WASHINGTON – The nationwide wave of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota crashed into downtown Washington, D.C., on Sunday, with confrontations between protesters and the police often turning into street fights.
The mayor of Washington placed the entire city under a strict curfew starting at 11 P.M., an unprecedented step that did not deter groups of protesters from heading to the streets and continue to clash with the police well after midnight.
On Sunday afternoon, things looked very different in the area around the White House. The previous night, the streets surrounding the presidential compound were the epicenter of a violent outburst of looting and vandalism, but none of that could be seen in the late afternoon hours, when more than a thousand people gathered in Lafayette Square, across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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No buildings were torched, no windows were shattered. Instead, protesters bent on their knees and raised their fists in the air silently, sending a message of resilience to the police forces surrounding the square, and to the man across the street – President Donald Trump.
The organizers of the demonstration asked the crowd to keep the event peaceful, and not to let it deteriorate into chaos and rage. For a while, it seemed like these pleas could actually make a difference. The city was already preparing to activate the D.C. National Guard, but there was a faint hope that perhaps that wouldn’t really be necessary.
The demonstrators were a mixed crowd of black and white residents, most of them young, many carrying signs affiliated with the Black Lives Matters movement. They shouted: “Take a knee, be on the right side of history.” Towards the end of the demonstration, a saxophone player led the crowd into singing “Lean On Me.”
The police also stayed away from any direct confrontation with the protesters. One black police officer who was securing the area, briefly “took a knee” together with the protesters, a gesture that was met with cheers of excitement from the crowd. If events would have ended around 6 P.M., Sunday would have been considered a quiet day, and perhaps even the beginning of a healing process for the city, after Saturday night’s mayhem.
But the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, didn’t seem to think this was the direction in which things were going. Expecting a repeat of Saturday night, she announced a curfew that was put in place from 11 P.M. until 6 A.M. the next morning. Bowser explained that “We’re sending a very clear message to people that they have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights but not to destroy our city.”
The curfew she announced was the culmination of a three months-long period of restrictions and limitations placed on the city because of the coronavirus crisis. City officials expressed strong concerns on Sunday that the demonstrations will lead to a new outbreak of the virus within the next week or two.
While the demonstration was going on in front of the White House, several shop owners in the streets around placed extra measures of security around their properties, in expectation of another rough night. The fire that broke out on Saturday night next to the historic Hay Adams Hotel, one of the most prestigious in the city, served as a warning sign to businesses that no one was safe.
Around 10 P.M., long after most of the demonstrators from the afternoon had left the area, the situation quickly escalated once again into violence. A smaller group of protesters set fire to police barricades, and at one point even to a building next to the historic St. John’s church, which has been in operation for more than 200 years and has been attended by every U.S. president since. The local fire department managed to stop the flames before any significant damage was caused to the church building.
As fires were raging around the White House, confrontations also began on the northern edge of the city, in the Friendship Heights neighborhood that borders Maryland and is usually one of Washington’s quieter parts. Stores on the area’s main shopping street, Wisconsin Avenue, were broken into and looted, including a CVS pharmacy.
The police fired tear gas and pepper bullets, and fireworks could be heard blocks away from the main fighting area. One police officer on the scene told members of the media that the city believes the looting was organized and coordinated, and that dozens of people came especially to that part of the city in order to participate in it.
By midnight, the scene from the afternoon demonstration was completely forgotten, replaced by an even greater degree of violence than that of the night before. Stores were also broken into in other parts of the city, including in the Gallery Place urban mall, as well as in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Shortly before midnight, the lights that usually illuminate the White House during night hours, making the building visible from miles away, were turned off. The reason for it was a security decision by the Secret Service, but there was also a symbolic value to it: Washington was entering another dark night, and so was the White House.