For more than a week, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Washington, D.C., to protest police brutality following the death of George Floyd. A city that felt occupied by federal authorities and National Guard troops earlier in the week has since given way to throngs of peaceful — and at times festive — demonstrators. Here are stories from amid the crowds throughout the week, from a violent crackdown in Lafayette Square on Monday to dancing in the streets on Saturday.
‘Our moment of silence is over’
A group of several hundred people who had marched from Lafayette Square in Washington joined a crowd that had already assembled at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
After short speeches from the organizers, the hundreds of protesters knelt for 8 minutes 46 seconds — the amount of time Floyd lay prone with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressed against his neck — while the names of young, black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers or others were read aloud.
“Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin …”
The names went on. The group stayed on its knees. Some bowed their heads. Others fidgeted, shifted their weight or looked around.
A cooling wind moved over the hot, still plaza. The green treetops above the crowd sighed.
“Tamir Rice, Walter Scott …”
The stone likeness of King stared out over the Tidal Basin.
“Freddie Gray …”
There were so many names. The 8 minutes 46 seconds eventually passed. “Our moment of silence is over,” someone said into a bullhorn at the front of the crowd.
The protesters rose slowly to their feet and looked around at one another, barely speaking, unsure as to what came next.
— Peter Jamison
‘I’m only 10 and I am already sick of it.’
Cries of “Let her through!” rippled across the crowd. The masses parted, and a 10-year-old black girl wearing pink sequined cat ears stepped forward.
At the top of her voice, Jalena Lisenby told the officers about her anger, her fear, her questions.
“Too many of my brothers and sisters have died,” she yelled. “I’m only 10 and I am already sick of it.”
She pointed to her 12-year-old brother, Jamari, who had “Black lives matter” written across his N95 face mask.
“Every day I wonder if my brother or my dad or my mom is going to die,” she cried.
Cheers of “Tell 'em, baby girl!” And “You got the answers!” urged her on.
When she finished, adults came to shake her hand. She tucked her handmade sign, on which she had written “I can’t breathe” over and over along the edges, beneath her arm and told them, “Thank you.”
Her father pulled her in for a hug. Her mother smiled behind her mask.
“Mom,” Jalena said when the crowd around her dispersed. “Can I go get a Gatorade?
— Jessica Contrera
‘We all need somebody to lean on’
Arianna Evans strode to the heart of the crowd, gripped a microphone and quieted the demonstrators. Unlike on previous nights, they fell silent en masse, almost immediately.
Swinging her long, violet braids over her shoulder, Evans, a college student from Maryland, began by warning anyone who wanted to loot and cause destruction to go away. This fifth day of protests is and will remain peaceful, she vowed: “We will flush you out,” she told would-be troublemakers.
Then she handed the microphone to Kenny Sway, a D.C. musician she’d met just hours before, at another protest on Capitol Hill. He asked the crowd to sit cross-legged, turn on their cellphone flashlights and wave the devices in the air. With the sun setting over his shoulder, he launched into a rendition of “Lean on Me,” thousands of voices joining his on every chorus.
Evans sang along, too, thrilled that it had all come together. They hadn’t planned it — but after she and Sway spoke earlier in the day, he decided to follow her to the White House with his microphone and speakers.
Now, somehow, they were controlling the crowd.
“We all need somebody to leeee-ean on,” Sway sang, lofting the last syllable impossibly high, and thousands cheered.
— Hannah Natanson
‘You’re betraying your own people’
Protesters and police stood face to face on 16th Street near H Street, sometimes separated by a foot or less on a warm night.
The officers leaned on their shields as protesters jawed and taunted them for an hour.
A few African American officers were singled out for verbal abuse by a group of young black protesters. The demonstrators mocked them as “Uncle Toms,” “tokens,” and called them other racial epithets, including the n-word. Others called them “robots” or “prisoners.”
“You’re betraying your own people,” someone shouted.
At others, the young protesters seemed to be making an appeal for connection. What if it were your son or daughter who were killed by a police officer? several asked.
They exulted whenever they thought they read some moment or recognition or response in the officer’s eye or facial expression, or showed what they thought was surrender.
