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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Throngs of people gathered in Washington, D.C., on Saturday in what is expected to be the city’s largest demonstration since George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day.
The day included music, food, and snacks being passed out to strangers and a sense of camaraderie with one another. There were even a couple of people selling “I can’t breathe” merchandise, which is a reference to Floyd’s final words and the last thing Eric Garner said while in a police chokehold before he lost consciousness and died in New York City in 2014.
Standing on a platform, with a green mask pulled down from her face, Mayor Muriel Bowser held a microphone and addressed an energized crowd of hundreds of people. The mayor pointed out that she was delivering the speech from a section of a street outside the White House that the city renamed this week to honor the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Welcome to Black Lives Matter Plaza,” Bowser told the crowd, which responded with cheers. “It’s so wonderful to see everyone peacefully protesting.”
The area outside the White House, including the iconic Lafayette Square, has become a fault line in the demonstrations calling attention to racial injustice and police brutality in the United States. Chaos and controversy erupted there on Monday when a mixed assortment of law enforcement fired smoke canisters and rubber bullets to disperse protesters ahead of a Rose Garden speech by President Trump.
Attorney General William Barr was spotted on camera overseeing the law enforcement operation from behind security near the White House during the dispersion and was later accused of personally giving the order to clear the demonstrators, a charge that he has denied. After the crowd was removed, the Secret Service maintained a clear path so that Trump could walk from the White House to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he was photographed holding up a Bible, a move that was criticized by the church’s bishop and some lawmakers. The church was vandalized the night before.
In the fallout from the Monday incident, Bowser and Trump have exchanged barbs. Trump activated the D.C. National Guard, a move that received considerable pushback from Bowser, who asked him to “withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence” from the District. The mayor drew upon the Monday confrontation and the use of the National Guard in her Saturday afternoon speech.
Bowser said she wants her two-year-old child to grow up in a better country than it is now and emphasized her condemnation for the president’s actions during the demonstrations. She also encouraged those at the protest to vote Trump out of office during this year’s presidential election.
“Today, we push the Army away from our city,” she said to applause. “Our soldiers should not be treated that way. They should not be asked to move on American citizens. Today, we say, ‘No,’ and in November, we say, ‘Next.’”
In addition to being renamed, the street outside of the White House was adorned with large yellow letters that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in capital letters.
Numerous groups calling for peaceful demonstrations descended on the city on Saturday, with the area near the White House becoming a hotbed of activity. The protests will happen just blocks away from Trump, as a planned trip to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club was canceled. According to the White House Press Office, the president has no planned events for Saturday or Sunday.
More than a mile of fencing was erected around the White House prior to Saturday’s mass demonstrations. There was less of a law enforcement presence compared to days past. A majority of officers were situated directing traffic or in their cruisers blocking certain streets from automobile traffic.
The Metropolitan Police Department told the Washington Examiner they do not have jurisdiction over Lafayette Park and that they do not “discuss operational tactics,” in response to questions about the limited police presence.
Temperatures surged into the 90s on Saturday, and several streets in the capital were closed in anticipation of the protests. CBS News political reporter Grace Segers said on Twitter that the entire area around the monuments in Washington appeared to be filled with demonstrators.
“[I] was always surrounded by hundreds of people holding signs and walking to different protest sites,” she said in a tweet. “It’s like almost everyone currently outside is actively or passively participating in the protest.”
Earlier on Saturday, crowds converged at the Lincoln Memorial, where speakers advocated for change in the policing of the country. A radio host named DJ Quicksilva repeated a common refrain among demonstrators: “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
“Time after time, we see the murders. Racism didn’t just start. It’s just been filmed. Now that we see it, we’re still not getting the justice,” the radio host said. “This time, we’re not going to stop fighting until we get a conviction.”
Many protesters sought to celebrate the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Floyd, three unarmed black people whose deaths this year have inspired protests and a fresh look at racial violence and use of force by police. Another underlying theme of the protests on Saturday was an opposition to Trump. One participating organization, Refuse Fascism, passed out neon orange stickers reading “Trump/Pence Must Go!” with their contact information.
Saturday marks the ninth day of protests that began after a video emerged showing Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, being pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, as he pleaded for his life. The footage shows Floyd falling unconscious while Chauvin continues to kneel on his neck for almost three minutes after he became unresponsive. Floyd later died in police custody, and Chauvin was charged with his murder.
Some of the demonstrations, particularly those in Minneapolis, where Floyd died, have become violent, with the protests morphing into riots. Trump has taken a strong line against violence in the protests and has threatened to use the military to put down unrest if state and local leaders can’t do so. He has called some Democratic governors “weak” and told them to “dominate” the protesters.
The president also placed some of the blame on the loosely organized left-wing group antifa, a response that Barr has echoed. The attorney general said a week ago that “many places” in the U.S. were seeing violent acts spurred by “anarchic” and “far-left extremist groups.” He said those involved were using “antifa-like tactics” and that many of them were traveling from out of state to participate in the protests.
Looting, property damage, and clashes with law enforcement have been issues in demonstrations in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, but in D.C. as of early Saturday evening, there were no significant reports of violence or rioting as peaceful crowds continued to swell across the city.