Few of Saturday’s demonstrations were choreographed, as protesters flowed from one impromptu gathering or march to another. Those who came out in D.C. — and San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and dozens of other cities across the country — understood that this was a moment in America when change seemed possible. They wanted to be there for it.
In city after city, both large and small, vast numbers of people clogged streets and halted traffic, circled government buildings and insisted that the leaders of their communities do more to protect the lives of black men and women.
The cause even led to flares of tension among Washington’s protesters, with some embracing a party atmosphere while others furiously spray-painted “Defund The Police” in giant yellow letters a block from the city’s “Black Lives Matter” display.
Early in the day, though, they were united. As George Floyd was being memorialized in his North Carolina hometown 340 miles south, the crowd in the District packed into six blocks along 16th Street NW to honor his life and condemn his death in police custody.
“No justice!” they chanted. “No peace!”
But the man in whose direction they shouted couldn’t hear them. Nearly two miles of metal fencing now surrounded the White House, as if it had been locked in a cage, and inside, President Trump was raging.
He retweeted himself, sharing a message from the day before in which he described D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a Democrat, as “grossly incompetent, and in no way qualified to be running an important city like Washington, D.C.” Later, he disparaged the protest turnout, claiming it was much smaller than expected.
An hour after his attack on Bowser, she stood on the stretch of 16th she’d had painted with “Black Lives Matter” and named in the movement’s honor. She denounced Trump administration officials for authorizing federal officers to fire chemical irritants and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, clearing them from Lafayette Square so the president could get his photo taken with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Now, on the section of fence there, hung protest signs, an American flag, and a torn yellow strip of police tape that read “Crime Scene.” Inside the square, the graffiti scrawled on a small building — captured in photos as Trump made his way to St. John’s — had been removed.
“Today we say no,” Bowser told the crowd. “In November, we say next.”
Much of the crowd cheered, but the support for Bowser was not universal. The local leaders of Black Lives Matter had arranged for the spray-painted message to defund police — an act of defiance they said was directed at the mayor.
Nile Joyner-Willey, 4, didn’t know about any of that as she sat on her father’s shoulders, wearing a rainbow-colored tutu. She held a Black Lives Matter sign as her father, John Willey, 37, who lives in the District, gently bopped her up and down. This was the first day the family had attended the protests and the first day that Nile’s parents had talked to their daughter about racism.
“Why are so many people taking my picture?” she asked her mother.
“Because you give people hope,” answered Krystle Joyner, 34. “We’re doing this for you.”
As they’d done all week, the protesters started near Lafayette Square, but also spread throughout the city. They marched down U Street’s historic Black Broadway and past Chinatown’s brightly painted Friendship Arch. They gathered on the Capitol lawn, beside the Mall’s Reflecting Pool and under the bronze Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park. They knelt beneath the folded granite arms of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and at the feet of Abraham Lincoln.
Their freedom to roam, unimpeded by police, was by design. Almost all D.C. officers were working or on call, a city official said, but they stayed away from demonstrators as much as possible. With a swath of downtown cut off to traffic, it made it simpler for police to monitor the demonstrations and easier for protesters to get around.
A persistent buzz overhead was a reminder of how different these streets had been just a few days earlier, when National Guard helicopters flew as low as a two-story building, scattering broken glass as they terrified the protesters and journalists beneath them.
“The battlespace” was how Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper had described the city, but the resulting shows of force meant to send a clear message to protesters — stay home — had inspired them to do the opposite. By Saturday, the battle space had morphed into what felt like a carnival.
Some in the crowds — which exceeded 10,000, as people came and went for hours — took off their shoes, revealing feet red and swollen from past days’ marching. Kids played in the water, splashing their parents. A father helped his daughter clamber onto an electric scooter, hopped on beside her, and took her for a slow ride around the rim of the Reflecting Pool, explaining Lincoln’s fame as he did so.
The music thumped all afternoon, from speakers hauled in and running on generators. Many seemed less worried than in previous days about the pandemic still killing so many people of color, with decidedly fewer protesters wearing masks or squirting their hands with hand sanitizer.