“He couldn’t take it! He had enough!” a protester shouted when an officer was replaced by another in the line.
Their attention focused in particular on an African American officer in the front line who, in addition to a helmet and heavy body armor, was wearing an Alpha Phi Alpha wrist band — an emblem of the historic African American intercollegiate fraternity.
Destiny Robinson, 24, a secretary who lives in Waldorf, Md., addressed him repeatedly as “uncle.”
So did Laron Kenny, 20, an engineering student at Prince George’s County Community College.
“Hey, I love your eyes, uncle!” Kenny yelled “They’re brown just like me!”
— Freddy Kunkle
‘Every generation has their time. This is our time’
The crowd of hundreds stopped in front of the Capitol, guarded by dozens of officers.
The chants of “No justice, no peace” mixed with the music of Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, which protesters blared from their smartphones.
The sun glinted off the sweaty backs and shoulders of young African Americans as they danced, stepped and swiveled to the deep bass of “This Is America.” Kenneth Hammond, 26, threw his hands in the air, then clapped and whooped for the dancers, all of whom he had just met.
“We don’t need to know each other to know there’s something wrong here,” said Hammond, who is black and was driving in the city when he saw the protest and decided to join.
“7 p.m.? Y’all wish!” a young African American woman yelled at the police, referring to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s curfew. “We’re going to be out here till 4 a.m.!” Hammond said he wasn’t intimidated by President Trump’s calls for city leaders to exert greater force against protesters.
“Yo! Any of y’all scared?” Hammond turned to look at his new friends.
“We going twice as hard,” Hammond said, squinting at the sun as sweat streamed down his face under his black cloth mask. “They’re not going to do anything" they haven’t already done before, he said.
“Every generation has their time. This is our time,” he said.
The group behind stopped dancing for a moment. “You damn right!” they yelled.
— Rebecca Tan
From the steps of the St. John’s Episcopal Church, a protester with a megaphone implored demonstrators to stay as hundreds split off on a march to the Capitol.
“Y’all need to post up so they cannot advance their position,” he said. “Don’t leave! Keep it thick right here in front of this church!”
Other protesters in the crowd called out warnings of what could happen if the group separates.
“We’re easier to arrest in small groups,” one called.
“Stay together!” shouted another.
Michelle Keazor, 29, a nurse from Maryland, watched the departing group with eyes wide under a face shield and laboratory goggles.
“Hey!” she shouted. “They don’t know what ‘post up’ means! These white people don’t know!”
The protester with the megaphone let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Please continue to gather in front of this church!” he tried again.
— Marissa Lang
‘Do you think we could say a prayer?’
As the crowd thinned at Lafayette Square, some authorities on the front line, who identified themselves as members of the Utah National Guard, appeared to relax. An officer in a helmet, glasses and a shoulder patch that read “Special Forces” popped his head out from the second row and struck up a conversation with Joshua Rosen, 27, who was wearing a Jewish yarmulke and tallit.
The guardsman, who declined to provide his name, told Rosen he had been deployed before to Amsterdam, where he worked with members of the Israeli Army. The conversation meandered. Then the guardsman, leaning over, asked something unexpected:
“Do you think we could say a prayer?”
After trying to engage the people in uniform for most of the evening, Rosen was stunned.
“I just think that’d be awesome,” the guardsman continued.
Rosen nodded, then tried to remember the songs he had learned in his synagogue in Greenbelt, Md. He started with “Shalom Rav,” then sang “Lo Yisa Goy.” He paused when he couldn’t remember the exact line and another member of the crowd chimed in. The Guardsman watched, his smile widening. In front of him, the other men in uniform watched but remained stoic.
“Awesome, awesome,” said the one guardsman, who almost looked as if he was on the verge of applauding. “Thank you so much for that.”
With a hint of surprise in his voice, Rosen said back, “You’re welcome.”
Then, as the guardsmen left, he added, “I hope you have a very boring night.”
— Rebecca Tan
‘There is strength in numbers’
With 30 minutes until curfew, dozens of protesters climbed atop the Peace Monument in front of the Capitol to address the nearly 1,000 who had gathered.
“Anybody got a megaphone?” Romulo Richardson asked.
