Election Night in the Heart of the Capital: Proud Boys, Parties, and Protest

Timothy Denevi Runs Into All the Best People in Washington, DC

We began the evening by walking to the White House. It was already after sunset, the sky over the capital retaining the color of the city beneath it, a pale cloudless night, the air thin and clear with wind.

The crowd there was already dense. We dispersed into it. North of Lafayette Square, where the words “Black Lives Matter Plaza” had been painted at the intersection of 16th and H, a circle was beginning to form.

It was a flash mob. Participants emerged, their shoulders and legs whipping together. They were dancing to a Kendrick Lamar song that felt shockingly out-of-date. They numbered perhaps a dozen. Their sweatshirts were a brilliant yellow. Their masks matched the tint of their washed-out jeans. Television cameras stood off to the side, banked with technicians. We had an hour before the polls closed in Florida.

What were we expecting? By “we” I mean a small group of friends: longtime DC residents, as well as a few of my MFA students, in from Virginia, to write about the election. Four years ago, on a similar Tuesday in November, I’d stood dumbstruck in the center of this city’s brassy downtown heart as Donald Trump’s success became increasingly clear.

Today I’d told myself to be ready for anything. The polling could be off again. We might need weeks to count the votes. It is hard to anticipate what you can’t imagine.

A few months earlier, this intersection had been the setting of a brutal police riot; peaceful protestors were driven off with tear gas and rubber bullets so that the current president could pose for a Bible-wielding photo op. And now we were surrounded by hundreds of people, dancing and wearing masks. There was a holiday-like feeling to it all, and a sense of anticipation. After four long years, perhaps it was all finally coming to an end.

We left the crowded plaza and headed to the National Press Club, a few blocks over, its familiar layout rearranged for the pandemic. There we’d watch the first results come in, the beginning of what we all hoped would amount to a landslide.

*

As I’m writing this now, it’s just past dawn, the sun coming on, a depth of sky against stark blue branches in the distance. I’m thinking about Washington DC, the way the city shapes itself to the south along the park, branching east, its courthouses and monuments and municipalities. A cold, windless silence: on a morning like this you’d be hard-pressed to catch any sound at all, let alone the now-familiar wash of rotors bearing Marine One to Andrews Air Force Base, or Walter Reed, or in whatever direction it might be headed next. At the Press Club last night the news kept coming in, along with the texts from friends and phone calls from family. It was too much to sit in front of the television.

There was a holiday-like feeling to it all, and a sense of anticipation. After four long years, perhaps it was all finally coming to an end.

We headed back out, walking in the direction of the Trump Hotel. I was hoping to glimpse the projectionist who had cast from his car every day since August a message against the building’s southern facade: the updated number of Americans who’d died from Covid-19 alongside a quote from the President. “228625,” it read last Thursday. “If I can get better, anybody can get better.”

Standing on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the bar I recognized Nigel Farage, the Brexiteer Trump had introduced at a recent rally in Arizona as “the king of Europe.”

“What do you think Trump will do if he loses?” I asked him now.

“Well I don’t see him packing up and playing golf,” he told me. As if on cue he tipped his head back, let out a long staccato hawhawhawhaw!, licked his lips to punctuate his satisfaction and added, “I just don’t see him stopping. It’s traditional for the president to walk away, but he’s the leader of a movement here… he’s a gunslinger…”

I was having a tough time holding my focus. My phone kept buzzing with alerts and updates. Our conversation turned, without explanation, to literature. “What’s your favorite book?” I found myself asking him.

“Oh gosh,” he said. Farage looked around. A tall young man, apparently his aide, tapped a watchless wrist and said, “We really need to leave.”

But Farage was smiling mischievously. He shook his head. “I won’t be drawn into that. No!” And then he let out another burst of laughter. “Okay,” he said, holding up his palms. “Okay I’ll give you an answer! But you won’t know it.” He seemed to lean in. “You’ve never heard of John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps.” And then he stood up straighter, gazing expectantly. “Tell me you’ve never heard of it!”

