s really why this escalated. It seems to me like that has been going on the entire time, but I wasn’t on their side [of the fence]. I just saw a couple before it all broke out.

MARQUARDT: They basically did this maneuver on I street that encircled a large group of protesters, including press, an in a kind of lasso type move. And they let the press out because we are allowed to be out after curfew. The rest of the protesters, I don’t know if they’re arrested in the end, but they were certainly detained. And that kind of spoke to the cooperation between the local law enforcement and the federal law enforcement, but it was clear that that was a night of significantly heightened tension after the crackdown.

ABC News’ Rachel ScottAs a Black journalist, I’m often confused as a protester. And there are these moments where I have to reach for my badge to show my ABC News ID, and it’s almost as if I’m being pulled over.

SCOTT: As a Black American, my parents have always taught me, “You know when you get pulled over by the police, you want to make sure that they can see your hands. You want to make sure that you’re narrating your movements, letting them know when you’re going to reach for your license. This way they don’t think that you’re reaching for anything else.” And on that day that tensions escalated, we were boxed in by police with the protesters [as they were pushed back toward Connecticut Avenue]. As a Black journalist, I’m often confused as a protester. And there are these moments where I have to reach for my badge to show my ABC News ID, and it’s almost as if I’m being pulled over. And I have to explain that my hands are out, but I’m gonna reach for my badge. I’m with the media with ABC News, but I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m reaching for something else, especially in those tense moments.
MARQUARDT: Later in the evening, we were at Farragut Square, which seemed entirely peaceful, entirely quiet. I was on the phone with my bosses, saying that things had calmed down, that we had retreated to an area that we had felt was safe. And, lo and behold, a police car came around the corner and started firing a canister of some sort, into Farragut Square to further clear people out.

Tuesday: The crowds are back 

The protests continue as the police presence is built up around the White House.

HAAKE: I think there was much of an anti-Trump element that came out in D.C. People were aghast at how the federal government had handled clearing that park on Monday, and I think that galvanized a part of D.C. that might not have otherwise felt that this was their protest or this was their fight. All of the sudden you saw a different set of people coming out to complement the protesters who were already there.

Lafayette Park, with the White House in the background, on Tuesday Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

MARQUARDT: It had been entirely peaceful until around 1 AM, when some agitators, and that’s what they were, started rocking the fence [at Lafayette Park] violently, and so the forces inside the park responded, and they started spraying pepper spray. And it was fairly obvious [that] we were not with the protesters, and that we were press, that we had a camera and a microphone, and we were separated from the main protest pack. And we were fired with that pepper spray. We had our gas masks on so it didn’t irritate our faces. I got some of my arm for a couple hours. After that, it was burning my arm, kind of like Icy Hot. When things start getting fired at us, of course there is a fear that we are going to get hit. But there is also a natural feeling that kicks in of, “You know, we have got to cover this and narrate what’s going on.”

VAN CLEAVE: You look at some of these instances where we have seen our crew’s interactions with police during tense moments, the Australian crew that was roughed up [on Monday night], that it does appear that this sense of journalist as neutral observer is not being viewed that way. We had a demonstrator come up to us with a can of red spray paint and spray paint my photographer’s lens. He walked right up to him, sprayed the lens and kept walking. When you have a large group of people, you are always going to have some folks that don’t like what you’re doing. We sort of stand out and we are visible. But because we’re visible, usually the police respect the fact that we’re there as an observer. It feels like that something is changed right now, in how journalists are being treated. I’ve covered a lot of demonstrations, some where we’ve not felt the most welcomed either by demonstrators or by the police.

Wednesday: Singing in the streets

The crowds expand up 16th street, with protesters singing as they are face to face with an increasingly militarized presence.

HAAKE: [Wednesday] specifically was the first day that I felt that there was a certain element of joy and positivity among the protesters, especially later in the evening, after the announcement of the arrests of these other officers [involved in the George Floyd case]. I think there was a sense among some of the protesters that this was working, and at least to some degree they were breaking through in some meaningful way.