“We have the people’s microphone,” a woman in the middle of the crowd replied, saying she would repeat his message so those in the back could hear.
“I need everybody to be as quiet as possible, because this is important,” said Richardson, 37, who is black. “They charged the four officers in George Floyd’s murder tonight.”
Protesters in the peaceful crowd, which had knelt several times en route to the Capitol, erupted into cheers.
— Rachel Chason and Clarence Williams
‘They take that knee and then come back to kill us’
Bodies pressed against the orange metal barricades along Vermont Avenue at McPherson Square, protesters turned their attention away from the hundreds of police and military personnel lined behind the barrier to a young black man addressing the crowd.
“The [Boston] Tea Party was about people who didn’t want to pay their taxes,” he shouted. “This is about people who don’t want to get killed.”
When the cheers died down, the crowd surged with “take a knee” chants, urging the nearby police to show solidarity.
“That don’t mean s--- to them,” another young black man at the barricade shouted, quieting the crowd. “They take that knee and then come back to kill us.”
Then a speaker that was wheeled into the crowd began blasting out “Rise Up” by Andra Day. The shouts and taunts stopped, and 100 people in the crowd quietly raised their fists until the speaker shorted out halfway through the anthem.
— Kyle Swenson
‘The military does not need to be here’
“The military does not need to be here!” a young black woman shouted to the line of police officers positioned feet away on the other side of the barricade. She gestured down Vermont Avenue, where all afternoon military personal had gathered and waited.
“The mayor you answer to said they don’t need to be here,” screamed the woman, who declined to give her name or age. “Why the military here to police us? Because I’m loud and black the military needs to be here?”
Her anger and energy began drawing more protesters, 50 at least, some abandoning plans to leave so they could gather at her side on the barricade.
“You all want to change the world? You could have been a teacher!” she yelled.
She moved to the center of the barricade.
“Put your hand up if any of you all think it was wrong to kill George!”
When the two dozen law enforcement officers did not acknowledge her plea, protesters began shouting.
— Kyle Swenson
‘We’re doing this for you’
Four-year-old Nile sat on her father’s shoulders, wearing a rainbow-colored tutu, at the center of the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza. She held a “Black Lives Matter” sign as her father, John Willey, 37, of D.C., gently bopped her up and down.
“Why are so many people taking my picture?” she asked her mother, Krystle Joyner, 34.
“Because you give people hope,” Joyner said. “We’re doing this for you.”
It was the first day the family has attended the protests, and the first day the parents had talked to their daughter about racism, following the Sesame Street town hall event that morning, said Joyner, a school counselor with DCPS.
“She’s like, ‘Why are so many people out there?’ She sees it on the news, and we’re trying to get her to understand,” Joyner said.
— Samantha Schmidt
‘People can say what they want here’
Protests aren’t like this in Omar Al-Za’atreh’s home country of Jordan. The 20-year-old George Washington University student had attended multiple protests in the nation’s capital during the week. The endless crowds. The speeches. The media swarming the crowds. It all felt so American to the international student.
Even Monday, when officers moved in and gassed protesters to clear them, he said it was far less violent than in the Middle East.
“People can say what they want here,” he said. “It’s not like this in the Middle East.”
He had attended a protest back home, but he said people were so afraid of the government that not many showed up. There were few members of the news media to document what unfolded, he said.
“The circumstances here apply to America, but racism and police brutality are everywhere,” he said. “I am supporting people here so if something happens at home, they will support us.”
— Perry Stein
‘I wanted to come out’
Chase Rickman, a 36-year-old sales manager for AT&T, was glued to his television and phone every night since the protests began. When he realized just how historic the moment was becoming, he wanted in. But with Bowser’s 7 p.m. curfew in place Monday and Tuesday, he decided against it, not wanting to violate the law. There just wasn’t enough time to get downtown after his shift ended.
But with the curfew extended to 11 p.m., Rickman had his chance.
"We are in the city where decisions are being made,” he said, “and I have never experienced something this large-scale.”
He was among the ranks of protesters who were joining the crowd for the first time on the sixth day. They made signs on their lunch breaks, shared their location with loved ones on their phones and laced up their most comfortable walking shoes.
