It was a bright, arid day, the kind you rarely come across this late in spring, a wind from the west thinning the last few clouds so that, by the time I made it down to the White House, the sky had expanded with the afternoon: a distant, deep-set shelf of blue.
That morning, a friend in local government had texted me about the new curfew, 7pm, a full hour-and-a-half before the sun set, and even though I’d already planned on joining the continuing protests at Lafayette Square, I figured that this evening, specifically, was shaping up to be a particularly bad one for crossing state lines in order to join in what certain legal minds might deem, retroactively, a riot worthy of federal punishment.
So the plan was to spend a few hours in the afternoon before heading back home. I looked for street parking near the Capitol Hilton, a few blocks north of the White House, and found it easily—perhaps the starkest sign yet of our widening pandemic-fueled collapse.
I had on jeans and an old shirt. My hair was, in a word, unacceptable—which was how I’d been describing it for weeks, as if in italics, to friends during virtual cocktails. Over my heavily bearded face I was wearing a white mask. On my feet: running shoes. A pen and notebook. Phone. No press-pass. Beforehand I’d taken off my smart watch, a matter of habit; after spending these last four years reporting with depressing regularity from various civic protests across the country, I’d learned by now to heed the advice of veteran journalists and shed any and all wrist jewelry, which when a fight breaks out is always the first to go.
I walked south on 16th Street. At the National Geographic Society, a dozen DC police officers were sitting in the sun, endlessly adjusting their visibly uncomfortable plates of body armor—a few even sported spiked, strangely stylish shoulder pads—a SWAT-like troop carrier idling along the curb. By the next block I couldn’t help but notice that windows of nearly every building in sight appeared to be boarded up—smashed during the previous night’s unrest. Starbucks. PJ Clarke’s. The AFL-CIO building. The DC Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. The St. Regis. The Hay Adams. And finally, painted an inoffensive yellow against the high green branches of Lafayette Square, its bare columns catching light, St. John’s Episcopal Church.
It was just before 4pm. Along the fence dividing H Street from the White House grounds a few-hundred protestors had been gathering for hours. How should I describe them? Let me say this: they were in no way out of the ordinary. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to be dismissive. What I mean is this: I recognized them, essentially, as that same quirky but distinguishable denominator that’s come to represent, in my imagination at least, the many different people I’ve seen standing up over the years against the injustice—against Donald Trump and his endless legion of gutless, complicit shit-heelers.
A middle-aged man without a mask was handing out fruit snacks. Two women had set up first-aid stations, offering water and milk for potential tear-gas victims. A trio of men, unnervingly pale—the sweat catching like oil at their underarms—transported bottled water in a hand-wagon. Most people were wearing masks, or bandanas, or scarves, though one very tall individual appeared to sport what might be best described (by me at least) as the platonic ideal of a cravat.
They had been here the day before, and perhaps the previous evening too, acquainted in their own way with fires and flash charges and pepper spray. A good number looked scandalously—one might even go so far as to say post-apocalyptically—young: teenagers perhaps just graduated, dressed as if in gym clothes they’d outgrown, their bellies and knees flashing like glass. Others were much older; with hunched backs and dun-colored braces they carried themselves slowly, unabashedly. One woman had a long braided ponytail of silver hair I know I’ll never forget; against her side she carried one of her arms like a garment, familiar and heavy; when she turned in a new direction it was with her entire body, in deliberation, as elegant and steady as some great transatlantic ship.
Among them you couldn’t help but spot the bystanders: joggers modulating their strides. Parents smiling creepily as they pushed along their strollers. Vendors selling t-shirts and ice cream. There were even, somehow, tourists (mostly European?), happily sightseeing in groups of four and six. I should also mention the obligatory presence of the usual borderline personalities, the most blatant of which consisted of a man on a bicycle who, with the aid of a high-powered megaphone, wouldn’t stop screaming about “extinction-level events.”
A good number of people carried handmade signs. GEORGE FLOYD’S LIFE MATTERS, one read. Another: TO KILLER COPS THE PRIME CRIME IS LIVING WHILE BLACK. Throughout the White House grounds and neighboring buildings, you could make out, with startling clarity, repeated flashes of graffiti:
YOU HAVE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS
I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU SAY
FUCK THE SYSTEM
RIP FREDDIE GRAY
WE WANT EQUALITY
NO JUSTICE NO PEACE
I CAN’T BREATHE
Let me say this: together in the square it didn’t seem to matter so much who you were or where you’d come from. The truth itself felt like enough; we’d chosen to gather on this blue afternoon because, one week earlier, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man accused of forging a twenty dollar bill, was brutally murdered in police custody by officer Derek Chauvin as three other members of the Minneapolis police looked on, refusing to intervene.
