“Mask Required! Safe Social Distancing Enforced,” instructed organizers from regional NAACP branches and Alexandria’s Alfred Street Baptist Church, which traces its roots back to the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Marchers were spaced out in rows, and marshals frequently paused the flow to keep buffers between them. People bunched up in places but for the most part wore masks, including many with African-style patterns.
Alfred Street Pastor Howard-John Wesley said he and other clergy were also waiting for an event infused with prayer — and safety. The Trump administration forcibly removed protesters from the area near Lafayette Square on June 1, ahead of President Trump’s photo opportunity at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church. On Sunday, that show of federal force was replaced with prayer.
“We were waiting for a call for something not just incensed with anger, but something that integrated our faith,” Wesley said. “We wanted to carve out something safe for teens — I was scared to let them come downtown. We wanted to teach them about protesting peacefully.”
And on Sunday that is what they did.
“It’s not rage or anger. God is here and that’s hopeful,” he said.
That same ground near St. John’s was transformed by afternoon into a kaleidoscope of prayers, chants, singing and preaching from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faith leaders who joined in a multifaith effort to bless the protest movement. Among them was the Rev. William Barber II, one of the country’s best-known progressive clergy, who called for a “moral reconstruction” that pulls in people of all backgrounds and races and forces sweeping policy changes rather than moderate tweaks.
“The streets aren’t calling for moderate change,” Barber said in an interview. “God help us if we don’t.”
Hundreds of individuals and families made their way to the same swath of the city Sunday, some strumming guitars and singing “We Shall Overcome,” others eating Popsicles. They scrawled messages in chalk, and gazed at a wall of posters — “How many weren’t filmed?” read one — reflecting on sustained nationwide protests and searing moments in their own histories of dealing with racism and police brutality.
By evening, the energy had taken a turn, with some shouting matches between protesters and individual police officers, and angrier chants. A crowd of hundreds gathered as close to the White House as they could get, listening to a speaker yell through a microphone, and yelling back, “Trump, Pence out now! Trump, Pence out now!”
On H Street, several black officers were alternately reasoning and arguing with protesters, exchanges that turned into shouted standoffs.
After one argument, Dawaine Drew walked away, still furious. It started, Drew said, when one officer asked a man why he was standing so close to him. He said the officer was arguing that black men make the police better, but Drew responded that there have been black officers for years and people are still dying.
“We are in a police state,” Drew said. “I’ve been assaulted by police. I had to learn my rights.”
Later some of the tensions faded, with protesters chanting expletives aimed at Trump as they watched costumed dancers groove.
Still, the day was a time of hope for many. Joseph Young, 64, of Northeast Washington, said he had given up on the possibility of real change, but then found himself repeatedly drawn to the area around Lafayette Square. When Young was a teenager in Los Angeles in the 1970s, a police officer stopped him and put him in a choke hold, he said. The officer eventually released him, but with a smile Young hasn’t forgotten.
In the days since Floyd’s death, with a white police officer’s knee pressed to his neck, Young has questioned his own reaction to being choked, which was to go numb. “I didn’t struggle. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t fight back,” he said. In recent days, he has finally realized “I may have saved my life by not responding.”
After decades of avoiding police, Young has been inspired by the outpouring of “young, old, white, black, brown, yellow . . . I don’t look for, or have a need to, be in opposition. But if I have to — I will,” Young said. “The young people renewed my hope that America can get better.”
A broad representation of the black church was on display at different events Sunday, showing general support for the Black Lives Matter movement, from conservative Pentecostals to more liberal Episcopalians and Baptists. On the details of what to do next, voices varied.
Barber, co-chair of a faith-based advocacy group called the Poor People’s Campaign, also delivered a stinging sermon from the soaring nave of Washington National Cathedral — with 14,000 viewers watching live online.
Barber said Floyd’s killing and the disproportionate deaths of minorities and the poor during the coronavirus pandemic are consistent with America’s history and its “unnecessary accepting of death.” He counted the deaths of Native Americans, of Africans brought as slaves, children who suffered and died because of child labor practices and others.
“This raw truth needs to be heard,” Barber said, his hulking frame at times rocked by the volume and intensity of his own words. “Until we face it, we can’t repent right . . . America, you’re killing yourself!”
Many marchers, heading out from the soaring museum on the Mall earlier in the day for what organizers called a “prayer walk,” emphasized the need for activism steeped in prayer. They cited the famous scripture from the Book of James: “Faith without works is dead.”
They also chanted the names of people killed by police and spoke of daily affronts.
“When you show up in a corporate boardroom and have to remind yourself you’re black. When you want something at customer service you have to remind yourself you’re black. Before the officer gets out of the car, you have to remind yourself you’re black,” said Carrie Haley, 54, an Alexandria psychologist. “We shouldn’t have to remind ourselves because we want to make it out of the situation alive.”
The marchers flowed into the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza, filling 16th Street from Lafayette Square to K Street, and Alfred Street’s Wesley gave his sermon with the White House as a backdrop.
