The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Lafayette Square, visitors return to a park changed by protests

Workers take down the fence surrounding Lafayette Square. (Robb Hill/For the Washington Post)

Where law enforcement had lined up behind riot shields, there now stood seven trash cans, overflowing with the pungent residue of a historic week of protests.

A trickle of tourists, power walkers and joggers averted their eyes or wrinkled their noses as they walked or ran past the garbage, entering Lafayette Square across from the White House through two openings made early Thursday morning in the tall metal fence that surrounded the park. The wall had been in place for more than a week, designed to insulate President Trump from the thousands who had descended daily on the nation’s capital to protest George Floyd’s death.

Now, instead of clouds of eye-burning smoke and Black Lives Matter signs, there were a dozen or so people strolling down brick paths through a drizzle of rain. Some stopped to survey a crew waxing a statue of President Andrew Jackson. Others ducked beneath trees to avoid intermittent downpours. And some made a beeline for the front of the park, as close to the White House as they could get.

A gallery of pain and protest: Take a virtual walk along the wall outside the White House

There they found a tent covered in tarpaulin, plastered with signs and guarded by a 66-year-old man named Neil. “38+ years Anti-Nuclear Peace Vigil,” read one of the largest posters, “Rain or shine, coronavirus, hurricanes, sleet, blizzards or tornados.”

The renowned peace vigil had survived the Floyd demonstrations, too — and many visitors hailed it as a sign that the square, where federal officers had gassed peaceful protesters for a presidential photo op, was slowly returning to normal.

That’s how Neil felt, anyway. Neil, who declined to give his last name, had taken the Metro from his home in Alexandria, Va., to arrive at 7 a.m. so he could relieve the man on the night shift, who’d snuck back inside the moment Secret Service agents reopened the park at midnight. The rotating cast of protesters who man the tent at all hours had kept a careful eye on it throughout the demonstrations, Neil said, peering through the fence links every hour or so to make sure it was still standing.

Neil had spent much of Thursday morning cataloguing every tchotchke in the tent, checking whether law enforcement removed anything during their temporary takeover. He’d been worried. But everything looked exactly the same.

Neil settled back on his customary seat, an upturned crate covered with a stack of newspapers. It felt good to be back. It felt good to be giving the same answers to the same questions he always got from tourists: “This is a peace vigil,” he had already told six people that morning. “The Supreme Court says Americans have the right to peacefully protest.”

Although she did not have time to stop for questions, Fayth Ling was glad to see the tent again.

The 29-year-old nurse had moved to the District from Nashville in May to care for coronavirus patients. On the four days she got off every week, she liked to take morning runs and had soon discovered a favorite route: through Lafayette Square to the Washington Monument, then back again, meaning she passed by the tent twice.

Thursday was the first day she had been able to make the run since the square closed for the protests. She’d felt hesitant to come but decided it was probably safe after she saw no one chanting or hoisting posters during the first quarter of the jog.

Experience the sights and sounds of a historic protest in the nation’s capital

Now, her earpods blaring Arizona Zervas’s “24,” Ling smiled in Neil’s direction as she ran past. She avoided looking at the White House and tried not to think about its inhabitant.

A former Trump fan, Ling said she had stopped supporting the president when he suggested Americans might inject themselves with disinfectant to cure the coronavirus.

A few feet away, the Bolli family took the opposite approach: They disregarded the tent and kept their eyes fixed on the executive residence. Marissa Bolli, 26, had never visited the White House, and neither had her sister, 22-year-old Victoria Bolli. The siblings, who are white and live in Philadelphia, had brought their children with them: Marissa’s 6-year-old son, Cayden, and Victoria’s 1-year-old daughter, Kaida.

They were driving from Pennsylvania to a vacation home in Florida and had decided they might as well stop in the nation’s capital, so they could show their kids the home of the president whose policies they love.

Staring through droplets at the White House, Marissa Bolli nonetheless felt a little letdown. She’d expected the building to be bigger, more imposing. And she’d thought she would be able to walk closer to it.

Cayden Bolli was disappointed, too. He’d been worried about President Trump after watching television footage of looting and of burning buildings, and he had hoped to see evidence of heavy security.

“I don’t see no big guys with guns,” he complained to his mother.

Walking just behind them, the Jacksons lamented a different absence.

The foursome — two mothers and their two teenage children, who share the same last name but are unrelated — had driven to the District from Lorton, Va., that morning, hoping to see, and lend their support to, hundreds of demonstrators. As they stared sadly around the near-deserted park, it began to pour, and Rita Jackson, 54, ushered her 17-year-old son, Sean, beneath a tree, followed by Tracie Jackson, 53, and Tracie’s 16-year-old daughter, Caris.

“I know, we were supposed to be protest tourists,” Rita Jackson apologized to the group. “I guess we picked the wrong day.”

A white Secret Service agent on a bicycle pedaled over to the black foursome with a warning: Consider seeking shelter elsewhere. Lightning had struck people in the park just days ago, the man told the Jacksons, sending some members of the National Guard to the hospital with serious injuries.

“Oh dear,” Rita Jackson said, “thank you so much.”

The four began walking out of Lafayette. Rita Jackson told the others she wanted to trace the exact steps Trump took between the White House and St. John’s Episcopal Church so he could pose with an upside-down Bible — “Oh, let’s,” she said, “because he’s just so stupid” — but Tracie Jackson, snorting, nixed the idea.

“We’re not doing that,” she said.

The White House put up a wall. The people ‘made it beautiful.’

Soon after the Jacksons left, a crew of men in jeans, T-shirts and orange construction vests arrived to remove the final segments of fencing that still surrounded the park.

It took five men to lift each gridded sheet of metal. They smoked, and they complained that their hands hurt and that it was far too wet and cold for June. Some pointed at bedraggled news crews, who were filming the removal from beneath plastic ponchos, and wondered whether their families would see them on Fox News or CNN — until a man with dark hair grew irritated at the distractions.

“All right, yo!” he called, wiping raindrops from his brow. “We still got like half the block left.”