Have you watched the video? To get through the heft of it we’d need far more space than what’s currently available here… But to summarize: Floyd repeatedly pleaded for his life, struggling to breathe, and all the while Chauvin, over the course of nearly nine minutes, kept his knee pinned to Floyd’s throat, until Floyd at last asphyxiated, his heart giving out. It didn’t matter that by this time a crowd had gathered to plead for Floyd’s life, or that, at every step, these officers violated clearly established procedures. Even after Floyd had lost consciousness—for nearly two additional minutes, during which his body had already shut down—Chauvin refused to let up. To watch the video of what happened is to witness, as so many Americans have come to understand this week, something deeper than murder; what we’re seeing, in reality, is an execution.
On that note, I think it’s probably the right time to point out that the man who also happens to be the current president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump—residing behind the pearl-bright walls of the mansion only a few hundred yards away—has throughout the course of his life repeatedly encouraged police to employ the type of lethal, state-sanctioned, racially motivated violence that led to the death of George Floyd—and so many others.
Later in the afternoon, as the protestors continued to gather peacefully on the sidewalk bordering Lafayette Square, I found myself wandering out along the enormous, multi-block perimeter that constituted the White House grounds.
The route took me south, along 15th Street, past a checkpoint that, only a few months earlier, I’d moved through easily enough with hundreds of others, for the Washington Nationals “lawn party.”
Today it was lousy with cops, a dozen deep at the entrance alone. There were the usual secret service officers, all of them men, and white, and mealy mouthed, and strangely, menacingly short. But I also saw DEA agents in khaki pants, their pistols strapped to their thighs. And there were even a few members of the National Guard, holding shields stenciled MILITARY POLICE.
I didn’t understand. Why the mixing? I mean, maybe this was how things always went down during periods of mass social unrest, but fuck if I knew, and anyway, it wasn’t so much their origins that made me nervous at the time; instead, as I stopped at each subsequent gate to the executive mansion in the distance, I began to feel as if, somewhere just beyond the limits of my sight, they were in the process of gathering endlessly together with a degree of coordination that was hinted at, sinisterly, by the sheer nature of their presence.
At 15th and Pennsylvania I stopped to watch as multiple ambulances—at least half a dozen, their lights turned low—passed silently into the fortified checkpoints. Further south, near the visitor’s center on E Street, a group of younger secret service officers were laughing together; for once they weren’t all white and short-statured and scowling. From up behind me someone on a bicycle sped quickly by, shouting, “Fuck you pigs!”
They laughed louder. “Man,” one of them said easily, “you ain’t even from here. Keep ridin’. Go on!”
But just then another cyclist, a woman in her forties, slowed down in front of them. Slowly, her eyes on the young, easy-going agent who hadn’t quite stopped chuckling to himself, she extended a middle finger. “Oh I’m from DC,” she said softly. “I am from DC. You dumb motherfucker. How ‘bout that?”
For an instant it was as if he’d been slapped; even before she continued on you could see him shrink back, into the ranks of the men around him.
I looped down around Constitution, skirting the Washington Monument, that vast stretch of Mall where, as if in another life, I’d once made five errors in a single nightmarish game while playing shortstop for the Northwestern University alumni association’s softball team. At 17th Street, which was blocked to local traffic by two more khaki-panted DEA agents, I swung back north, passing the Executive Office Building, which I’m pretty much convinced is haunted as fuck, the corridors a province to the saddest and most compelling of all American ghosts, Richard Milhous Nixon’s, while if it’s Lyndon Johnson you’re after then look no further than EOB 274, where even on the most moonless nights you can find him sitting there in the middle of his room, his pants down, eager as ever to let you know what’s on his mind: “Say now, I was just about to take Ol’ Jumbo here out for some exercise…”
And this was exactly the kind of shit I was thinking about, walking back toward Lafayette Square along the east side of the White House campus, when, suddenly from the street to the south, I felt a terrifying rush.
I wheeled around. Two cop cars were speeding up the avenue, going 70 miles per hour at least, and even though I threw myself away from the curb toward the adjoining security fence, the air from their passage hit me hard, a parachute-snap all across my ears and face, and it took a moment to realize where they were headed: a check point in the near distance, where as if on cue they screeched manically to a stop.
I sprinted over. This was back at Pennsylvania Avenue, its eastern gate. The cars were labeled United States Park Police, white with blue trim. A masked officer lumbered out of the first. He was carrying two enormous duffle bags, struggling noticeable with their weight. He brought them toward the checkpoint, which I realized, with the slow rising horror you usually only come across in dream narratives, was filled with cops. They were everywhere, in groups, threading the parking lot packed in tight with their cruisers. There were National Guard soldiers with MILITARY POLICE shields. DEA agents. Park Rangers in blue sleeves and helmets. A shape moving between the vehicles appeared to be that of a horse.