SCOTT: You had thousands of people, a sea of protesters taking a knee moments of silence among the crowd of thousands. It was pretty powerful. These protesters believe that there is strength in numbers. We had those tense clashes and tense exchanges on the same exact street right in front of Lafayette Park, just a day or two before. And the next day, these protesters came right back out. There were even more people. And there was an effort, a concerted effort to make sure that it remained peaceful and it remained calm.

Police officers stand on guard outside St. John’s Episcopal Church on Wednesday Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

VAN CLEAVE: The diversity and variety of people who came to be part of the demonstration, particularly during a pandemic, really stood out to me. You had senior senior citizens, down to very small children. People with dogs, and I found that generally when people bring their pets and small children, they are not expecting it to be violent.

I’ve never covered a protest in a large demonstration before where protesters showed up with snacks. But people were coming in with pallets of water and food. I have never seen a protest catered before.

HAAKE: Every other day up to this point, there has been some kind fencing, some kind of barricade between the protesters and federal law enforcement. So whether it was just a bike rack or several bike racks, or that very large fence that the White House had installed on Monday night, there has always been that barrier. Then [on Wednesday] federal officers were right out in the street, just literally nose to nose with the protesters all day long. Frankly that made me a little bit nervous going into the day, but there was no altercation.

VAN CLEAVE: There was a lot more military, really heavily armed, but with less than lethal equipment, but tear gas launchers and flash bang grenades. You had a row of behind it, a couple of rows of federal law enforcement, and behind that you had large military vehicles, and then behind that you had a fence at Lafayette Park, and then beyond that you would have all the fortifications that are normally at the White House. It just seemed almost begging for there to be a confrontation, when you’re putting the National Guard and demonstrators a couple feet apart.

MARQUARDT: You name the agency and they are out there. Really the most remarkable one for me, that just really exemplified how many different types of forces had poured into the streets of D.C., was the Bureau of Prisons. They had officers from what they called Special Operations Response Teams, and we saw a number of officers out there with T-shirts that had the Texas flag on them.

SCOTT: The White House was built by slaves, and outside you hear chants of “Black Lives Matter.” These people don’t want to be pushed further away from their home, the White House. They chant, “Our house.” They chant, “Our streets.” And so every day, there is a new barrier. Every day, they are pushed back an extra block, and they still turn out in numbers. But for them, they think that the president is missing the point here. They’re trying to send this message as loudly as they can, but they’re still being pushed back, block by block, away from the people’s house.

Thursday: George Floyd’s memorial

Demonstrators pause for eight minutes, 45 seconds

MARQUARDT: One of the most remarkable scenes that I saw was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. There’s a crowd of, I would say, two to three thousand mostly young people, college, high school age, who knelt down quietly for eight minutes and 45 seconds, and then they marched quietly to the Capitol.

SCOTT: You had hundreds of protesters taking a knee, and they started with the name of George Floyd, and then they went down the list of dozens of other black lives that have been taken at the hands of police. And that really strikes to the heart of this movement. It is not just the killing of one black man. That is the boiling point. This is largely about the injustices the racial and justices in this country.

People have asked me, “When when do you think this is going to stop? Do you think it’s going to stop after the memorial? Do you think it will stop after the funeral?” The protesters I talked to here say this is not going to stop until they actually see change. So they will continue to march, they will continue to be out here, and they will continue to shed light on the injustices that they’re seeing.

Covering during the Pandemic

MARQUARDT: It’s just remarkable. I was so well behaved in terms of quarantine. I live with my girlfriend and we basically cut ourselves off, just like so many people. And then to go into these large crowds on a dime like that. It was very jarring at first. It’s been heartening to see how many people out there are wearing masks. Is it 100%? Definitely not. There are definitely times when I’m looking around thinking, “I would really wish more people were wearing their masks.”

VAN CLEAVE: It’s not lost on our crew that we are, for the first time in a very long time, we are around a lot of people … People who are coming out to the protests are doing do at some risk to themselves, above and beyond the police-protester tension. I that that speaks to how this is resonating with people across the board.

The biggest question I have as a journalist, coming out of these protests, is what does that do to the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic? Are we going to see a lot more people get sick, because they were out demonstrating? I think that’s one of these big sort of questions we’re all waiting to see.

