The self-appointed guardians of the fence that separates Black Lives Matter Plaza in the District from the federal parkland of Lafayette Square and the White House grounds gathered once again in the street Saturday as the sun rose.
They carefully photographed each decorated panel of fence — 78 of them — and archived the contents, making detailed notes of each. Then, after a final look, the group began to take it all down.
They clipped zip ties and unfastened pipe cleaners, cut through thick layers of tape and unhooked bungee cords. Volunteers collected the pieces one by one in large plastic bags before carrying them to a waiting car.
Some of the pieces will be donated to museums and schools. Howard University and the Library of Congress have already selected some items for their respective collections. D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said recently that the District had reached out to the Smithsonian Institution about taking some of the works, though no official agreement had been reached.
National Park Service officials have prodded the Smithsonian, which in June sent representatives to collect artifacts that had accumulated in the square amid ongoing racial justice demonstrations. The Park Service also had planned to preserve some of the signs in the agency’s own museum collection, but Nadine Seiler, a racial justice activist and the unofficial curator of the display, said she had no word from the government about that.
“I haven’t heard from them at all,” she said Saturday as she unclipped an American flag from the metal. “It’s not like those people don’t know where to find me. I’m out here every day.”
Seiler, 55, had been among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of D.C. after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis to demand criminal justice reform and protest the country’s long, painful history of racial inequality.
As signs carried by demonstrators began to accumulate on and around the security fence erected at Lafayette Square, Seiler started to do what she does best: organize.
Before the coronavirus pandemic made working in other people’s houses impossible, Seiler had been a professional home organizer. She helped others order their closets and inventory their collections. She enjoyed making order from chaos.
In August, Seiler began to make near-daily trips from her home in Waldorf, Md., to Black Lives Matter Plaza, where volunteer medics would gather for shifts throughout the day and protesters would meet for rallies or meandering marches about town.
Seiler, meanwhile, would tend to the pieces on the fence. She learned that each one had its own needs — more tape, a stronger foundation, a protective plastic coating.
Then, on Oct. 26, a small group of conservative activists who had come to D.C. for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, attacked the fence. They snatched signs, ripped posters, threw items to the ground. Many pieces were destroyed.
Seiler and a small army of volunteers restored what they could. Before long, a collection of salvaged signs and new additions refilled the fence.
But Seiler had made a decision. She would not let anything like that happen again.
That meant maintaining a vigil at the fence, day and night. It meant defending the fence with her body, raising her arms and standing between would-be vandals and the pieces they sought to destroy. It meant recruiting others to keep watch and feeding the homeless individuals who helped fill out her team of volunteers.
It meant being there all day, all night, no matter what.
Since that late October day, Seiler said, she has spent no more than a few hours at a time away from her post. She coordinates with others, including Karen Irwin, 45, so they can take turns sleeping, eating or using the bathroom.
The rest of her time is spent minding the pieces on display, negotiating with police officers who have closed the plaza several times over the past few months, or helping tourists with questions about the art, the protests, the best place to attempt a photo of the White House.
After President Biden was inaugurated and Seiler had folded up her flags that opposed the former president — “He’s gone,” she had said, “so we don’t need these anymore” — Seiler decided the time had come to step away from the daily work of protecting the fence. Her protest of the former president was over, she said. It had become harder to imagine staying out there all day and night as temperatures fell and heaps of snow were forecast to hit the region.
So she and her team of volunteers conferred and determined that the best way to make sure the fence and its art would live on — with or without her standing watch — was to create a digital archive, to preserve the fence exactly as it was for anyone to see, forever.
Aliza Leventhal, an archivist with the Library of Congress, offered to help guide the group in recording and archiving each piece.
She told Seiler to number each panel of the fence, so every piece could be recorded and stored in order.
Over three days, Seiler adjusted the art a final time. She hung pieces that had fallen, made sure folded corners were upright.
By the time the sun rose on Saturday, several dozen panels had been photographed and recorded.
A team of six made quick work of the rest in the morning cold. Jogging in place at times to keep their feet from freezing, they plucked homemade shields, painted tarps, mixed-media works of art from their positions.
“This is going to be the ugliest fence in the world when we’re all done,” Irwin said.
Runners and dog walkers paused to watch the process. Some had questions.
“Where’s this stuff going to end up?” asked a man, his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of a puffy red jacket.
“Are you all taking this to a museum or something?” asked a young woman as she took pictures with her phone.
“Yes,” Seiler said, cutting through plastic zip ties.
“That’s awesome,” the woman said. “Thank you for taking care of this.”
By midday, only a handful of more than 1,200 pieces remained.
Colorful ribbons tied to the fence to form the words “we keep us safe” and “defend Black lives” would stay. So, too, would streamers on which activists had written the names of Black people killed by police. Items deemed too difficult to preserve in their current form — a circle of streamers, dried flower petals taped individually to the fence — were also left behind.
As she surveyed the rapidly emptying panels, Seiler was flooded with relief.
The art pieces and posters she cared so deeply about would be stored and protected from the elements and far-right groups that already were discussing plans to return to the District. They would not be torn down unceremoniously when federal law enforcement decides to remove the barricade — a date that has yet to be determined.
One of the last pieces to go was a black and blue painting of a man’s face. Across the top, the artist had scrawled the words, “free your mind,” but Seiler had spent all week worrying about it.
On Wednesday, she said, members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front wandered through the plaza, pasting “Biden lost” stickers on whatever they could find. Before she could intervene, Seiler said, a man slapped a sticker on the corner of the painting, which had been among those selected by the Library of Congress. She acted quickly, lifting one corner then another, trying to peel it off the paper.
She couldn’t sleep that night, worried about more trouble and afraid that the next time she looked away, someone could slap a sticker — or something worse — across the downcast eyes of the painting.
As the piece was unclipped Saturday, smoothed out and tucked away in a plastic bag, Seiler breathed in, then out.
She would sleep well Saturday night, knowing that the painting, and so many others, were safe, knowing her work at the fence was finally done.