“Don’t forget to breathe,” their yogi said into a microphone, her words mixing with a soundtrack of hip-hop and rap. “Keep breathing.”
The daily demonstrations that began after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis brought new life to the streets at the center of the nation’s capital, a neighborhood of influential K Street lobbying firms, government offices and high-end restaurants that abruptly shut down when the novel coronavirus overtook the city.
The christening of Black Lives Matter Plaza by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) turned the corridor on 16th Street between H and I streets into a new destination — a rollicking blend of open-air soapbox, campground, flea market, museum and 24-hour hangout.
Yet in recent days, even with most downtown offices still shuttered and the power-lunch crowd unlikely to return any time soon, D.C. officials have moved to restore a sense of order.
Inspectors last week dispersed vendors who had settled on the plaza with threats of $2,000 fines. They told volunteers distributing free food and water to remove grills, tables, canopies and coolers. Police have ordered protesters to take down tents, and the city erected fencing to block access to Lafayette Square and St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was defaced and set on fire during the demonstrations.
There are still occasional marches, including one that a coalition of African American fraternities and sororities staged over the weekend. A vigil was held Saturday for the late congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement whose visit to the plaza shortly after its unveiling amounted to a kind of benediction. It turned out to be his last public appearance.
On most days, though, Black Lives Matter Plaza draws trickles of visitors who wander the corridor as if they were touring a museum. They stop to pose in front of the street art — a brightly painted mural of a black fist over here, another of Breonna Taylor over there — all suitable for Instagram.
“It feels like the gentrification of the whole movement,” activist Nahom Demoz, 33, said as the yoga class assembled on the portion of the plaza where the yellow letters spell out “M-A-T-T-E-R.”
“I understand that it could be good intentions,” he said. “But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Demoz spent weeks volunteering at Earl’s First Amendment Grill, a self-styled food stand. He and other activists cooked burgers and hot dogs free for anyone who asked — that is, until city inspectors showed up.
“It’s fizzling out,” he said.
'We need to strike a balance'
As the District has stepped up enforcement, the few activists still assembling at the plaza trade speculation about its future, whether the city will remove barriers that seal off the two blocks from traffic and whether Bowser’s painted letters will remain.
A spokesperson for the mayor, citing pending litigation, declined to respond to questions about the vendors or the plaza’s future.
Many downtown businesses remain boarded up or closed even as others are making a go of reopening. Traffic is light even at rush hour.
“Welcome Back,” reads the sign outside McCormick & Schmick’s, a steakhouse and seafood restaurant on K Street where a couple awaited their order at an outdoor table the other day.
At Black Lives Matter Plaza, P.J. Clarke’s, a restaurant that advertises itself as “a stone’s throw from the White House,” is still shuttered, a spray of profane graffiti disparaging President Trump on the wall to the right of the entrance. A few feet away, a man in a mask and goggles slumped on a metal folding chair, using an outdoor outlet to charge his cellphone.
“Why is that flag upside down?” Anne Rocca, 53, visiting from San Francisco, asked her husband, Joe, as they gazed at a turned-over American flag someone had attached to a lamppost at the corner.
Neil O. Albert, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, said the pandemic had turned the city’s commercial core into a “ghost town.” The vendors on the plaza, he said, needed to be removed to maintain “pedestrian access to the buildings with as little obstruction as possible.”
“We need to restore a sense of normalcy so businesses can reopen,” he said during a visit to the plaza. As for whether the strip should remain closed to traffic, he said the District needs to weigh business interests and respect for the politics of the moment.
“We need to strike a balance,” he said.
Across the street, Winfred van Workum, general manager of the St. Regis, a luxury hotel at 16th and K streets, said noise from the plaza — there was a 3 a.m. soccer game and loud music one night — had prompted some of the few guests to check out early. And because 16th Street is blocked off, cars can’t enter the hotel’s semicircular driveway.
“The types of business we get — foreign delegations — are not going to want to stay here if they can’t line up the limos to go to the White House,” van Workum said.
Dawayne Wilkes, 30, a protester who has been on the plaza for weeks, expressed little sympathy for the businesses, saying the mayor had encouraged a platform that the police and inspectors are now dismantling.
“They put the letters down for us,” he said of the mural. “This became a fashion trend. And now they turned it on us.”
'What could be better than this?'
On a hot afternoon, Woody Brown, 55, a procurement analyst from Springfield, wandered alone through the barren plaza. He held a yellow, rain-streaked “Black Lives Matter” sign — his way “of trying to keep a spotlight on all this,” he said.
Brown compared the plaza to a Christo installation, a reference to the late conceptual artist whose projects included erecting 23 miles of gates in New York’s Central Park adorned in saffron-colored drapes.
“It’s a piece of art,” Brown said.
It did not begin that way.
After Floyd’s death in late May, the corridor was center stage for protests and violent clashes between demonstrators and police, including the altercation June 1 in which officers used tear gas to clear the area for Trump to pose for photographers in front of St. John’s.
Once the street was renamed and the mural was unveiled, the lettering on the pavement drew visitors from far and wide. Bryan Coulbourn, 24, came from Bowie the other night to rollerblade as he listened to Marvin Gaye.
“I’m in front of the White House with this shirt,” he said, imagining the photos he would post on social media of the “Black Owned Business” across his chest. “What could be better than this?”
Luther Wright, 37, a local artist and muralist, considers the corridor his “outdoor studio,” bringing his brushes and canvases to paint. He said he finds inspiration in the strangers he meets and the feeling of common purpose.
“I understand that they’re trying to get it back to normal, but it has become a historic place,” he said. “They should just embrace what it has become. Otherwise, what was the point of closing it off in the first place?”
The activists still congregating on the plaza include Miranda Rosenfelt, who said she was among 15 or 20 protesters sleeping near H Street on the morning of July 6 when dozens of police officers swarmed in. As they broke up the encampment, officers confiscated tents and other supplies.
Rosenfelt, 33, a chef, said she was bruised when an officer’s bike slammed into her. She said the police also used an earsplitting horn to disperse the crowd.
“It has absolutely had a deflating effect, and that’s the point,” she said of the tactics, as she walked through the plaza, a hard hat and safety glasses attached to her backpack. “It kept people from coming back.”
As the sun set, she joined the yoga class, which began with the teacher, Aabi Abdun-Nafi, telling the gathering she would focus on their hips, the part of the body “where we hold a lot of our emotional trauma.”
A quiet settled in. No one appeared to notice the man in a “Trump-Pence” mask who clattered by on a skateboard. Or the passing heckler who shouted: “Brainwashed liberals!”
When the session ended, Mahadi Lawal, 26, an Occupy DC activist, rose up from his mat, took the microphone and said no one should interpret yoga as “a sign of defeat, or, like, we’re just going to do yoga instead of protesting. Absolutely not.”
He promised more demonstrations in the coming days.
“Keep fighting,” he said. “This is far from over.”