The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands descend on D.C. protests to push back against Trump’s show of federal force

People gathered to peacefully protest the death of George Floyd and systemic racism at Lafayette Square on June 2. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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As many as 2,000 demonstrators descended on Washington on Tuesday, the largest and most boisterous crowd to gather in the nation’s capital during five straight days of protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.

Banging on fences erected near the White House and marching through the city to the U.S. Capitol, the largely peaceful protesters included high schoolers and stay-at-home moms, young parents and toddlers, elderly couples and large families. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) spoke with protesters, joined by her husband, Bruce Mann, and her golden retriever, Bailey.

But tensions also flared at multiple flash points during the day, as protesters faced an even larger contingent of federal law enforcement authorities than on Monday. Some turbulent gatherings Tuesday were hit with pepper spray and other shows of force as armored vehicles blocked city streets.

As the 7 p.m. curfew passed, protesters remained peaceful, and authorities did not take any action. But by nightfall, many families had left and the crowd had thinned to a much younger group.

That increased tensions, and some began throwing water bottles and shaking fences. As helicopters swirled overhead and the number of federal officers swelled, other protesters tried to stop the agitators, yelling, “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!”

Amid the shouting, there were moments of grace. On U Street, a group passed Lee’s Flower Shop, its glass windows still exposed. A sign had been taped to the window: “100 percent black owned business,” it said. But the protesters moving through downtown didn’t seem interested in the looting and destruction some others brought on previous nights. They had a different goal in mind. “Walk with us,” they chanted.

Many protesters said they came out because of what happened Monday, when hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were forcefully cleared from Lafayette Square — one of the country’s most symbolic places of protest — by federal forces at the behest of Attorney General William P. Barr. Many were struck with pepper balls, others pushed and hit.

“You disgrace the Constitution,” someone screamed at federal forces Tuesday evening.

“Show us that you’re with us,” a group of protesters yelled, asking officers to take a knee. The officers stood up straight and did not comply.

“Shame, shame shame,” the demonstrators shouted.

At the outset of Tuesday’s protests, hundreds of demonstrators found a newly erected black chain-link fence around Lafayette Square, where protesters were removed Monday evening shortly before President Trump walked through the area on his way to St. John’s Church, holding up a Bible for cameras.

Outside the fence, protesters knelt with fists and signs raised, and chanted at a small cluster of federal police in the middle of the park. The officers’ short-sleeved blue shirts and bulletproof vests were a departure from the riot gear that protesters encountered on previous days.

“Don’t do what you did last night,” a protester yelled through the tall black fence.

The closed park was just one of many signs of tightening by federal forces. Armored vehicles blocked streets around the White House as scores of federal law enforcement officers patrolled on foot. Meanwhile, city police patrolled neighborhoods that had seen five straight nights of vandalism, fires and looting — all of which prompted the president to order a crackdown.

Demonstrations over the death of George Floyd continued across the U.S. on June 2. (Video: The Washington Post)

The protests in Washington were among dozens that continued across the nation. One of the largest peaceful demonstrations Tuesday was in Houston, Floyd’s hometown. About 25,000 marchers showed up, including the city’s mayor, Floyd’s childhood friends and a group of black cowboys on horseback, according to journalists on the scene.

In other cities, officials Tuesday dealt with blowback from previous violent incidents. Prosecutors in Atlanta charged six officers after they used stun guns on two unarmed black college students driving downtown. In Richmond, the mayor apologized after police tear-gassed peaceful protesters. And in Philadelphia, the mayor criticized police officers who posed for photos with a group of white vigilantes wielding baseball bats and shovels.

More than 60 million people were under curfews in 200 cities and 27 states because of the protests. The measures were intended to separate peaceful demonstrators from looters and vandals. At least 17,000 National Guard troops had been activated.

And still, the protests grew. People knelt on the cobblestone streets of Nantucket, marched in Morgantown, W.Va., and crowded around police headquarters in El Paso. In Milwaukee, thousands marched six miles in the early-summer heat.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper asked state National Guards to send in some of their troops to supplement the local and federal police and the D.C. National Guard. Dozens of federal forces lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Maryland sent 116 National Guardsmen to the District on Tuesday, according to a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she had not requested any help from outside the city.

At about 4:40 p.m., a line of several dozen officers wearing camouflage and wielding shields that read “military police” assembled about 20 feet away from the fence on the east side of Lafayette Square. Some wore N95 masks under their face shields and carried batons.

The crowd of hundreds booed and hissed, before breaking out into chants against the president that were heard across the block.

Chase Ingram and Naomi Spates arrived just as the armed officers formed their line, and Ingram lifted Spates by the waist so she could see over the rows of people. It was the first time the pair had attended the protests.

“We couldn’t just sit home and do nothing,” Spates said.

