Pinochet had seized power in 1973 in a bloody U.S.-backed coup. In 1988, believing himself invincible, he called for a plebiscite to give him eight more years in power. I covered the run-up to that vote. And when those calling on Chileans to vote “no” held rallies, Pinochet’s goon squads inevitably found or invented some reason to disperse the crowds with overwhelming force. The worst kind of tear gas, I discovered the hard way, was some concoction the strongman had bought from the apartheid government in South Africa.
That sort of thing doesn’t happen here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Except this week, in Lafayette Square.
After mounted police, flash-bang explosives, rubber bullets and tear gas had cleared a path for him, President Trump preened and strutted to his Dear Leader photo op like a wannabe Pinochet, trailed by his wannabe junta — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, Attorney General William P. Barr, daughter Ivanka Trump and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was, absurdly, wearing camouflage fatigues as though he were in Baghdad or Kabul, not downtown Washington.
Trump stood in front of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church and held aloft a Bible as though it were some new-and-improved gadget he was hawking in an infomercial. Trump cuts a ridiculous figure, so yes, we can laugh at him. But his authoritarian, call-in-the-troops response to the protests over George Floyd’s killing shows — as if more evidence were needed — how dangerous he is to the very idea of America.
The Lafayette Square atrocity moved Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, to finally speak out. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote in a statement published by the Atlantic. “Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as I visited the site where demonstrators were gassed and manhandled, I wondered whether Trump’s attempt at division might not be having the opposite effect.
The passionate but entirely peaceful crowd was much larger than Monday’s, and I was struck by its rainbow diversity; African Americans may have been a plurality, but there were also whites, Latinos and Asian Americans in substantial numbers. It wasn’t possible to observe the six-foot rule for social distancing, but most of the protesters were wearing masks or bandannas. Some of the face coverings bore the same messages as the handwritten signs some people held up: “Black Lives Matter.” “Stop Police Murder.” “I Can’t Breathe.”
I ran into the Rev. Rob Fisher, rector of St. John’s, who said he had been given no warning that the president intended to use his church as a backdrop for photographs that are already being used in Trump campaign ads. “The only way to the next step is that voices need to be heard, not tanks and guns,” Fisher said.
La Voyce Reid, a social worker who lives in the Virginia suburbs, told me that “this is my first time ever coming out to a protest.” Reid, who is African American, said she grew up in South Central Los Angeles and remembered the Rodney King riots in 1992. She brought along her 15-year-old daughter and her 22-year-old son because she thought it was important for them to be there, too. “Sitting at home and watching on television just wasn’t enough.”
Chris Bostick, who is black, and his friend Jordan Gault, who is white, both work as bartenders and are currently out of work. They said it was important to them to be physically present. Gault held a sign that read, “Whites are not all racists, Blacks are not all criminals, Cops are not all killers, We are all human.”
Separating the protesters from Lafayette Square and the White House beyond was a line of federal officers, clad in riot gear, who wore no insignia or name tags that would allow them to be identified and held accountable for anything they did during the demonstration. Behind them were military-style troop carriers; behind the vehicles, a hastily erected black chain-link fence. If all of that was intended to intimidate, it spectacularly failed.
All those years ago in Chile, Pinochet thought he could use force to intimidate citizens into submission, too. The people ended up booting him out of power in a plebiscite and renewing the nation’s treasured democratic traditions. Sic semper tyrannis.