Like carnivorous birds they all seemed to turn at once to the street—to me. But it was just the delivery that had caught their interest. The enormous duffle bags were handed off, four in all. What could be that heavy? All my cheap imaginations—drugs, money, Nazi gold, chocolate bars wrapped in foil to look like gold, service animals (ferrets? No… weasels)—failed me.
In the next moment the two white cop cars sped off, driving just as recklessly in the direction from which they’d come, and by the time I made it back to Lafayette Square it was just after 5pm, two hours until curfew.
In the time I’d been gone the crowd here had doubled. But the scene itself hadn’t really changed. Older activists were passing out bottled waters. The two women at the tear gas stand continued to offer suggestions for flushing out the chemicals from your eyes. Up by the fence a single dude in his twenties flipped off the police beyond. The bullhorn weirdo carried on about extinction. The older protestor I’d noticed earlier, the woman with such luxuriant silver hair, was standing off in the shade. One of those preternaturally young teenagers, a girl in red toreador pants, held a sign high over her head. Another, a young man in a floppy cap, gazed for the briefest instant up in the direction of the sun. “Take a knee,” someone started chanting. Soon enough everyone seemed to join in.
It was time for me to leave. Did I want to stay? Of course I did. I’m not a monster! At least for the most part… But I needed to pick up my son, Jack, and make us dinner. Besides, this was the end-point I’d set for myself from the start.
As I walked north to my car I found myself marveling, as if against my will, at the dense fingers of shadow that had come down across the avenue. By now the light had left the pale columns of St. John’s Church. It really was a beautiful day, hands down, the kind you’re lucky to get once every few years when you live, as I do, along this suffocating network of shallow, brackish water that everyone likes to call the Mid-Atlantic.
It was quieter here. In the distance I heard an electric saw. The plunge of a drill. The air smelled like fresh plywood. Somewhere above me a helicopter was beating the air, flying east. Once again I passed the same gathering of DC police I’d seen when I first arrived; they glanced up sheepishly, the hard chitin of their armor swallowing into itself the hot afternoon sun.
From somewhere inside their troop carrier the sounds of a scanner rose up, brassy and excited, voices that suddenly called to my mind all the sporting events I’d only recently taken for granted, back during those hours of summer when one broadcaster would talk on end about nothing so much as balls and strikes and possible late-inning substitutions, a world of steady sound that, for all its inherent emptiness, had nevertheless helped to mark, in those months before pandemics and economic collapses and nationwide riots, the passage of time on my life with a degree of certainty that I can’t help but feel I’ve now lost and may never get back… Though the simpler explanation would probably be that it’s always naïve—foolish—to place your trust in the power of such things in the first place.
Back at my apartment, I put on CNN with my son. He’d turned thirteen a few days earlier, and as he and I sat together in an easy silence, I was taken aback by the scene on the television screen: a bird’s-eye view of Lafayette Square.
From an overhead perch, the camera was panning back to reveal H Street in its broader concourse, along with its current crowd.
It was 6:30 pm. Donald Trump had scheduled a surprise announcement in the Rose Garden, and while we were waiting for him to emerge, a commotion appeared to break out. From the east, Park Police converged. Advancing as a line, they drove their clear, circular shields into the protestors, who, stunned, tried to flee. But tear gas canisters came streaming down from above. Flash grenades seemed to erupt everywhere at once. In the distance, police on horses fired rubber bullets, driving a hail of projectiles from their mounted perches. The protestors stumbled, disoriented; you could see it—they had no idea which way to go.
A new line of police formed up. Included in it appeared to be representatives from all the different branches I’d come across that day: Secret Service, National Guard, US Park Police. There were soldiers from Fort Bragg, dressed in full fatigues. And agents from the DEA and ICE. The protestors threw their hands in the air, pleading. It didn’t matter. The cops kept beating them west, toward 17th Street. But in the chaos not everyone could get free. I began to recognize some of the people I’d been standing alongside minutes earlier. The woman with the strikingly silver hair appeared to be trapped against the Hay Adams, her arm pinned to her side as she tried to drag herself to safety. One of the teenagers—the girl in the toreador pants, it looked like—stumbled and fell, the cops beating their way toward her. Another young man was weeping uncontrollably, his eyes swollen and red. All of which was being filmed at an angle, from above, in a way that felt increasingly eerie—foreboding—and at last I realized why: this was the same point of view through which Americans had been forced to experience, more than fifty years earlier, another civic travesty: the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And here we were again, watching blue helmeted cops chasing and beating kids not much older than my son whose only crime had been to be standing in that square—just as I had—in the first place. And suddenly the anger came on—that primordial, TV-shouting rage so many other Americans have been feeling this last week, watching George Floyd’s execution and now, unbelievably, what for all intents and purposes appeared to be a second act to Mayor Daley’s disastrous 1968 attack.
