Disclaimer: The videos in this blog post may include profanity.
Marcus Mitchell moved through the crowds in the nation’s capital, noticing the absences.
No military vehicles lined the streets, as in previous days. No police stood watch in full riot gear. Demonstrators did what they’d always done — march with signs, chant in circles, offer free supplies to passersby — but everything, and everyone, seemed just a bit less tense.
Maybe, Mitchell thought to himself, today would be different.
He was looking for four friends: men and women in their 20s, four black and one white, some who knew each other from college or middle school or work, some who had hardly spoken until the start of the week. Three — including Mitchell — came from Houston, the city where George Floyd spent his boyhood, long before he stopped breathing beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, an act of cruelty that set off hundreds of demonstrations throughout the country and the world.
Like so many other Americans in June of 2020, Mitchell and his friends wanted to take part in history. But — frightened by President Trump’s display of military force, by late-night violence and looting, by the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters early in the week — they developed a checklist of precautions. They traveled in a tight pack, plotted exit routes, picked buildings or parks where they’d meet if the protests turned violent and they needed to run.
Saturday — a day that saw tens of thousands of people descend on the District, the largest turnout of the week — marked the group’s second time out together. Mitchell, a 27-year-old business analyst at Capital One, tugged at his black face mask and slid open a text on his phone.
The others were at the White House, he read, more than a mile away. Mitchell sighed.
“Meet y’all there,” he typed, then set off into the crowd.
Shortly before 5 p.m. — By St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Black Lives Matter Plaza
By 5 p.m., the five friends found each other.
Madison Johnson, a 25-year-old civil engineer, was last to arrive, delayed because his rolling metal cart broke after snagging on uneven concrete near the Mall. He had filled the cart — and a garbage bag slung over his shoulder — with $118 worth of supplies from Safeway: granola bars, dozens of mini-bags of chips, trays of Gatorade, two rolls of paper towels and two 35-packs of water.
On their last trip downtown, the group had noticed protesters setting up snack stations. They’d pooled their money, raised more on Instagram and received a $25 discount from the Safeway manager, after explaining why they were buying in bulk.
Now the five wove through the crowd near the White House, searching for a spot against the tall metal fence officials had erected earlier in the week. A woman, walking in the opposite direction, muttered to a friend that the executive mansion looked like a bunker.
They passed a white man in a crop top and jean shorts offering squirts of sanitizer, and Mitchell held out cupped hands to accept some. They passed a black man leading a chant: “We don’t leave! … Every day in the streets!” They passed a row of officers in dark uniforms leaning against white vans.
Kelly Antrum, 26, called out to two of them, a black man and a white man standing close together.
“Why aren’t you wearing masks?” yelled Antrum, a recent graduate of George Washington University. Beside her, Jess Condlin, a 24-year-old consultant, took out her phone and began filming.
The black man looked at the white officer, who looked at Antrum and said, “Can’t breathe in it.”
“Oh, can’t you breathe?” Antrum called across the road.
“George Floyd couldn’t breathe,” she yelled, then she and Condlin walked away.
One hour later — At the corner of 16th and H streets, Madison hands out supplies
“Water? Gatorade? Chips?” Johnson called. “Take it! Take it!”
The group had stationed themselves near the most concentrated section of the crowd, where people packed as close as they could to the fence, shouting at the White House through its metal links.
A white man in Lakers shorts tapped Johnson on the shoulder and whispered: “Thank you all, so much, for what you’re doing.” An elderly black woman, walking by with a cane, asked whether they were with a particular group — a charity? a church? — and if that was why they were handing out food.
“No group,” Johnson said, smiling, “just a group of friends.”
Mitchell told a blond woman that he liked her “I MISS OBAMA” T-shirt. The friends collectively blessed the clouds, whenever they wandered in front of the burning sun. The crowd by the White House switched to chanting, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” and a man in a blue button-down approached with a folded $10 bill in his outstretched hand.
“Please take it,” he said.
Johnson shook his head. That was the third person who’d tried to give them money.
A few minutes after — Overlooking the fence on the north side of Lafayette Square
Mitchell turned to look when the group by the White House began shouting Trayvon Martin’s name.
The 17-year-old’s death had led him to his first protest, when he had marched into the streets in 2012 to speak out against the fatal shooting of a black man just a few years younger than he was. Mitchell has kept marching ever since, attending so many demonstrations for so many dead young men and women that he lost count.
But he’d never been as scared as he was on Sunday, when officers fired chemical irritants to force him away from Lafayette Square — a prelude to the next afternoon, when officers used gas and rubber bullets to clear a crowd in front of the White House for a presidential photo op, sending men and women stumbling away blinded, struggling to breathe.
Once this week, he’d walked past an armored military vehicle on his way home, Mitchell told Condlin. He’d been wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey. Mitchell didn’t think he would make it home.