What could I say? My friend would explain to me as we walked away a few minutes later that this was a great book that Alfred Hitchcock had made into a great film. But in that moment, standing in the shadow of the president’s hotel, Farage was right. Buchan? The fuck is he? For the life of me I had no idea what on earth he was talking about.

*

We walked west in search of a nightcap, hoping for a drink at a patio bar. Earlier in the evening we’d seen a gaggle of red hats congregating at 10th and E Street—the only substantial gathering of Trump supporters any of us had managed to spot—and as we rounded the corner to a bar called Harry’s, they were all there: MAGA-hat wearing men in suits and shirts and yellow-cuffed black jackets. Inside and out there were perhaps thirty or so in total. They were members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group of self-described “male chauvinists” who President Trump had refused to condemn in September. “Stand back and stand by,” he’d told them instead.

I felt their eyes on me now. My friend said again, “We need to leave.”

They were celebrating. The news was ideal: The race was too close to call. They had been patient, and now the moment had arrived when they could make themselves useful. Donald Trump was prepared to use whatever means necessary in service of retaining the presidency, and they had become one of the many dogs in his fight. Harry’s Bar has long windows like the kind you see on train cars, and out of the corner of my eye, moving from table to table, sliding into booths and back out, was Enrique Tarrio, a one-time Republican primary candidate for Florida’s 27th congressional district, the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, and the chairman of the Proud Boys.

I would have recognized him even if he had been wearing a mask. We’d gotten into an argument in 2019, while I was reporting from CPAC, the annual conservative gathering at the National Harbor. We were guests on a podcast together. I’d been invited to discuss my latest book about the writer Hunter S. Thompson, he’d been invited to discuss his recent “de-platforming.” While I tend to agree that trying to strike up a conversation with the sort of people who prefer violence over dialogue is a bad idea, I wanted to see what he had to say.

He was thinner than I remembered in his black hoodie, sporting a dark, well-manicured beard. His black baseball cap was facing backward, his glasses were RayBans with big frames and thick lenses. “We never shouted at each other like you wrote in your article,” he told me now. I didn’t know what to say to that. I asked him instead where he thought all this uncertainty would lead.

“The president is going to win.” he told me.  “We’re going to heal.” He talked about division, “not as much as some people would like there to be,” and the failure of the left. There was, he said, a “new right,” one that was more Libertarian than the “Republicans on oxygen tanks” currently in Congress.

He narrowed his eyes. “Individual responsibility. You are accountable for yourself. You’re outside that box.” If, he explained, “you’re a piece of shit,” no amount of money the government squeezed out of you would change that. “If you’re a person that by your own free will is a philanthropist, then that’s completely different.”

I wondered if he knew Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He’d never read it but said he was inspired by it.

He talked about the Proud Boy’s recent rise in popularity. “More people understand who we are.”

Finally I asked him the question that had been on my mind all evening: What did he think about the use of political violence to silence dissent? How are people supposed to react to it? When, if ever, is it justified?

“The president is going to win.” he told me. “We’re going to heal.”

“This country was built on rebellion. But I think where we have to draw the line is political violence, which is terrorism. I don’t think that fucking burning down buildings honors George Floyd’s memory.” Initially, he’d supported the Black Lives Matter movement. “No one wants police brutality. The George Floyd thing. I told the guys maybe we should go out and protest with them. But then I said, ‘let’s wait 48 hours so it doesn’t turn into another Ferguson.’ And it did… There’s a lot of misplaced hate. The militias in Michigan, when they took over the capital were deemed to be terrorists. But the very next day there were riots and they were deemed heroes. One of those groups saw a problem with the government. One of those groups were the only ones that went to go protest the government. The other group fucked up their own community. They shit where they eat.”

For a moment I wasn’t quite sure what this metaphor was meant to connote beyond his brute, animalistic caricature of individuals calling out for dignity and justice.