The day’s activists included a group of Sikhs carrying cardboard signs and two men, both middle-aged and white, who drove 665 miles from Nashville because they felt compelled to do something. Lawyers came out, as did white lab-coated doctors and nurses in turquoise scrubs. A pair of 26-year-old black women came up from Charlotte but didn’t tell their parents. A trio of cousins in their 30s — one black, one biracial and one white — traveled from Baltimore, where they had attended the Freddie Gray protests five years ago. An 82-year-old black man who witnessed the 1968 riots in the District watched it all on Saturday from a folding chair, and a 2-year-old did the same in his green stroller.
“Don’t shoot me,” read the handwritten message on the boy’s hat.
As go-go music blared from a truck at the center of 16th and I streets, where five days before protesters had run scrambling from chemicals and cavalry, a fury grew among a faction of onlookers. They watched as hundreds of others pressed around the truck, shimmying and sweating and snacking.
They were having a good time, but many believed this was not meant to be a good time.
Kenny Sway, a D.C. musician who had calmed thousands a few days before with his rendition of “Lean On Me,” pushed through the crowd, yelling at everyone he could see to stop dancing and start marching.
“This is not a festival!” he shouted into a microphone. “This is not a f---ing festival!”
The dancing demonstrators mostly ignored him, except for one woman who rolled her eyes and complained to a friend.
“Who made him God?” she asked. “You can’t police a protest.”
She took a puff of what appeared to be marijuana and again swung her hips to the music.
One street over, at the corner of H and Vermont streets, Zamzam Elzain stood on her tiptoes, lofted a sign reading “Silence is betrayal” and yelled desperately at the people meandering by with strollers and cigarettes and, it seemed, little conviction.
She was pleading from just outside Lafayette Square, in almost exactly the same spot where she’d been hit with rubber bullets and chemicals and shoved by police officers on Monday. Now Elzain, 22, felt insulted.
Had her sacrifice, her pain, meant nothing?
“If this is a protest, we get an F!” she yelled at passersby. “This is not supposed to be a block party!”
A man looked up, briefly, then returned to the bag of chips in his hand.
Other confrontations unfolded as night fell.
Outside the Treasury Department, a white man approached a tall metal fence and shouted at a black Secret Service agent, demanding to know why he didn’t quit his job. The black agent had remained silent and stoic as the crowd yelled, but now, he stepped forward and looked directly at the white man.
“Be sure to remember this,” he said in a low, level voice that carried, quieting the crowd. “Me putting on this uniform does nothing to take away from being black, and the consequences of being black.”
The white protester stared. The agent took another step toward the fence.
“So, before you ask me that again,” he said, “let me ask you this: What does your white privilege taste like?”
The protester gave an angry shrug. “I’m out here protesting for black people who are getting killed by cops!” he shouted.
“Did you find yourself at a voting booth last election?” the black agent asked in the same low voice. “Have you read Malcolm X?”
The white man stepped back.
He had not.
By then, DeShawn Rasberry, 6, and his younger brother Davian, 4, were already pooped. They had been at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street since noon with their mother, Janessa Smith, 28, handing out water, Gatorade and granola bars to the people passing by.
The brothers had never seen so many people before — and neither had Smith. It was the family’s first protest.
“Do you know why all these people are here?” Smith asked her younger son. He stared blankly at the crowd, munching on the granola bar that had crumbled to pieces in his tiny hands.
“They’re out here for you,” Smith said.
Davian, dressed in a Superman cap and matching T-shirt, smiled and nodded. “Mmhmm,” he said.
Smith had explained to her sons that they were here to “protest” — which means standing up for something, she said — and to help others. She hadn’t told them that the protest was against police brutality, spurred by the killing of a man with their same skin color in police custody.
“They’re so young now, still so young,” Smith said. “And right now, they’re in love with law enforcement. . . . I don’t want to spoil that. Not yet.”
The brothers, who live in Prince George’s County, both wear their miniature police uniforms at home as often as they can. DeShawn, squatting in some gravel, said he thinks he may want to be an officer when he grows up.
“They helps peoples,” he said.
And was he afraid of them?
“Nope. Nope, nope.”
Smith looked at her sons, both just barely coming up to her waist, their hands gripping cold water bottles. One day, she’d have to give them “the talk” about police officers, she thought to herself.
But not today.
Michael E. Ruane, Perry Stein, Justin Wm. Moyer, Rachel Weiner, Michelle Boorstein, Justin George, Clarence Williams, Freddy Kunkle, Rachel Chason, Michael E. Miller, Kyle Swenson and Marissa Lang contributed to this report.