How it has been covered

HAAKE: Ironically cable news is actually kind of great at this during the course of the day, because if I’m doing hit every hour, I can describe how these things change. They’re organic. So it really is just a constantly evolving thing, which I think speaks to some of the criticism of the coverage. I think there are a lot of challenges in terms of, you want to get the tone exactly right. And everybody’s out there for a different reason. And some people are particularly angry about George Floyd. Some people are particularly angry about this long-term legacy of police violence. Some people are particularly angry at the president, and the decision to clear that park. And so it’s very hard to speak for a thousand people in a minute and a half long shot.

MARQUARDT: I’ve had incredible moments of people coming up to me to say, ‘You know, we came down from New Jersey, from New York, to Washington D.C. to protest,’ because they felt like this was a much more important and symbolic place to protest at this moment. So it has been incredible to be in the middle of it and to witness it, it’s been incredible to cover this as a journalist.

CBS News’ Kris Van CleaveI was in Ferguson. I was in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. I have been a reporter in D.C. for almost 14 years. I have done a lot of these. What is different, I think is certainly the national scale of this, the same days and days of protest.

VAN CLEAVE: I was in Ferguson. I was in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. I have been a reporter in D.C. for almost 14 years. I have done a lot of these. What is different, I think is certainly the national scale of this, the same days and days of protest.

SCOTT: Although we have seen these tense and violent moments, we have seen parts of D.C. go up in flames, there is an effort to keep these protests peaceful. And also, it is a community of strangers. Just yesterday I was talking to two young white men that brought their station wagon over and they were passing out free water and snacks to protesters. They called themselves part of the “outfield team.” They didn’t feel comfortable shouting and chanting and holding up signs, but they did feel comfortable falling back, and making sure that people who want their voices heard had enough food and fuel and water in order to do that.

CORKE: I grew up in the projects. I didn’t live there the whole time I was growing up, but on three separate occasions I did. So when people ask, “Can you understand the fear and the anger when there’s a perception of unequal justice?” Yes, I understand, because I’ve lived in communities where this is a real belief and a real problem.

So when I see what’s happening, I personally always try to remind myself of the compassion I bring with me based on my personal experience, bring that to your reporting. Be fair. Be thinking about how you approach people, and use that to judge the temperature in the room. When I’m out here doing my job, I don’t have time to sort of process everything. Because I’m a warrior on the job. But there are moments when you get a break, when it’s a little bit more quiet, where you say to yourself, “You know, I really hope the best for all people, but in particular for the Washington community, because this town has been through it, man.”

Black Lives Matter DC
“Black Lives Matter” was painted on the pavement of 16th Street near the White House Carlos Vilas Delgado/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

SCOTT: When I hear these stories of racism, they resonate with me because I see my own experience in some of these protesters. A lot of it reminds me of experiences of my Black brother, my Black father, and what they have experienced in America, and the fear that they have, and the fear that I have for them, quite frankly, as being black men in this country.

My dad’s also [in the] LAPD, so I am a daughter of a police officer, and I have nothing but respect for the police. And I think there are really tough moments to watch, when you’re watching protesters call some of these minority police officers “sellouts.” Use profanity against them. Call them names. Stand there and scream in their face for hours. I think that people like my father, who grew up in the Bronx projects, he wanted to become a police officer because he wanted in part to be part of the change in the systems. And so it’s hard to watch when you have people that are taking out their pain about the system on the individual who is just standing right in front of them. But I do certainly see I see myself in the stories of many of these protesters.

For every person who is out here, we have thousands of people, every single person has a story. And so the reason why they’re out here, the reason why they’re gathering in front of the White House, is they want the president to listen to their own stories. I said that the killing of George Floyd was just a boiling point. For them it represents a pattern of racial inequality in this country. It represents what many of them had experienced. They have felt like America has had its knee on their necks for decades.

CORKE: [This week the protesters] marched. They sang. They walked. … If that is where we are in the country right now on this issue, that is a huge, huge advancement compared to last week. And the healing process takes time. Never forget that. But I think everybody is ready to heal. I hope.

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