Nearly every day since August, Seiler had driven 45 minutes from her home in Maryland to tend to the wall, becoming an unofficial curator of the memorial. When protest signs fell down, she picked them up. When they became damaged, she repaired them with tape. She organized the mementos there into three exhibits: police accountability, social justice, faces of the dead.
But this week, just days before the bitterly contested Nov. 3 presidential election, her museum was gone.
Just as newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett was being sworn in by Justice Clarence Thomas at the South Lawn of the White House, three people who said they were acting in the name of Jesus stormed the memorial wall, according to Seiler and video posted on social media. The group — led by a White conservative activist from Texas and two antiabortion Black women from New Jersey — worked for hours in the darkness, pulling away sign after sign. They said they came to celebrate Barrett’s ascension to the bench.
Seiler and the strangers around her tried to block the signs with their bodies.
But by Tuesday night, the wall was nearly empty.
The religious activists promised they’d be back.
The tension first started late Monday afternoon, hours before Barrett’s confirmation, according to witness interviews and video. Seiler was holding her daily 5 p.m. rally along the fence and shouting in her megaphone “Vote him out!” The conservative activists, in town for the Let Us Worship event on the Mall, had come to Black Lives Matter Plaza before heading to the Supreme Court to pray.
The visitors, Kevin Whitt, Bevelyn Beatty and Edmee Chavannes, approached the memorial fence. Whitt later told The Washington Post he is the assistant director of the Texas chapter of MassResistance, a socially conservative and anti-LGBTQ activist group, and the women said they run an evangelical street ministry.
They briefly argued with Seiler about the mission of Black Lives Matter. Then they left.
But just after Barrett was officially confirmed around 9 p.m., Whitt and the women returned.
The trio, not wearing masks, said they were upset that the view of the White House was blocked by signs. They started snatching, they told The Post.
Seiler started recording on her cellphone while others around her desperately tried to stop the destruction.
Valarie Walker and Laurie Arbeiter, friends from New York who traveled to D.C. to protest, used their hands and feet and a tambourine to protect the signs. Walker said she lost a lock of hair in the bedlam, and Arbeiter said she lost her phone.
At about that time, 23-year-old Tim Hernández rolled up on an Uber bicycle. He had watched Barrett’s confirmation on television with mounting sadness and headed to the Supreme Court seeking progressive community. Instead, he found a church service and turned west toward Black Lives Matter Plaza. As soon as he arrived, he ditched his bike and tried to “take up space,” he said. But Whitt, Beatty and Chavannes turned the memorial into a pile of debris stacked in the trash.
A sign of Trayvon Martin’s face fell. A floral arrangement that said “VOTE” came down. Laminated pages of Black women who had died were thrown to the ground.
One large sign remained. Made of thick white material and spanning the entire height of the fence, it was decorated with bright colors and intricate flowers. “Black lives matter everywhere, every day, all the time,” it read.
The groups clashed again over the final sign, with Hernández and another man imploring D.C. police to stop the teardown.
The trio left at around 11 p.m.
Though Whitt said he briefly felt guilty for tearing down memorials to Black people who had died, he and the women all told The Post they believed the wall should have recognized aborted fetuses and other perspectives. Beatty and Chavannes said they believe Black Lives Matter does not represent all Black people.
Beatty said their efforts were a “nice little community cleanup.”
Seiler and others started salvaging and picking through the trash for signs that were not destroyed to start rebuilding.
But before they could start to hang them again, Beatty and Chavannes returned. They grabbed the rescued signs and tossed them in the street, shredding them with their hands.
One man sprawled his body across the ground and tucked the signs beneath him.
Still unable to tear down the tall white sign, the women left, returning a final time — with scissors.
Beatty and Chavannes sliced through the word “lives,” and the last large sign fell.
This was the scene Caterina Sesana walked into when she and a friend showed up to help.
Seiler did not want to leave the signs unattended, but did not have room in her car because it was filled with her curator supplies — tape, zip ties, posters, paint.
Sesana opened her trunk to store the surviving signs for safekeeping.
They agreed to meet back at Black Lives Matter Plaza the next day and said goodbye around 3 a.m.
Before Seiler went to sleep, she contacted several social justice organizations with a message: Please help.
Restoration and repair
As she had done nearly every day for the last six weeks, Seiler climbed into her car Tuesday afternoon and headed toward downtown D.C. for the daily protest outside the White House. Though a small crew collected the surviving signs to restore the wall, Seiler was not hopeful.
Don’t bother to bring tape or make new signs, Seiler said on the phone to Karen Irwin, who had been a regular at the fence since joining the William Thomas Anti-Nuclear Peace Vigil this fall. What’s the point, she said, of putting them back up if they’ll just be torn back down?
Seiler got to the fence first. Then two others. But for more than an hour, hardly anyone else came.
“I felt very defeated,” Seiler said.
Then the people started trickling in — from Black Lives Matter DC and from They/Them Collective. Sesana, who kept the salvaged signs overnight, pulled up and popped her trunk.
The regulars at the memorial fence like to say that if Seiler is its unofficial curator, then the revolving door of strangers who have found comfort there are its de facto docents. In total, more than 75 people came to restore the memorial fence. Within hours, it was full again.
Breonna Taylor’s face and George Floyd’s memory were back. Working as a team, they pieced the large white sign together so it once again read: “Black Lives Matter everywhere, every day, all the time.”
About a dozen people lingered, ready to defend the wall if anyone returned.
Just before 11 p.m., Whitt did. This time, he was alone. For more than an hour, he paced along the fence, shouting back and forth with the docents.
“I am a patriot of this country,” he said. “This is my capital. This is my White House.”
Whitt left empty-handed.
Seiler has spent every night since continuing to repair what was broken.
She has wrapped the new signs in clear tape to keep them dry and fortified the old ones with extra zip ties.
Seiler said she is prepared for the conflict that might play out at the fence on election night. And she is committed to maintaining this time capsule of 2020’s racial reckoning.
“We call tell the story on the fence,” she said. “I’m going to keep the story alive as long as the fence is up.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said President Trump swore in Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice. It was Justice Clarence Thomas who swore her in.