“After we saw what happened — police shooting and arresting and all that — I didn’t want to be the person who just sat at home,” Ingram said.

Episcopal priest describes being gassed and overrun by police at Lafayette Square church

Other protesters had similar motivations.

“The reason I came out today is because that happened yesterday,” said Brian Norwood, a 49-year-old white man who lives in Southwest Washington. “I am here to be shot with rubber bullets and tear gas.”

Local authorities had spent Tuesday bracing for another wave of protests — not just in Washington, where Barr promised an even stronger show of federal force — but in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs outside the Beltway.

That didn’t deter Merianne and Louis de Merode. They had a lot to fear Tuesday afternoon as they stood amid a crowd of at least 1,000 on H Street NW, north of Lafayette Square.

Merianne, 64, and Louis, 71, had been in near-total isolation since the novel coronavirus began spreading several months ago. The Georgetown couple have compromised immune systems and worried — with ample reason — that the virus could be a death sentence for one or both of them.

They hadn’t planned to join the teeming crowds in downtown Washington over the past several days. But a few things changed.

They watched the chatter on their neighborhood Listserv — affluent Georgetowners decrying the looting that had spread to their neighborhood while saying little about the death of Floyd. And then they saw the demonstrators cleared with force before Trump’s photo op Monday.

“We were not coming down here for four days, because we were frightened it was going to be too compromising for our health,” Louis said. “Then things started piling up in our brains and our hearts, and we both decided that we couldn’t not do it.”

Before nightfall, there were pockets of tension.

At about 4 p.m., protesters were pepper-sprayed near the White House.

As Gary Murray, 15, stood in front of the White House looking at a line of armed police guards, he grew angrier and angrier. He had just recovered from getting his wisdom teeth out and had been reading the headlines about the violent protests, and this was the first day he could go out.

He had been at the protest for just a few minutes when he was pepper-sprayed. He was with his teacher from Dunbar High School in the District.

“This really hurts my heart,” he said. “As a teenager, as the future of this country, this hurts my heart.”

Also near the White House, police pulled a woman from her car, sparking moments of chaos. Elizabeth Tsehai had been cheering and chanting as she drove her BMW alongside protesters on H Street. The stay-at-home mother, originally from Ethiopia, said she decided to come out after seeing the violent clashes on the news Monday. She said a Secret Service agent warned her to stop driving, and she replied, “Arrest me, I can’t breathe.”

Then two white male officers dragged her out of her car.

Inside the push to tear-gas protesters ahead of a Trump photo op

“She said ‘I’m not resisting,’ ” said Haley Sanders, who watched the interaction and was one of dozens of protesters who gathered around Tsehai’s car to protect it after she was removed.

Tsehai was pulled behind a black chain-link fence, which protesters started banging against before police deployed spray, sending them fleeing.

Throughout the evening, as protesters marched chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the crowd remained diverse.

“Man, the number of white, black, Hispanic, Asian people I saw out there, it’s important,” said Madiagne Sarr. “It’s not just a black people problem, it’s an America problem.”

More than four hours after curfew, hundreds of protesters roamed through several neighborhoods, passing huge lines of federal and local police with no confrontations or arrests, a far cry from Monday when the curfew was strictly enforced.

But the group converged back in front of Lafayette Square at about 12:45 a.m. — almost six hours after curfew. A small band of them again shook the fence and hurled water bottles, prompting another response by the throng of federal officers guarding the park. The police sprayed the crowd with an irritant and pepper balls. The group responded with shouts and fireworks.

But the intensity lasted only about 15 minutes and the crowd largely dispersed.

Earlier, parents were moved to bring their children — including at least one couple who brought a baby. Arwa Shobaki and Nidal Betare decided to come with their 6-year-old daughter as they watched CNN footage of peaceful protesters outside the White House being forcibly removed Monday.

“Trump is obviously trying to scare people,” said mom Arwa Shobaki, 42. “We wanted to show her he put up a fence where people used to walk free.”

Three hours before the 7 p.m. curfew — in place for a second night — hundreds of protesters split off from Lafayette Square and marched up 14th Street NW, past armored military vehicles and soldiers in fatigues who lined the road.

As the night wore on, the protest splintered into two groups, with some heading to the Capitol. There, protesters got on the ground.

“Lie down like George Floyd,” one said. “I know you’ve seen the video!”

Hundreds lay on the asphalt, the sidewalk, the grass, faces toward the ground, hands pinned by imaginary cuffs behind their backs.

Rebecca Tan, John Woodrow Cox, Peter Jamison, Hannah Natanson, Kyle Swenson, Justin Jouvenal, Samantha Schmidt, Tom Jackman, Jessica Contrera, Steve Thompson, Teddy Amenabar, Paul Duggan, Caroline Kitchener, Fredrick Kunkle and David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.