“I was spreading awareness, I was signing petitions, but I wanted to come out,” said Diamond Morgan, 19, a student studying business administration in Maryland. Three of her high school friends joined her, carrying a backpack of snacks and safety goggles. The four young black women trailed hundreds of protesters moving from the Capitol to the White House.
“I have my health where I can walk and be outside," Morgan said. "Since I have that ability during the pandemic, I am using it.”
— Jessica Contrera
‘I’m a Trump supporter’
Stan Armstrong, 55, lowered his voice before revealing the truth. “I’m a Trump supporter,” he whispered. He was in D.C. from Washington state for his father’s internment at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. He was trying to get a better picture of the White House through the crowd of protesters.
“I think all lives matter, but ... I think the left has their own agenda,” he said. “You should be able to protest, but there should never be violence by the protesters.”
He said he told the military officers he was on their side.
“I wanted these guys to know there’s a supporter in the crowd; I’m a veteran myself,” he said. Having the military out “maintains order for people to protest peacefully,” he said. “If you don’t have order, you have chaos.”
— Rachel Weiner
‘You can’t tell us who you are?’
“Who are you? Are you federal agents? You’re in our city, keeping us from our park, but you can’t tell us who you are?” asked Galen Murphy-Fahlgren. He was met with silence. The 31-year-old Marine veteran said he’d been scared to come out to previous protests because of covid-19, but started protesting at the White House the day before because he was disgusted by what happened Monday night.
“Once U.S. Park Police started attacking peaceful protesters for no other reason than politics, I decided that what’s going on in this country is more dangerous than a virus,” he said.
— Rachel Weiner
‘Stand out here for Ray-Ray’
The scene outside the Capitol was relaxed, with music and a mixed-race crowd applauding during speeches about channeling the energy from the protests into positive change for African American neighborhoods. No one chanted.
One speaker talked about the unsolved homicides in Southeast Washington and, to him, the city’s seeming indifference about them.
“There are black boys and black girls still missing,” the speaker, who is African American, said to the crowd, some of whom held aloft signs reading “Black Lives Matter” or “I can’t breathe.”
“It’s good to stand here for George Floyd, but stand out here for Ray-Ray, too,” he said, adding that some of those killings were the result of black-on-black violence. “Black people: Check your people in the neighborhood.”
— Antonio Olivo
‘They just kept shooting me’
“I was trying to shake the fence. They just kept shooting me,” said Adam Campbell, a 31-year-old software engineer from Frederick who was struck by pellets filled with an irritant powder. He was sitting on the curb cross-legged afterward as others offered water to flush his eyes, and he was having trouble catching his breath. He was helped to a “medic station” near St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Campbell, struggling to walk, said he was hit in the face and elsewhere.
“I’m hurting all over,” he said.
— Freddy Kunkle
‘We just want to talk. ... Is that too much to ask for?’
Adam Lenssa was standing on Vermont Avenue, inches from a line of Secret Service police officers in riot gear and within sight of a National Guardsman standing up through the hatch of an armored vehicle, when the 18-year-old college student thought he spotted Trump in the distance.
“Where are you going?” he shouted. “We just want to talk. Come and talk with us. We’re not violent. We just want to talk rational reform. Is that too much to ask for?”
But the president, who was, in fact, touring Lafayette Square at that moment, did not stop.
So instead Lenssa turned his attention back to the line of stone-faced officers.
“It breaks my heart,” he said, tears beginning to stream down his face and onto his partly lowered mask. “My parents left Ethiopia. They wanted me to have a better life away from the war there. And we’re having a … war here, over our skin color, because of the way God created me.”
“Y’all think that’s right?” he said.
“Hell no,” said a boy nearby, no older than 12, clutching a long, white piece of wood he had picked up off the ground.
“Hell no,” echoed Lenssa’s cousins Bulo Osman, 19, and Naaoli Mamie, 19.
This was the third night in a row that the three Silver Spring cousins had come to Lafayette Square. The previous night, authorities hadn’t seemed to care about the curfew, and so on this night the cousins weren’t worried.
But suddenly the line of Secret Service officers began to surge forward. Lenssa tripped on a package of water bottles, nearly falling to the ground, as the officers began swinging their batons.