Trump was speaking now, the split screen showing the violence taking place only a few hundred yards away. And it still didn’t make any sense. The curfew wasn’t for another half hour. There’d been no instigation. Something was off. At least that much was clear.Tear gas canisters came streaming down from above. Flash grenades seemed to erupt everywhere at once.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, the president could be seen walking awkwardly across the grounds, toward Lafayette Park. His destination, we were told, was St. John’s Church, where, for what no doubt will go down as some of the most dreadfully awkward minutes in the history of television news, he stood with a Bible in his hand, hardly speaking. A photo op. At last it began to dawn on us. Hundreds of peaceful, unarmed American citizens, many of them not much older than my teenage son, had been brutally beaten and shot at so that this man could stand here instead of them.
The next morning, as the larger picture started to emerge, I called my friend who works in local government for the details. He spoke off the record, but much of what he told me would eventually come out in the press over the course of the day. Trump, afraid of looking weak after spending the weekend marooned in the White House, wanted to make a show of force, so that Monday he’d organized the publicity stunt, leaving his Attorney General to oversee the details, which William Barr enthusiastically handled; the police had been preparing their attack for hours (the administration had refused to involve DC’s department, fearing—correctly—that the Mayor and police chief would try to stop them). Which meant that over the course of the afternoon, as I walked the grounds of the White House, ill at ease but unsure why, I was in fact in the process of witnessing the preparations for a police riot. All those gathering cops… From behind their barricades they’d looked right at me, knowing all along that in few short hours I could very well be the person whose head they wouldn’t hesitate to smash.
And then I remembered that surreal moment along 17th Street, near the Executive Office Building, when that pair of Park Police cruisers had sped with their duffle-bags to the White House gate. What had really been in them? I asked my friend in the government. Who knows, he told me at first. But after a while I could sense he was onto something. Maybe pellets, he said. Or rubber balls. I described the pictures I’d taken. Park Police… he repeated slowly. And then he offered two words. Tear Gas.
It makes sense. The Park Police had already issued a flat-out denial on the subject to both the New York Times and The Washington Post. Instead, USPP Chief Gregory Monahan stated they were using pepper balls, a supposedly less violent irritant. But reporters in Lafayette Square are convinced of the opposite—these canisters were, without a doubt, tear gas. It would explain the speeding and the urgency and the weight and size of the bags, as well as the timing, 4:51 pm, twenty minutes before the cops on the White House grounds began to mobilize in full—using the same Pennsylvania Avenue gate where the deeply unnerving drop-off had occurred. And the investigation into all of this is just beginning; Monahan has been called to appear before a House subcommittee on the subject in the coming weeks.The violence visited on American citizens protesting peacefully and lawfully in Lafayette Park was carried out at the behest of one man, our country’s 45th president.
Still, I think it’s important to end here with a bit of clarity, which is hard enough to come by in normal circumstances, let alone in the fog of a police riot. The violence visited on American citizens protesting peacefully and lawfully in Lafayette Park was carried out at the behest of one man, our country’s 45th president, someone who once again has managed to reveal his true nature to us all.
Let’s not split hairs: Donald Trump is a coward. I don’t say this flippantly, or just to sound insulting, or as an expression of personal rage. I’m talking about the word in its truest sense: A person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things… Its etymology dates back to the Latin cauda, translated as “tail,” which has been used over the years to describe a very specific state of being: the change that takes over an animal when, frightened, it becomes suddenly rigid and upright, its tail receding back between its legs…
Which as it just so happens also manages to offer the perfect description of the bible-in-hand image at St. John’s that Trump was willing to go to such horrific lengths to produce. Go ahead. Take a look at it again and see for yourself. I just did. I wish it could tell you that it offers solace, or perspective, or even, for that matter, hope.
But instead it just leads me back to the horrific final minutes in the life of George Floyd, which is why all of this is happening now in the first place, and as I think about the pleas he so desperately offered then for his life, for help, for a final chance to breathe, and, as he began slipping away, for any comfort at all, including the presence of his already deceased mother, I’m reminded of another terrible moment in American history, this one also from 1968: the assassination, at the Ambassador Hotel, of Robert F. Kennedy, as described by the great Village Voice columnist Jack Newfield:
…something seemed to be happening near the podium. There was an awful sound that rolled across the packed ballroom that was like a moan. Then a few people started running, and a girl in a red party dress, sobbing uncontrollably, came by me, screaming “No, God, no. It’s happened again.” And the moan became a wail until the ballroom sounded like a hospital that has been bombed; the sound was somehow the sound of the twice wounded.
And there it is at last—the thing I’ve been feeling but unable to articulate since I watched yesterday’s police riot in Lafayette Square; since I saw the video of George Floyd’s execution last week; since I first came across, years ago, the original network footage of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—a feeling that’s somehow been with me long before I can remember feeling anything else. The cries of the twice wounded. Right now in America it’s the most familiar sound of all, one that we’ve been making, together, from the very start.