The holiday has lost its lofty meaning, said Perkins, who is African American; Juneteenth would be her new freedom day. “July Fourth now is just a day that people like to celebrate with their family, have a fun party.”
Bill Seibert, who had roared to the Capitol grounds from Easton, Pa., as part of a biker contingent of supporters of President Trump, might as well have been standing in a different country.
“When I hear about racism, I don’t see it,” said Seibert, who came with his wife, Chris Curto. To the white couple in their 50s, freedom means the right to speak freely as Trump supporters as well as freedom of religion and the right to bear arms — all under threat, they believe.
“Watch the news,” said Seibert, a small-business owner and Fox News fan.
“There are U-Hauls arriving with antifa. It’s scary,” Curto chimed in, referring to an unfounded rumor circulating online. “Think of everything the country got through. Slavery, then we overcame it. Now it feels like we’re going backwards.”
The crowds that typically flow into the District on Independence Day to line the streets for a parade or to get a prime spot on the Mall to see the fireworks were markedly thinner this year. Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesman, said that as of 9 p.m., there were 34,000 trips taken on Metrorail for Saturday, compared with just more than 315,000 on July 4 last year.
The throngs were often headed in different directions. Hundreds flocked to Black Lives Matter Plaza, which has been the gathering place for more than a month for demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by police in Minneapolis. Hundreds more ventured to the Mall for protests or to celebrate the nation’s founding.
The day was capped, as usual, with the spectacle of fireworks and flyovers, even as an evening speech by Trump was riven with the kind of racially divisive, partisan rhetoric that had dominated his remarks the day before at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The speech, made on the South Lawn of the White House before a ticketed throng of supporters who arrived mostly maskless, denounced elements of the social justice protests for attacking statues and monuments of historical figures.
“We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters,” Trump said. “We will safeguard our values, traditions, customs and beliefs.”
As public health officials’ warnings and fear of the novel coronavirus dampened enthusiasm for the nation’s signature Fourth of July event, those who ventured out — most masked, some without — represented a kaleidoscope of Americans.
Some were there simply to catch a break and celebrate, in red, white and blue garb and waving flags as they chatted amiably and spread out in the shade to await the show.
There were, however, few sightings of the flag during the day or celebration in the sweating throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters, congregating at the Capitol or on Black Lives Matter Plaza. As evening wore on, the plaza became a stage for scattered flag burnings and derisive sneers as military flyovers swept the skies overhead.
A queer Latina woman who identified herself as Kiara R. stomped on a large U.S. flag spread across the asphalt, her white Adidas sneakers crisscrossing the red and white stripes.
“Now’s your chance to step on the flag and all it represents: slavery, genocide and war,” the activist with Refuse Fascism DC said into a microphone as her words echoed throughout the plaza.
Ben Ferreira, 43, a white trucker from San Francisco, looked on.
“Ma’am, why are you standing on the American flag?” asked Ferreira.
“Because freedom of speech,” Kiara R. said. “Isn’t that what the troops fight for?”
Ferreira said he understood the “emotional plea” from protesters was one he could not fully understand, but he felt enriched by the experience nonetheless.
“Part of the promise of the United States is having the freedom to speak your mind,” he said, gazing back at the activists on the dirtied banner. “I completely disagree with stepping on the flag, but I support their right to do it.”
Bands of Trump supporters strode about the nearby Mall in telltale Make America Great Again hats throughout, bearing signs and shirts declaring, “We support the president!” and “We support law and order.”
Mostly, the groups passed each other peacefully, if they intersected at all. Occasionally, though, they collided.
Just before the fireworks began, hundreds of protesters, chanting “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace,” marched onto the Mall near 15th Street and up to the Washington Monument, where they confronted a much smaller crowd of Trump supporters.
Trump supporters, numbering perhaps 50 or more, faced off with the protesters, yelling, “USA” and “all lives matter!”