“They are pushing!” someone shouted.
After forcing the crowd back about 10 yards, the officer stopped. Lenssa resumed his lament.
“One fist,” he pleaded in the face of an African American officer, begging him to show a sign of support. “Is that too much to ask for? Is that too much to ask for? Do you have no heart? One fist! Please, one fist.”
The teenager sank to his knees, his tears again falling.
“Please, I’m on my knees,“ he said. “Please, one fist, bro. Just one.”
The officer didn’t flinch.
— Michael E. Miller
‘We built it, so we should burn it’
A group of about 200 protesters sat on the street at H and 16th, where the street signs were covered in red graffiti, and across from St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the windows remained boarded. A family and pastor stood in front of the church handing out “free water and prayer,” as a sign read.
Protesters on the ground passed around boxes of Papa John’s pizza as a young man in a tie-dye shirt walked around with hand sanitizer. Christian music played from speakers. Families with young children walked by to see the crowd.
A moment later, a row of officers approached the barricades at Lafayette Square, U.S. Park Police officers on the east side and Secret Service on the west.
“Stand up!” a woman shouted, and the group approached the metal barricades, shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.”
Among them was D.C. resident Kyle Burnett, 32, who hadn’t been able to make it to the weekend protests but felt emboldened to come out Monday. He has been frustrated by the tense police response, he said: “They don’t get why we’re doing this.”
“We built it, so we should burn it,” Burnett said.
“It’s been getting to a boiling point, and it’s going to explode,” said his friend Andrew Green, 29.
Asked whether he would stay past the curfew, Burnett said: “If need be, yes. If any more police come and they start to push forward, I’m staying.”
— Samantha Schmidt
‘Just a little bit of water’
When big heavy drops of rain fell in front of the White House, most of the nearly 1,000 protesters did not move.
“George Floyd! George Floyd,” they chanted. They then marched a few steps, faced the White House and roared with even more energy.
“Black Lives Matter!”
“We’re here to prove our point,” said Tania Murphy, 20. “We can’t give up now. Just a little bit of water.”
— Perry Stein
‘It’s an America problem’
As he watched hundreds of people marching north on 17th Street, Madiagne Sarr marveled with his friends at the diversity of the crowd Tuesday.
“Man, the number of white, black, Hispanic, Asian people I saw out there,” he said, pausing. “It’s important.”
“It is,” his friends replied, nodding in agreement as they began recounting the ways in which they had experienced racism as black men in America — including being asked for their driver’s licenses even when in the passenger seat of cars.
“It’s not just a black people problem; it’s an America problem,” Sarr said.
— Rachel Chason
‘This is a complete failure’
Imran Sherefa was standing on the corner of 16th and K, music blaring from the newly renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza as he dispensed hand sanitizer to passersby, when his friend Marquell Washington approached to vent.
“This is a complete failure,” the 25-year-old Howard student told Sherefa.
Washington had been homeless for five years. He now stood half a block from the alley where he sometimes slept until a few months ago. He was livid that Saturday’s protest seemed more about having fun than achieving anything.
“This is a block party,” he said. “This is a cookout. Nobody is abiding by covid-19 [social distancing]. Nobody is talking about the budget passed by the mayor. Everybody is just talking about the street being painted.”
A few feet away, the bright yellow letters on the sidewalk began.
“They stop throwing tear gas and opened up the block a bit, and now everybody thinks we won,” he said, his face shaking with anger.
“The saddest part is today could’ve been a day to send a message,” Sherefa said. “We had 10,000 people here, and we wasted it by dancing.”
— Michael E. Miller
‘We don’t have an understanding of our own history’
After the crowds had departed from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — headed to the Capitol for another demonstration — one protester stayed behind.
Mario Perez, a 34-year-old D.C. resident who works in finance, sat cross-legged in his black shorts and white Converse high-tops, a black cloth mask covering his face. He sat in front of a wall displaying a King quote: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
Fifty-five years after King spoke those words to a crowd of demonstrators in Montgomery, Ala., Perez sat before the inscription, head bowed, quietly weeping. He had placed a bouquet of yellow flowers on the ground in front of him. He was alone.