“I was so sure,” he said, “I was going to be the one they made an example of.”
Shortly after 6 p.m. — At the intersection of 16th and I streets
As evening approached, someone formed a drum circle near the White House and a black woman in striped pants and an electric-green tank top stepped to the middle of the street. Hands shaking, she removed her mask and opened her mouth.
“I said I love being black!” the woman chanted, stomping. “I love the skin that I’m in!”
Antrum, watching from the fence, joined in on every chorus. Mitchell, his mouth full of chips, applauded a bald man who yelled the line, “I love the tex-ture of my hair!”
Soon after, a black man in a white tank top, his fists clenched and eyes narrowed, climbed up a streetlight upon which — a day earlier — D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had installed a new sign, announcing a new name: “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
The man held up a painting — was it of George Floyd? Condlin couldn’t see — and shouted at the rollicking crowd. But the five friends couldn’t hear what he was saying and neither, it seemed, could anyone else. After a few minutes the man shrugged and clambered down.
“I guess he just didn’t get it,” Condlin said, wondering whether the man had hoped to talk about the sign, to praise or lament the name change. “This is not that kind of rally.”
At earlier protests Condlin attended, people with megaphones directed the masses. This, she thought, looking toward the White House, was closer to chaos.
A few minutes later a man dressed in black passed through the crowd, urging everyone to take a knee in honor of George Floyd. The five friends obeyed, but rose again moments later when they realized almost no one else had joined them.
Around 6:30 p.m. — At the intersection of 16th and L streets
Near dusk, Johnson took stock of what was left: 1½ paper towel rolls, nine water bottles and a thin layer of granola bars. Gone were all the fruit snacks and Gatorades.
His stomach grumbled, and he wondered how much longer they should stay.
“You guys handing out water?” came a voice from the right, and Johnson turned to find a man offering to restock them with 15 more bottles.
“Wow,” Johnson said. “That’s extremely kind.”
Condlin helped the man unpack, then broke into her own chant.
“We’ve got water if you’re thirsty, paper towels if you’re sick-y,” she called. “And trash if you’re …”
“Dirty!” Johnson finished, threading a paper towel roll on two forefingers and holding it up to passersby.
Around 7:30 p.m. — At the intersection of 16th and I St.
Mitchell wanted to talk about race.
The friends had grabbed food from a passing cart — plastic trays of meatloaf and mashed potatoes — and he was feeling revived, ready for debate.
A few days earlier, Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, said in an interview that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States.” He was referring to Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem.
“Now let’s consider,” Mitchell said. “You play a majority black sport in a majority black city.”
A shirtless older white man, passing behind Antrum, paused at the word “Kaepernick.” He stopped and folded his arms over his bare chest. Another white man, carrying a sign that read “LOVE THY NEIGHBOR,” walked over, too.
Antrum offered them water, but the shirtless man said no. Pointing at Mitchell, still in full flow, he whispered that they just wanted to listen.
When Mitchell finished, the man uncrossed his arms and cleared his throat. Mitchell looked at him, wondering whether the man agreed with him, deciding not to care if he didn’t. Without speaking, he leaned forward, not to argue, but to give Mitchell a high-five.
Silent, Mitchell watched the two men walk away.
One hour later — At the intersection of H St. and Vermont Ave.
Johnson’s father, a truck driver, called just as someone snatched the last water bottle.
“Extremely peaceful,” Johnson told him.
As Johnson ended the call, Jordan Woods’s grandmother texted her: “Are you marching!”
“Yes ma’am,” Woods typed back, but she wasn’t, and neither was anyone else she could see. Instead, people were shimmying and smoking marijuana, convened around a large truck that had been converted to a makeshift stage, and from which go-go music was blaring.
It was close to 8 p.m. On other nights, Mitchell remembered, this was when protesters had started rattling the fence outside the White House, or lobbing water bottles at police. Now he could not see law enforcement anywhere.
The friends left their last granola bars stacked in a pile on the curb and walked toward the go-go truck, squeezing through crowds so thick they had to cling to one another’s backpacks and shirt sleeves to avoid separation. They passed a woman pushing a baby in a stroller. The boy screwed his mouth into a curlicue as he stared, wide-eyed, at the crush of bodies.
“Don’t cry,” the woman said, “these people aren’t going to hurt you.”
Woods, 25, readjusted her leopard-print face mask as a large cloud of smoke drifted in her direction. Johnson raised his iPhone high in the air to take a video.
“It’s like a party out here,” he said.
Mitchell thought so, too. It felt like a block party, not a protest.
But it was still the 10th day, he told himself. No other uprising against police brutality had lasted 10 consecutive days — not for Trayvon Martin, not for Eric Garner, not for Philando Castile — and in that, he found hope.
Before midnight — At the corner of 16th and H streets