Many of the media images at Lafayette Square Park in Washington, D.C. on Sunday night were of fires, vandalism and looting, and reporters being shoved and struck by rubber bullets.
By the time that the White House turned off its exterior lights around midnight, the metaphors went flying and the impression may have been that the nation’s capital was in a kind of inferno. It didn’t help that a photo of a large fire around the nearly Washington Monument circulated on social media. It was actually from the TV series Designated Survivor.
On Monday at noon, though, there was a momentary sense of calm at the focal point of the protests, at the intersection of H and 16th streets.
Businesses were boarding up their windows, including the newly renovated building that houses the Motion Picture Association and, across the street, the AFL-CIO headquarters, where the lobby was torched. Crews began to the process of removing some of the graffiti spread onto a great deal of the first floor of the Hay-Adams Hotel, one of the city’s most expensive. Many of the onlookers found themselves drawn to the charred remains of a restroom in the park.
As great and disturbing as the destruction was, it was not apocalyptic, a bit of context that was not lost on some of the demonstrators who were out Monday. There has already been criticism that media outlets have conflated peaceful protests of the death of George Floyd, many of which have drawn a diverse array of demonstrators, to the social anarchy across the country, much of which has played out at night.
“I feel like a lot of the news has been depicting the more violent part of the protests, but they don’t show the more peaceful parts peaceful efforts like this,” said Kayla Cougias, 17, of Arlington, VA, as she joined with several dozen others Monday.
They did form a line in a crosswalk across H Street, holding up signs reading “Silence Promotes Violence” and “When Is Black Going To Be The New Black?” but they returned to the sidewalk once the light turned green so as to not stop traffic.
“African Americans shouldn’t have to be scared of the authority of the country, and I think we all need to be out here to protect those rights, because obviously it hasn’t worked so far with everything that has been going on,” Cougias said. “I think that the more people that participate, the more effective it can be.”
At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany suggested that “despite the horrific scenes that we have seen played throughout the media, there’s some things that we haven’t seen.” Then she showed a video of scenes of law enforcement interacting peacefully with protesters, in one case a Shreveport, LA, police officer consoling and hugging a demonstrator who could not stop crying.
“It’s been beautiful to watch, although those images have not been played all that often,” she said.
Not by her boss. Through the weekend, he lashed out on Twitter, sometimes in two- or three-words bursts. “LAW & ORDER!” “STRENGTH!” “Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
In a call with governors Monday, Trump berated them for not getting their states under control and told them of the unrest, “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time.” By late afternoon at Lafayette Park, as crowds increased, law enforcement appeared in full riot gear.
Andrea Pedemonte, 18, of Northern Virginia, said that “there is no doubt that towards the evening, these events can get a bit dangerous. It was all over the news. Corona was the biggest thing last week and now this is all over every single media platform so it’s important to exercise caution and to make sure you are with the right people and doing the right thing.”
She said that her mother came to the U.S. as an immigrant and recalls the Latasha Harlins and Rodney King riots in 1992.
“It’s really hard to describe it a 100%, it’s just that I don’t get how this is still a problem. It’s 2020,” she said, as she held a sign with a picture of Floyd and the words “I can’t breathe.”
As precarious as the situation got on Sunday evening, Pedemonte believes that it’s still safe to show up. “I would urge people to just come out here and do the right thing. You don’t need to subject yourself to the violence, the crimes. There are certain things I don’t agree with that is happening during these times — the looting and stealing and all that. But I actually feel complete fine and safe here. It’s a lovely crowd. There’s very beautiful people here, who are all here. A man earlier was just saying that we have to support one another to take care of one another.”
Across the street, Rev. Jane Hague of St. John’s Church, one of the most historic structures in Lafayette Square, answered queries from passersby about the status of the building. For a time on Sunday evening, social media posts reported that the building, known as the Church of the Presidents, was engulfed in flames. In fact, it was a small fire in the parish house basement, but was contained to the nursery — perhaps started when someone threw a firebomb inside.
Hague said that it was “terrifying” to watch the news reports, and was obviously relieved that the church was spared, “for now.”
The church continues to support the call for racial justice. Next to Hague was a bin with the label: “Free water and prayer.”