At some point, Perez believed, America had gotten off track. The promise of social renewal seen in King’s generation of activists had not been realized.
“Somewhere or other we accepted a social contract ...” Perez said, trailing off. “I think a lot of people are doing a lot of reflection."
Today, as the country confronts multiple crises that have challenged Americans’ confidence in the resilience of their government and divided them from one another, Perez — like so many before him — thought a salve and a way forward might be found by contemplating King’s words.
“Part of the reason we can’t agree on basic things is because we don’t have an understanding of our own history,” he said.
— Peter Jamison
‘This uniform does nothing to take away from being black’
The white man approached the tall metal fence outside the Treasury Department, shouting at the black Secret Service agent behind it and demanding to know why he didn’t quit his job.
It was close to 9 p.m., and about two dozen protesters, deprived of police to shout at all day, had quickly massed outside the department after spotting a handful of officers stationed on its steps, eager to engage. The black agent — and two white colleagues, who were standing farther back on the steps — had remained silent and stone-faced as the crowd shouted, “F--- 12!” and “Quit your jobs!”
But now the black agent stepped forward and looked directly at the white man.
“Be sure to remember this,” he said in a level, low voice that carried, quieting the crowd. “Me putting on this uniform does nothing to take away from being black, and the consequences of being black.”
The white protester stared. The agent took another step toward the fence.
“So, before you ask me that again,” he said, “let me ask you this: What does your white privilege taste like?”
The protester gave an angry shrug. “I’m out here protesting for black people who are getting killed by cops!” he shouted.
“Did you find yourself at a voting booth last election?” the black agent asked in the same low voice. “Have you read Malcolm X?”
The white man took a step back. “I haven’t,” he admitted. “Have you? Have you read it?”
“Yes,” said the officer, “And you don’t get to tell me my expression. You don’t get to tell me — ”
But the rest of his response was cut off as more people arrived, and the yelling crescendoed. A few minutes later, when the conversation became impossible, the agent stepped away and looked at his white colleagues, who nodded. One by one, they filed into a door of the Treasury Department, the crowd cheering their departure.
The black officer was last to duck inside.
— Hannah Natanson
‘We knew it was inside’
Two masked faces in the overwhelmingly young crowd stood out: Frank Guzzetta and Paul Manville, married and in their 70s.
“It’s an amazing day. We’ve lived through so many of these — ” Guzzetta started, before his voice caught on a choked cry and his eyes began to water.
“It’s just so heartening, so many young people out, and it’s so positive, so hopeful,” he said as the crowd around him chanted, in call-and-response, “Say his name! George Floyd!”
Pausing on what was driving his emotion, he looked around and gestured with a sweep of his arm to the crowds, the Capitol they were passing, the city.
“The world. This is our country,” he said, through tears that mixed with sweat around his mask. “We knew it was inside; we just didn’t see it.”
The pair have been at protests through the years — gay rights, civil rights, antiwar — said Guzzetta, who lives in retirement on Capitol Hill but was formerly president of Hecht’s, Macy’s and Ralph Lauren Home.
“This is just so much more positive, so much more hopeful," he said. "I’ve been saying to young people — we’re leaving you a world with a lot of problems. ... We’ve always been not racists, but it’s not enough to not be racist. You have to be anti-racist. You need to speak up.”
— Michelle Boorstein
‘I love being black’
After 7 p.m., on the same street in front of the White House where a week earlier protesters clashed with police in riot gear, a woman stood up on a cooler, threw her head back and began to chant: “I love being black. I said I love being black. Don’t you love being black?"
A group of a few dozen black protesters gathered around her on H Street, in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. They grew louder, clapping along and repeating her words, in an intimate moment of joy and solidarity.
“I love the color of my skin,” Jade Foster, 34, of Southeast D.C., shouted, as the crowd repeated. “’Cause it’s the skin that I’m in.”
“I love the texture of my hair, and I rock it everywhere,” she sang.
Minutes later, she grew quieter as she finished the song:
“I said I love being black.”
— Samantha Schmidt
Photo editing by Wendy Galietta. Design and development by Allison Mann.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the victims of police use of force whose name was read aloud during a demonstration at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. That victim was Eric Garner, not Eric Glover.