There was a scuffle, with people trying to snatch hats, flags or signs from each other. A transgender woman waving a pro-Trump sign marched right into the middle of the BLM supporters, until she was surrounded and chased off. Police moved in, first one marked vehicle and then perhaps 100 or more, including Park Police and other federal officers. They struggled to part the two groups but eventually formed a double line between them as the fireworks began.
Earlier in the day, Trump supporters on motorcycles thundered around the Capitol as a group of about three dozen men from a group known as the Proud Boys cheered them on after finishing a march from Harry’s Restaurant in Northwest Washington. Members of the all-male far-right organization, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, arrived as a contingent of Black Lives Matter protesters set off on a march from the Capitol.
The group’s Cuban American chairman, Enrique Tarrio, said members make the holiday jaunt annually and are not there to mix it up with protesters.
Wearing matching black polo shirts with yellow trim and few masks, the group gathered behind a statue of Ulysses S. Grant across the street from the Capitol.
A Proud Boy who would only give his name as Bobby Pickles, who is white, said he had come from Florida to show his patriotism and symbolically defend the city’s statues, which he said represent the nation’s history and heritage.
“I understand Black Lives Matter a little, but I think a lot of this energy is misdirected,” the man said of the Confederate memorials that have been torn down or defaced in recent weeks.
The state of the nation is perilous on this Fourth of July, he said. “This is the craziest time,” the man said. “It’s ‘1984.’ Conservative voices are being silenced.”
When a group of Black Lives Matter protesters passed on the opposite side of the street, the Proud Boys launched into a chant of “Four more years!”
The miles of fencing that enclosed the monuments on the Mall seemed a visible reminder of the nation’s divisions. The silver wire extended down East Basin Drive and around 15th Street, preventing an early wave of Black Lives Matter activists from converging at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as they had planned. They met up instead at the National Museum of African American History and Culture before pausing in a shady patch near the Washington Monument.
Patty Wood, 67, stood talking to Ebony Johnson, 32, who had draped a blue flag with white stars atop her Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
“After seeing what’s going out here today, I’m not sure what this flag represents,” said Johnson, who describes herself as African American and Native American. “But for some reason, it makes me feel safe.”
“No, it’s okay,” consoled Wood, who is white. “The Republicans have stolen our flag and our country, and we need to take it back.”
During such an unrestful time in the nation’s history, it might be hard to imagine that anyone would visit the District on the Fourth of July just to relax. But as they spread out under a tree, Mark and Joannie Hines looked out from the spot where Johnson had earlier stood and saw a largely empty expanse of tranquility.
Mark had spent months away from his wife and three children while battling the coronavirus as a nurse in Delaware. Joannie had never been to the East Coast and flew out here to meet Mark for the weekend. It was Mark’s 38th birthday, and they had never seen the national fireworks before.
“It’s been hard — a lot of loss,” said Mark of his work with patients. “This is a little weekend reprieve.”
Mark, who is white and an Army veteran, and who is so far virus-free, said he thinks the unprecedented health crisis has left people more receptive to social change after the killing of Floyd.
“It’s a time of change. It’s needed change,” Mark said, citing change in stances by NASCAR and the National Football League. “The country as a whole has kind of done a 180 from where it was four years ago.”
Then Mark turned to the more mundane concerns that normally occupy people on the Fourth of July. “We’ve got the ice chest. We’ve got the shade,” he said. “I think we’ve got the prime spot.”
Not far away, Patt Cannady was laughing with her siblings as she stretched out in the shade. Cannady, 27, who is white, said she has a good life and is happy a lot of the time. Even so, she was reluctant to truly celebrate, considering Americans who have a different experience of life in her country. Chants of “No Justice, no peace!” rode on the air as she spoke.
“I am thinking a lot about how other people think about the holiday and how your privilege sort of affects how you can view this holiday,” she said.
Michelle Boorstein, Hannah Natanson, Dana Hedgpeth, David Nakamura and Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.