So, Garcia booked a flight to D.C. and spent a day in October walking the National Mall with other activists attempting to occupy the Interior Department.
During her first 24 hours in the city, she stayed at the Eaton DC hotel downtown, bought a $14 breakfast sandwich and spent a few dollars on Gatorade purchased from a vendor near the Lincoln Memorial. At night, she sat on the grass at Freedom Plaza with a meal that climate organizers bought for her and other activists from Open Crumb, sending about $3,000 in revenue to the Black family-owned restaurant in Anacostia.
“You can tell it’s quality,” she said, looking at the West African food piled high on her paper plate. “Usually with these actions, it is cardboard pizza.”
Unbeknown to Garcia, she was contributing to a subset of the local economy that has become increasingly vital to the nation’s capital. With offices downtown still largely vacant and business travel yet to reach pre-pandemic levels, protests have become one of the most consistent draws to the city — when out-of-towners come to exercise their First Amendment rights and then, maybe, go out to dinner.
In 2021, people from across the country flocked to the nation’s capital to rally against fossil fuels, march for racial justice and voice their opinions on abortion. The National Park Service issued more than 245 First Amendment demonstration permits from January through July of this year, data the agency provided to The Washington Post shows.
These days of activism have injected life into the downtown and provided much-needed financial relief to businesses struggling to turn profits without corporate customers. A recent report revealed that by mid-September, less than 25 percent of employees had returned to their downtown buildings and the retail vacancy rate continued to hover around 20 percent.
As a result, officials have embraced protest tourism in their attempts to revitalize downtown Washington. Destination D.C., the city’s marketing arm, is advertising the city as a unique place to witness social change. BigBus, the largest tour bus provider in the city, is updating its script to teach tourists about the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza.
At the end of October, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced plans to install benches, lighting, signs and other amenities at Black Lives Matter Plaza — a hub for the city’s protests and demonstrations since its creation after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. The city has spent $4.8 million on what has become a tourist destination, and it has plans to shell out at least $3 million more.
“If business was happening as usual, this would be icing on the cake,” Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination D.C., said of the demonstrations and the people they attract. “But when you don’t have business at all, it’s basically a Hail Mary.”
Washington has long profited from its status as a protest capital of the world, drawing people who want to demonstrate and those looking to visit the sites where historic movements began. These visitors only multiplied in the wake of the 2016 election, a trend that kick-started the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, with the 500,000 people who flooded downtown D.C. for the Women’s March.
Destination D.C. has always welcomed people to peacefully protest, but it had not explicitly advertised to visitors interested in demonstrations until last winter. At the time, the coronavirus pandemic had emptied office buildings and affected leisure and business visits. Ferguson had started to receive dozens of calls from travelers looking to learn more about Black Lives Matter Plaza and the artwork on the fence at Lafayette Square after Floyd’s murder.
In February, Destination D.C. solicited proposals from ad agencies to design a $400,000 marketing blitz to bring tourists back to the city. The organization said it was looking for a company that could in part publicize Washington as “the place where you can actively practice your First Amendment right.”
“You’re really looking at opportunities for people to come into a city and experience what they saw on television for months,” Ferguson said of promoting Black Lives Matter Plaza. “We’re hoping that they’ll come for a variety of reasons, inclusive of protest tourism.”
Ferguson’s decision to include protest tourism in the city’s official marketing campaigns, which are backed by Bowser, marked a significant shift from how local leadership characterized demonstrations over the past two years. At the height of racial justice demonstrations in the summer of 2020, Bowser and others repeatedly braced for vandalism and looting amid protest activity that had damaged storefronts, scared off visitors and drained financial resources from the nation’s capital.
That summer, a man set fire to the centuries-old “church of the presidents” across the street from the White House while others smashed and stole from dozens of shops in neighborhoods from Shaw to Friendship Heights to Georgetown during the protests. The city spent $40 million to boost police staffing during that period and more than $50,000 on foam and rubber projectiles throughout that fiscal year. Images like the ones of police using chemical irritants to clear Lafayette Square made the city appear anything but welcoming to demonstrators.
