The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lafayette Square is open again, but it’s different now

Visitors take pictures in Lafayette Square, near the White House, on May 10. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Joe Flood is a D.C.-based writer and photographer.

Lafayette Square is more than just a park. Named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the seven-acre park is a respite of green in downtown D.C., featuring the best view of the White House and an iconic statue of Andrew Jackson.

For years, I used it to get from my home in Logan Circle to my office near the White House. Walking across H Street, I’d exit the noisy chaos of rush-hour traffic and escape into the historic square. The sounds of revving engines would disappear for a few minutes as I traversed around Jackson on his horse before I returned to the tumult of the car-choked city.

My favorite time of year was winter. I loved the walk home after work, a damp mist falling, the sky turning purple and the White House aglow in the evening gloam, so close that you could reach out and touch it. Listening to my footsteps on the cobblestones, I enjoyed a quiet moment that could be 2020 or 1920 or even 1820, the park an unchanging constant in time, destined to be a part of this city forever.

Former president Donald Trump shattered my naive assumptions.

On June 1, 2020, peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the park by the U.S. Park Police and other law enforcement agencies moments before Trump traversed the park to hold a Bible in front of a nearby church. People protesting police brutality became victims of police brutality.

At the time, I thought this was the worst day I had ever seen in D.C. Worse was to come.

A tall fence was then built around not just Lafayette Square but the whole White House complex, including the Old Executive Office Building, the Treasury Building and the Ellipse. Miles of fencing cut off public space and buildings from the public.

After the fence was completed, Lafayette Square was closed. The park remained closed through the summer and into the fall. The fence on the north side of the park was decorated with Black Lives Matter signs.

In November, thousands of Trump supporters came to D.C. They ripped the BLM signs down and attacked counterprotesters. When they returned in December, the fence and its signs were protected by the D.C. police.

Because they couldn’t get to the BLM signs on the fence, the Proud Boys marauded through the city, looking for people to fight. One of them was me, out for coffee on a Saturday morning, too early for Trump’s supporters, I thought. After harassing some teens, they threatened to beat me up. This occurred on Black Lives Matter Plaza, within sight of Lafayette Square.

I almost forgot about the park. Sometimes I’d peer through the fence to see how it looked. The grass was overgrown, the tulips dead and a couple of officers would be chatting next to Andrew Jackson.

When Joe Biden was declared the victor in the presidential race, I was a couple miles away. I rushed through the streets on a bike, going around the vast security perimeter of the White House.

By the time I reached H Street, it seemed that all of Washington had turned out to party. Champagne corks were popped on the spot where just a few months earlier protesters had been beaten. People posed for photos in front of a huge Biden/Harris banner that had been hung from the Lafayette Square fence.

Crowds poured in until they stretched down Black Lives Matter Plaza. The joyous noise of celebration echoed off the buildings downtown.

And on the other side of the fence: emptiness. Seven acres of statues, benches and green grass without a soul in them.

Lafayette Square reopened in May. The final barriers were removed in late June. I walked through the park again. Tourists were back with guides explaining the historic buildings and everyone posing for selfies in front of the White House.

It’s not the same. I see how fragile everything is now. The park, the city, my life — it’s only possible with democracy. A democracy that must be defended.

Tyranny can take everything from you. Even the things you thought would always be there. Even a park.