The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mayor Bowser is besting Trump in tug of war over what ‘law and order’ means in D.C.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser walks on the street leading to the White House after the words Black Lives Matter were painted in enormous bright yellow letters on the street by city workers and activists on June 5. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is winning her high-profile tug-of-war with President Trump over how to preserve what the president calls “law and order” on District streets.

Bowser has drawn nationwide attention and support because she understands there are multiple ways to defend law and order. Trump only cares about one, which is preventing violence such as looting and arson.

At least three other kinds of law and order are also at stake, and each is just as important as the one preoccupying Trump.

First is the need to guarantee citizens’ First Amendment rights to protest peacefully. With a few exceptions, Bowser and D.C. police have protected that bedrock democratic freedom. The Trump administration violated it on live television June 1 when federal officers used gas and projectiles to clear nonviolent protesters from Lafayette Square for the president’s awkward, Bible-lifting photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“The way they cleared people so the president could go over to the church was reminiscent of the way people here were handling people in demonstrations in the old way, with confrontations, in battle gear,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a member of the council’s judiciary and public safety committee.

As protests grip Washington, President Trump and D.C. Mayor Bowser clash in contest over control of city streets.

Second is the need to prevent use of the American military against U.S. citizens for domestic law enforcement. Trump threatened to do just that, drawing outraged criticism from respected former top defense officials. They rightly defended the principle that the armed forces’ proper mission is to fight foreign adversaries. Trump also has moved toward creating a kind of secret police by deploying heavily armed federal security officers in the District without name tags or other identifying insignia.

Bowser pushed back, such as by calling for the withdrawal of National Guard forces that Trump summoned from other states. On Sunday, Trump issued an order to pull them out. Bowser also has asked for federal security officers to be identified

Third is the need to prevent police abuse of African Americans and other racial minorities. Trump has paid mere lip service to this, the underlying social affliction that triggered the protests, such as by criticizing the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. But he has shown no interest in promoting a national reckoning with systemic racism in law enforcement. He appears to stand by his notorious 2017 appeal to police to be “rough” with suspects, saying, “Please don’t be too nice.”

Humvees, helicopters and the National Guard: D.C. officials push back on show of federal force on city streets.

Bowser has spoken out against racism and inequality, including renaming a portion of 16th Street NW in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and having the words painted in bright yellow in the pavement. Still, it must be recognized that the District could go further, according to elected officials and civic activists.

The D.C. police department has its own sorry history of mistreatment of black citizens. As recently as 2008, the department was under Justice Department oversight for use of excessive force, including shootings. A recent American University study found 53 percent of African Americans in the Washington area fear being targeted by police, compared to 13 percent of whites.

“The elements that made possible Minneapolis are possible in every police force in the United States,” said William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the city’s historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the strategy team of the Washington Interfaith Network.

“I would not say that the District of Columbia and Minneapolis are the same. At the moment, that would be unfair,” Lamar said. “But police forces in the United States, their history is to control black bodies. . . . The District of Columbia police force is not separate from that history.”

The tensions over the protests between Trump and Bowser are mostly the result of the president’s desire to make a macho show of force in the District to thrill his political base. In recent history, the D.C. and federal police agencies have cooperated well in handling the constant protests and demonstrations in the nation’s capital.

“If it were left to the police leaders of the Secret Service, Park Police, [D.C. police] and others, you would not have that friction,” said Terry Gainer, who has served as U.S. Capitol Police chief, Sergeant at Arms of the Senate and a senior MPD official.

Trump administration considered taking control of D.C. police force to quell protests.

Gainer said he was “very comfortable with how the law enforcement agencies work together if you can keep the frigging politics out of it.”

Trump ordered the military buildup in the District to “dominate” the streets after some stores were looted and fires set during nights early in the protests. It seems clear that those crimes were committed by a small number of opportunists motivated by ideology, greed or both.

Overall, the demonstrations here have been nonviolent. Moreover, the federal forces were stationed to protect not the commercial districts, where almost all of the looting occurred, but federal properties such as Lafayette Square and the Mall.

Trump has tried to pretend that it was his show of force that ended the lawlessness, but there’s little evidence of that. Instead, the violence appears to have stopped mainly because of the protesters’ own determination to avoid being smeared by accusations they were rioting. On Saturday, the largest demonstrations yet took place peacefully even as the police presence was visibly reduced.

Protesters throng D.C., vowing to be heard after George Floyd’s death

Some demonstrators said the focus should be on harm to people, like Floyd, rather than property.

“It strikes me as strange that people always want to put the onus on protesters,” said Sean Blackmon, a D.C. organizer of the Stop Police Terror Project. “We certainly don’t have the ability to kill people and get away with it, as the police do.”

The project wants to cut or even end funding for the city’s police department and shift the money to investments in low-income communities.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the panel’s judiciary committee, said the crimes that accompanied the protests were “fairly isolated.”

“When people are hurting, when people have been killed, then you will see protests take forms like that,” Allen said. “It doesn’t excuse looting and setting fires. I think that’s mostly a distraction from the fact that you’ve got thousands of people protesting peacefully.”

Local artists and public work crews painted "Black Lives Matter" on 16th Street near the White House on June 5, authorized by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni Sandys/The Washington Post)

Allen plans to propose emergency legislation Tuesday that would, among other things, prohibit the use of neck restraints and require the release of police body-camera video within 72 hours in cases of an officer-involved shooting or serious use of force.

In the immediate future, two overriding questions are whether the protests remain largely peaceful, and the authorities can quell any outbreaks of violence without violating demonstrators’ constitutional rights.

One apparent stain on D.C. police performance came late Monday with the mass arrest of several hundred protesters on Swann Street NW.

There were contradictory accounts of what happened, and the protesters were breaking the law by violating curfew. But it seemed clear that the police effectively encircled the protesters and left them no avenue to disperse peacefully. Allen and Cheh said the D.C. Council will investigate.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Trump will decide it’s to his political advantage to again expand the federal military presence or even rout demonstrators. If so, it could backfire.

“This is not about order. This is about justice,” Lamar, the pastor, said. “If people are treated justly, they don’t have to go into the streets. If you do not allow for nonviolent protest and revolution, then you are lighting a keg for it to be violent.”