The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Historic D.C. Black churches attacked during pro-Trump rallies Saturday

Thousands of people marched in support of President Trump two days before the electoral college confirmed the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

A Black Lives Matter banner and sign were torn from two historic Black churches in downtown D.C. and destroyed during pro-Trump protests Saturday night.

D.C. police said they are investigating the events as potential hate crimes.

In one of the incidents, videos posted on Twitter show a group of people identified as Proud Boys marching with a Black Lives Matter banner held above their heads, then cheering as it is set on fire while chanting “f--- antifa.”

The banner was taken from Asbury United Methodist Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the city. Asbury United has stood at the corner of 11th and K streets NW since 1836.

“Last night demonstrators who were part of the MAGA gatherings tore down our Black Lives Matter sign and literally burned it in the street,” the Rev. Ianther M. Mills, the church’s senior pastor, said in a statement. “It pained me especially to see our name, Asbury, in flames. For me it was reminiscent of cross burnings.”

Another video, posted by @BGOnTheScene, shows a Black Lives Matter sign being torn down from in front of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church at 15th and M streets NW. The group is heard chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they destroy the sign in front of the church where worshipers have included historic leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, and presidents, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and William Howard Taft.

In response, William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan AME, tweeted, “We have not been distracted by signs, sounds, or fury for nearly two centuries. We worship. We liberate. We serve.”

D.C. police on Sunday declined to say whether any arrests were made in the cases but said they were investigating.

“We take these offenses seriously and we are currently investigating them as possible hate crimes,” police spokeswoman Alaina Gertz said.

Nearly three dozen people were arrested during the protests and overnight, including 10 who police said were charged with misdemeanor assault, six with assaulting police officers and four with rioting.

The protesters were in the District on Saturday to demonstrate their refusal to accept the results of the presidential election before the electoral college meets Monday to make President Trump’s loss official.

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Mills’s statement Sunday morning emphasized the history of her church.

“We are a resilient people who have trusted in God through slavery and the Underground Railroad, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and now as we face an apparent rise in white supremacy,” it said.

Metropolitan AME parishioner Ethel Delaney Lee, 94, has been a member of the church since 1954. Lee, whose father was a pastor and ordained at the church, said she was disturbed when she heard about what happened.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Lee, who was one of a few Black female police officers in the D.C. police department in the 1950s and ’60s. “We cherish our church. It’s 182 years old. I just hope that nobody does anything serious to it.”

The videos of the banner burning from Asbury United Methodist Church show someone squirting what appears to be lighter fluid on the banner as flames consume it. One video was tweeted by a Daily Caller reporter, and it is stamped with the logo of the right-wing media website.

The tweet says the people burning the banner are Proud Boys. “The Proud Boys and Trump supporters burn the BLM banner while chanting and cheering in downtown DC.”

D.C. Council member-elect Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) tweeted the video, saying it showed “there are two justice systems in this country.”

“Tonight, violent white supremacists stole and burned a Black Lives Matter banner from Asbury United Methodist, the oldest Black Methodist church in DC,” she tweeted. “But yet no militarized police force used against them. There are two justice systems in this country, separate and unequal.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) responded to the incidents by saying the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs and D.C. police had been in contact with the churches Sunday.

“D.C.’s faith-based organizations are at the very heart of our community, giving us hope in the face of darkness,” Bowser tweeted. “They embody our DC values of love and inclusivity. An attack on them is an attack on all of us.”

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said he sees the destruction of the signs as a message of hate to Black churches.

“The churches Asbury United Methodist and Metropolitan AME are strong to the bone, strong in their roots and strong in their history,” he said. “Together we shall overcome.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, said the church incidents warrant a federal probe.

“We call on the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately open a federal civil rights investigation under the Church Arson Prevention Act to hold accountable those responsible for these racist and violent acts,” Kristen Clarke, the group’s president and executive director, said in a statement.

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Mills’s statement pointed out that the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group with ties to white nationalism, have not been denounced by the White House. In fact, the organization received recognition from Trump at the first presidential debate in September, when he refused to specifically condemn white supremacists and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

“Sadly, we must point out that if this was a marauding group of men of color going through the city, and destroying property, they would have been followed and arrested,” Mills said in her statement. “We are especially alarmed that this violence is not being denounced at the highest levels of our nation.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said, “President Trump condemns violence in all forms and any group that expounds hate and bigotry.”

But Mills also struck an optimistic tone to fight hate.

“We are a people of faith. As horrible and disturbing as this is for us now — it doesn’t compare with the challenges and fears the men and women who started Asbury, 184 years ago, faced. So, we will move forward, undaunted in our assurance that Black Lives Matter and we are obligated to continue to shout that truth without ceasing. We are assured that our church is surrounded by God’s grace and mercy.”

David Nakamura contributed to this report.