I thought about quoting from one of my favorite interviews with James Baldwin, from the spring 1968: “And now Martin’s dead. And every time, you know, including the time the President was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman; no one can face the fact that this madness had been created deliberately.”

But would that have done any good? After all, I’d known from the start to avoid confusing this exchange, whatever it might be, for a straightforward dialogue.

In the end, the interview wasn’t as contentious as I’d expected. As we talked others had gathered around us, leaning in to listen. I felt relieved, relaxed even. It was around 10 pm now. I rejoined my friends, the smile on my face big. “One last round?” I offered

My friend stopped me with a look.  It was time for us to leave.

While I’d been observing them, the men I planned to write about had been observing me. They had been talking to my friend. They wanted to know what she was doing. What was her name? Where was she from? I’m Jewish, she said. Israeli? They asked. My friend is mixed, she is also Black. She knew what they were asking, and they laughed when she responded, “Now what would make you think that?”

They wanted to know about the guy talking to Tarrio—the guy in the suit—was he “her guy”? The guy talking about his book. A book on Hunter Thompson? The guy Tarrio had seen on Joe Rogan? He’d been on the show? Which episode? Why was his phone out, recording? What was he recording this for?

I felt their eyes on me now. My friend said again, “We need to leave.”

The city was shutting down, a grid of street closures and roadblocks assembling around us. We hadn’t realized until our Uber driver called that it was impossible for him to reach us. The only way out was to walk.

Together we began to make our way north, past the National Press Club and H Street, toward Logan Circle and Columbia Heights. It was a mild night and empty except for the few stragglers. Like us they studied their phones. We exchanged hopeful glances. We wished each other luck. Home was an hour’s walk. We felt we’d been away a long time.

*

Back at my apartment, the news continued to cascade. It was after midnight now. Joe Biden appeared, calling on everyone to remain calm. Then Donald Trump came out to announce what we all knew he’d been waiting to do: declare victory.

Not knowing what else I could accomplish, I sat down to write out the story of the night. What I couldn’t know at the time, composing these sentences as the sky lightened overhead and the news cycled to the morning shows—as the dynamics of the race shifted and settled again, however slightly—was that, at 2:26 AM on Wednesday morning, Enrique Tarrio, along with other Proud Boys members, found themselves in an altercation with three unidentified individuals along a block of New York Avenue near the National Press Club.

The video footage is shaky. At one point during the scuffle, two of Tarrio’s associates were slashed with a knife. They were both subsequently treated for stab wounds to the back, ear, and neck. Tarrio reported that the blade also caught him across the stomach. The whole ordeal went on for just over a minute—a brief, bloody, rugby-like scrum that mushroomed from three to seven participants before concluding in a single running shove as the unknown assailants darted away.

In an interview a few hours later, Tarrio said, “We were helping some guy that was getting stabbed by two Black males and one female.” When asked to describe his assailants in more detail, he said they were Black Lives Matter protesters.

“I got slashed,” he added. “But it’s not serious. We were walking to our cars.”

Their cars? Reading this now, I’m reminded of something Tarrio had said a year earlier at CPAC, when I’d found myself shouting at him: “We have the freedom of self-defense… We offer ourselves as security… We don’t start a fight, we finish it.”

What was Enrique Tarrio really looking for at just past two in the morning on election night? The fight occurred only a few hundred feet from the White House grounds, a sprawling, fortified campus that each month seems to extend its boundaries further and further into the heart of the capital city it shapes: a city that’s been suffering from state-sanctioned and political violence for months now, its usual commerce emptied by a once-in-a-century pandemic. A city I’ve personally grown to love.

And regardless of what eventually happens to the president who’s been occupying it these last four years, I think it’s safe to say that the one thing Washington, DC hasn’t seen the last of in the near future is roving bands of neo-fascist extremists who will continue to believe the violence they’re looking for is not only justified but, beyond all shadow of a doubt, necessary.

Timothy Denevi
Timothy Denevi
Timothy Denevi’s most recent book is Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism.





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