“We pray you would poke and prick the hearts of this nation,” Wesley prayed, as a few thousand marchers knelt or touched their foreheads to the ground in prayer.
“Oh God, show yourself strong as you did that Sunday in Jerusalem,” he said referring to the story of Christ’s Resurrection. “Show yourself in Minneapolis! In Atlanta! In Washington! Lord, I want to see my sons grow!”
The morning march and prayer rally had a focused and yet optimistic feel, some said, compared to two weeks ago, when many felt nothing but anger. Some said they were encouraged to see legislation and other moves to reform policing. Others danced to the sounds of Public Enemy in the plaza.
Police and military vehicles blocked many intersections downtown. Officers watched as the crowd of church protesters gave way to hundreds streaming through Lafayette Square.
Drummers played near the AFL-CIO building that had been damaged by fire in the early days of the protests. Police officers joked with a boy trying to climb a tree by a fence in the square, smiling as his family helped him up.
“ ‘I can’t breathe,’ Black Lives Matter masks,” a vendor yelled as people wandered by snapping selfies.
A small group gathered around Stacee Roy as she sang in the square. She ended with the old spiritual, “Oh Freedom!” her voice rising in the clear air.
Roy, from Bowie, Md., had been a backup singer at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, and she hadn’t been at the Floyd protests because of her three children, she said.
But she needed to sing in front of the White House on Sunday. And she brought Stephen Roy Jr., 17, Semaj Roy, 6, and little Sarah-Love Roy, 1, with her.
She and her husband, Stephen, were nervous, Roy said, and she asked a police officer whether she was allowed to sing — something she never would have questioned a few weeks ago.
“He said we still have the First Amendment,” she said, standing in a spot that had been fenced off just days before. “I said, ‘Yes, I know, but so much has been broken.’ ”
In the silence after her singing ended, she clasped her hands.
“I feel so free,” she said. “I literally still have goose bumps. I feel so, so free.”
Eric Carter, 34, took the Metro in from Woodbridge on Sunday after avoiding the protests for days because of the pandemic. He was trying to balance an appreciation of the beautiful day and the diversity of the crowd gathering in support of change — and cynicism. He was clutching a piece of cardboard on which he had written “Who’s next.”
“It’s a downer — it doesn’t refer to peace or unity. But that’s the first thing I thought: ‘Who’s next?’ Nothing is going to stop.”
Ebony Smith, a reading specialist for Prince George’s County Public Schools who brought her children to the plaza after church, said there was a sense of change in the air and she wanted the three of them — a 7-year-old son, and twin 13-year-old daughters — to witness it.
“They have, in their 13 years, seen this play out over and over again on TV,” Smith said. “Hopefully, this is not something we’ll have to see happening again.”
Police said a group of protesters disrupted traffic late Sunday, temporarily shutting part of the Southwest Freeway. Demonstrators briefly came to a standstill on the eastbound lanes near the D St. exit at about 9:30 p.m., before making their way back through the city to Black Lives Matter Plaza before 11:00 p.m., police said.
Protests continued around the country throughout the weekend, with demonstrators demanding far-reaching police reforms, and the reversal of earlier injustices. In Richmond, the Monument Avenue statue of Robert E. Lee continued to be a major draw.
Dozens of people whiled away a sunny Sunday afternoon around the statue. A gospel band set up for a live performance. Under canopies around the traffic circle, volunteers offered voter registration, materials for making protest signs and free water and snacks. Cars moved slowly past along Monument Avenue, windows down to take in the scene.
“We need to have more activities like this, especially for the young people,” said Edward Woodson, 66, of Richmond. Wearing a Disabled Veteran cap and sitting on a motorized scooter with a license plate that said “WAZZZUP,” Woodson said he had paid little attention to the Confederate statues while growing up in Richmond. But as a black man, he has come to think more about what they stand for and believes they should come down.
The daily demonstrations “make me feel good because we’re trying to get our voices heard,” he said. But he confessed to mixed feelings about the police. Once when he was homeless, he said, a Richmond officer prayed with him and gave him money from his own pocket to get a room for the night.
“But it only takes a few bad ones to make it bad for the rest of them,” he said.
On social media, Richmond residents continued to complain about an incident the night before in which a city police vehicle had bumped several people while forcing its way through a group of protesters. Mayor Levar Stoney tweeted Sunday that he was asking the local commonwealth’s attorney for a “full investigation” into the matter.
“While the investigation is underway, I have instructed the Richmond Police Department to place the officer involved on administrative leave pending the result of the investigation,” Stoney tweeted.
Stoney (D) has also called for a disciplinary review of officers who tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators at the Lee statue earlier this month.
Late Sunday, police twice deployed what appeared to be pepper spray on demonstrators after hundreds gathered outside the Richmond police headquarters to protest the Saturday incident. At least one person was taken into custody.
One protester, a recent law school graduate, said she was pepper sprayed for trying to record the badge numbers of officers. Later, spray was deployed again after a man got too close to officers.