Police forces and National Guard vehicles are used to block 16th Street near Lafayette Square and the White House on June 3. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The thwack of military helicopters is our new soundtrack. Backyards smell like smoke. One little boy in my Capitol Hill neighborhood went to sleep with his Nerf gun the other night, his mother told me, “in case they come to our house.”

He’s talking about the troops. Not the protesters.

This is what the seat of our nation’s democracy looks, sounds and smells like under occupation.

As the National Guard and a multi­pack of other federal police forces rolled into Washington, I set out to see what they were protecting.

That’s why the soldiers and airmen were called in, right? To protect the city from mayhem and lawless chaos that is accompanying days of ongoing protests, right?

For nearly a week now, crowds have gathered across the nation — and around the globe, even — following the modern-day lynching of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis over Memorial Day weekend. This follows decades — no, centuries — of racial hatred and oppression woven into our systems and character.

In Washington, President Trump’s ongoing wish to draw a huge crowd — he tried during the inauguration and then again after hijacking last year’s Fourth of July festivities — was finally granted by protesters. For a few days, peaceful protests dominated the city during the day and looters took over at night, rampaging through some of its commercial corridors, smashing windows and grabbing merchandise.

Rioters and looters get attention. Does it hurt the message, or work?

Trump’s response was to militarize and clear the streets.

I witnessed some of that chaos, standing amid the broken glass of the Sephora in Gallery Place, where looters paid no attention to me or the police down the street late Sunday as they ransacked the place. Same thing happened across the street at Zara and around the city in dozens of shops.

But we also have the Hope Diamond, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I went to see if the troops were there protecting the museum?


What about the only Leonardo da Vinci in North America and all the other irreplaceable art at the National Gallery?


The four pages of the original Constitution on display at the National Archives?

Wait, nevermind, that’s already been trampled.

So, how about the ritzy shopping districts, some of which were hit during the first couple of nights of unrest?


What about the small mom-and-pop businesses already devastated by the coronavirus crisis and now hit by looters?

No. They were boarded up either to prevent looting or after a looting. No troops outside my favorite coffee spot on Capitol Hill.

The National Guard’s perimeter — as I drove and walked around the city and plotted the blockade points set up one night this week — perfectly encircled the White House and Trump International Hotel.

Our men and women in uniform are being called upon to help Trump with stagecraft.

We saw the ultimate display of his reality-show leadership Monday evening, when his daughter Ivanka reportedly had the idea that he should walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church and hold a Bible. She’s got one — maybe the Gideon kind from a hotel room. She put it in her $1,540 handbag and off they went, with officers shoving, shooting and gassing the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square.

You didn’t have to be a protester blinking back pepper spray to see what a gross and dangerous act that was.

“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel — including members of the National Guard — forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic.

“Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces,” he added.

Looting and rioting are no joke. I saw this in 1992, when I was a college student in Los Angeles and my neighborhood went up in flames after the acquittal of police officers caught on video beating Rodney King.

After five days of ferocious unrest, 63 people had been killed, more than 2,000 were injured and there was at least $1 billion in property damage. Yes, the sprawling city needed the National Guard.

But in D.C.?

Damage had been done the first couple of nights, but by Tuesday, the protesters were peaceful, self-policing and chanting, “Stop throwing s---!” anytime someone threatened to throw a water bottle over the third barricade set up outside the White House, or yelling, “Peaceful protest!” whenever someone rattled one of the barricade pieces.

That must have frustrated Trump, who thrives on drama and is hellbent on orchestrating authoritarian tableaus starring him.

The commanders he called in placed a phalanx of warriors on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, like little kids playing with those little plastic soldiers.

His defense secretary, in a call to governors this week, told them that they need to “dominate the battlespace.”


Trump’s takeover of the Fourth of July is all about his obsession with crowd count

In 2018, like Stalin, Trump wanted a Red Army-style parade of tanks for Veterans Day. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) put an end to that, calling herself the “local politician who finally got thru to the reality star in the White House.”

Last year, he tried to assemble a Mussolini-size crowd by roping in all the tourists who came for the Fourth of July and turning it into his own, personal me-fest. (It was meh.)

But when the crowds for him finally came — rallying outside the White House Friday night — he went into hiding in the underground bunker like . . . wait . . . what did he say he was doing?

Oh, yes, now he says he was only there for an “inspection.”

With more than 106,000 people dead from covid-19, and nearly a quarter of all Americans unemployed, with racial unrest in towns and cities across the nation, Trump is hearing from the American people.

This isn’t a battlespace. This is what democracy looks like.

Twitter: @petulad

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