As evening fell in downtown Washington, Black Lives Matter Plaza seemed as much a street festival as a street protest. Groups of protesters shouting “George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” rolled through occasionally. Other times, crowds would chat in the street, admire posters stuck on fences in front of the White House, listen to music blasted from PA systems or eat barbecue on the grill at St. John’s Episcopal Church — the scene of the presidential photo op just days ago.
People were dancing in the street, chalking and spray-painting messages in the pavement. No police were visible anywhere. People of all ages and races strolled around, listening to music, eating at barbecue tents and an ice cream kiosk and buying T-shirts from the many vendors still on hand. Most were wearing masks to protect themselves and others from the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.
Street medics were on hand to dispense free hand sanitizer, masks or ibuprofen to anyone in need. In Lafayette Park, people sat on metal benches, removing their masks to eat something, drink something or smoke something. People snapped photos of a statue of Andrew Jackson — behind a layer of fence where passerby had stuck signs reading “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
The protest was still happening — it was just happening casually, unfolding in its own time and on its own terms, and with very little engagement from Secret Service officers or other authorities.
The crowd remained several thousand strong, widely spread out. Several hundred gathered at the low barrier along Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, calling for defunding of the police. Three Secret Service officers , two with semiautomatic rifles slung over their shoulders, stood across the way. Tension ratcheted up slightly when the second heavily armed officer appeared.
Garic Young, 21, a West Virginia University student, took the megaphone and jeered the officers, asking why they had appeared carrying weapons before a peaceful crowd. He talked about the deep injustice ingrained into the US justice system, reminding people that many, pressed into chain gangs and other forced labor, perpetuated the system of slavery. Then he led crowd with call and response chants.
“People need to know what’s going on,” he said in an interview later. ““I want people to think critically about the entire general system that adds to the oppression of minorities.”
But the serious nature of that discussion happened only intermittently. At the corner of 14th and U Streets, two friends lifted a plastic tub full of a translucent yellow liquid up to the light to better examine its contents.
“They said orange juice was in here, but...” one woman said, trailing off.
“Listen,” her friend interrupted, brandishing her own container. “Everyone here is drunk.”
The two, who declined to give their names, were among countless demonstrators who by early evening had fully embraced the concert vibe that had overtaken U Street on the warm, muggy evening.
Plumes of marijuana smoke wafted through the air. People with coolers sold homemade concoctions to demonstrators by the bottle. A man passed out tiny bottles of Makers Mark from a messenger bag.
“Turn this party up,” he called.
The concert at U Street was entering its second hour around 8 p.m. when a reveler in the crowd began to shoot off fireworks into the air.
Several in the crowd cheered. Others pressed past groups of people drinking frozen margaritas and mixed drinks in pouches to get away from the falling debris. From the stage erected on a flatbed truck at the center of the intersection, a performer pleaded with the man to consider the safety of others.
“Come on, big dog. Why you doing that in the crowd?” he said. “I understand it’s Independence Day, but take that to the back, dog. Take that somewhere else.”