In August, during nightly clashes on the streets, Bowser blamed “outside agitators” for the harm. She said they came to the city “armed for battle” and “looking for police to confront.”
Ferguson has experienced the complexity of protest tourism firsthand. On the evening of Jan. 5, he was staying at a hotel downtown with his wife to escape construction at their house when he saw the lobby bustling with out-of-towners with MAGA hats and American flags.
He remembered thinking to himself that “he didn’t necessarily agree with their agenda,” but after months of record low occupancy rates, he was glad to see the hotel busy.
But the next night, with a Capitol Police officer dead and windows at the Capitol smashed during the riot, Ferguson said he wanted the hotel crowd gone.
“It’s when loss of life and property take place,” he said. “That’s where our city leaders and stakeholders like us draw the line.”
Since the Capitol attack, however, protests in D.C. have been smaller and quieter. As a result, downtown businesses once damaged by demonstrations have since benefited from their continued presence.
Teaism, a teahouse with a location near the White House, was set on fire during racial justice demonstrations last year. Owner Michelle Brown — who tweeted “Black Lives Matter” as her shop burned — had to close that storefront for four months for repairs. She again shut down the business for much of January, as the city fortified to prevent rioters from returning for the inauguration of President Biden.
More than 10 months later, protests have become lifelines for Brown’s business. With a slow return of the daytime office crowd, her location in Penn Quarter has struggled to surpass 65 percent of pre-pandemic sales. In Lafayette Square, Teaism has struggled to bring in more than 40 percent of what it recorded in 2019.
But on Oct. 2, the Women’s March brought record numbers of customers looking for a hot drink to break up a long day of activism. Sales spiked by 35 percent in Penn Quarter, making it the busiest day at that location since before the pandemic.
“Besides the dollars that came in,” Brown said, “it gave us hope.”
D.C. hotels have similarly benefited from protest activity, which is especially critical given that as of mid-September, only 11 percent of their employees who had lost jobs during the pandemic had returned to work, according to the October DowntownDC Economy Update report. During the week of Jan. 6, hotel occupancy in D.C. was above 26 percent, up from 15.5 percent the previous week, according to data provided by DowntownDC. On Oct. 2, occupancy surpassed 50 percent, a significant increase from just over 45 percent the week prior.
Since opening on K Street, Eaton DC founder Kat Lo has crafted the hotel as a space to support social change, even heavily subsidizing rooms for protesters.
Lo’s approach proved especially salient over the past year and a half, when Eaton DC’s average occupancy — like many other nearby hotels — fell from above 70 percent to between 20 and 40 percent on most days except for when big protests came into town. Then, occupancy has spiked to above 80 percent.
“Staying with us, they’re actually giving us a lift and giving us the chance to survive as a business,” Lo said of activists who come to D.C.
She added: “The pandemic hasn’t stopped social movements.”
Leaders of these social movements, however, do not necessarily embrace the concept of “protest tourism” if it means that people travel to D.C. simply to take pictures at Black Lives Matter Plaza and not participate in change-making activity.
Movement Catalyst came together this year to launch a hub to help groups generate protest activity while addressing the complications of bringing outsiders to D.C. to march.
The group has tried to be “very intentional” about where they direct groups to spend by connecting them with places that align with their values, like Eaton DC and local Black-owned businesses, said Abby Henderson, a partner at Movement Catalyst.
Movement Catalyst brought Garcia, the climate protester, to D.C. for the first time and arranged a meal that day at Black Lives Matter Plaza.
“I wouldn’t want to give any kind of impression that we’re facilitating protest tourism,” Henderson said. “But I think there are lots of people who want to come into D.C. and make noise, a variety of people for a variety of very, very legitimate reasons. And as we can hopefully make our way out of the pandemic, we fully intend to keep facilitating that.”