WASHINGTON - More than two centuries after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Americans converged on the National Mall on Saturday for the Fourth of July during a season of protests over racial injustice, bringing with them clashing notions of what freedom means.
"Freedom looks like being able to take a run in a neighborhood without being shot down," said Shyrah Perkins, 28, of Baltimore, referring to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while jogging. "But that's not America. America is about stealing; it's about taking opportunities from people. It's about taking freedom away."
The holiday has lost its lofty meaning, said Perkins, who is African American; Juneteenth would be her new freedom day. "July Fourth now is just a day that people like to celebrate with their family, have a fun party."
Bill Seibert, who had roared to the Capitol grounds from Easton, Pa., as part of a biker contingent of supporters of President Donald Trump, might as well have been standing in a different country.
"When I hear about racism, I don't see it," said Seibert, who came with his wife, Chris Curto. To the white couple in their 50s, freedom means the right to speak freely as Trump supporters as well as freedom of religion and the right to bear arms - all under threat, they believe.
"Watch the news," said Seibert, a small-business owner and Fox News fan.
"There are U-Hauls arriving with antifa. It's scary," Curto chimed in, referring to an unfounded rumor circulating online. "Think of everything the country got through. Slavery, then we overcame it. Now it feels like we're going backwards."
The crowds that typically flow into the District of Columbia on Independence Day to line the streets for a parade or to get a prime spot on the National Mall to see the fireworks were markedly thinner this year. Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesman, said that as of 9 p.m., there were 34,000 trips taken on Metrorail for Saturday, compared with just more than 315,000 on July 4 last year.
The throngs were often headed in different directions. Hundreds flocked to Black Lives Matter Plaza, which has been the gathering place for more than a month for demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by police in Minneapolis. Hundreds more ventured to the National Mall for protests or to celebrate the nation's founding.
The day was capped, as usual, with the spectacle of fireworks and flyovers, even as an evening speech by Trump was riven with the kind of racially divisive, partisan rhetoric that had dominated his remarks the day before at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The speech, made on the South Lawn of the White House before a ticketed throng of supporters who arrived mostly maskless, denounced elements of the social justice protests for attacking statues and monuments of historical figures.
"We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters," Trump said. "We will safeguard our values, traditions, customs and beliefs."
As public health officials' warnings and fear of the novel coronavirus dampened enthusiasm for the nation's signature Fourth of July event, those who ventured out - most masked, some without - represented a kaleidoscope of Americans.
Some were there simply to catch a break and celebrate, in red, white and blue garb and waving flags as they chatted amiably and spread out in the shade to await the show.
There were, however, few sightings of the flag during the day or celebration in the sweating throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters, congregating at the Capitol or on Black Lives Matter Plaza. As evening wore on, the plaza became a stage for scattered flag burnings and derisive sneers as military flyovers swept the skies overhead.
A queer Latina woman who identified herself as Kiara R. stomped on a large U.S. flag spread across the asphalt, her white Adidas sneakers crisscrossing the red and white stripes.
"Now's your chance to step on the flag and all it represents: slavery, genocide and war," the activist with Refuse Fascism DC said into a microphone as her words echoed throughout the plaza.
Ben Ferreira, 43, a white trucker from San Francisco, looked on.
"Ma'am, why are you standing on the American flag?" asked Ferreira.
"Because freedom of speech," Kiara R. said. "Isn't that what the troops fight for?"
Ferreira said he understood the "emotional plea" from protesters was one he could not fully understand, but he felt enriched by the experience nonetheless.
"Part of the promise of the United States is having the freedom to speak your mind," he said, gazing back at the activists on the dirtied banner. "I completely disagree with stepping on the flag, but I support their right to do it."
Bands of Trump supporters strode about the nearby National Mall in telltale Make America Great Again hats throughout, bearing signs and shirts declaring, "We support the president!" and "We support law and order."
Mostly, the groups passed each other peacefully, if they intersected at all. Occasionally, though, they collided.
Just before the fireworks began, hundreds of protesters, chanting "black lives matter" and "no justice, no peace," marched onto the National Mall near 15th Street and up to the Washington Monument, where they confronted a much smaller crowd of Trump supporters.
[On the country's birthday, Biden offers hopeful counterpoint to Trump's message]
Trump supporters, numbering perhaps 50 or more, faced off with the protesters, yelling, "USA" and "all lives matter!"
There was a scuffle, with people trying to snatch hats, flags or signs from each other. A transgender woman waving a pro-Trump sign marched right into the middle of the BLM supporters, until she was surrounded and chased off. Police moved in, first one marked vehicle and then perhaps 100 or more, including Park Police and other federal officers. They struggled to part the two groups but eventually formed a double line between them as the fireworks began.
Earlier in the day, Trump supporters on motorcycles thundered around the Capitol as a group of about three dozen men from a group known as the Proud Boys cheered them on after finishing a march from Harry's Restaurant in Northwest Washington. Members of the all-male far-right organization, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, arrived as a contingent of Black Lives Matter protesters set off on a march from the Capitol.
The group's Cuban American chairman, Enrique Tarrio, said members make the holiday jaunt annually and are not there to mix it up with protesters.
Wearing matching black polo shirts with yellow trim and few masks, the group gathered behind a statue of Ulysses S. Grant across the street from the Capitol.
A Proud Boy who would only give his name as Bobby Pickles, who is white, said he had come from Florida to show his patriotism and symbolically defend the city's statues, which he said represent the nation's history and heritage.
"I understand Black Lives Matter a little, but I think a lot of this energy is misdirected," the man said of the Confederate memorials that have been torn down or defaced in recent weeks.
The state of the nation is perilous on this Fourth of July, he said. "This is the craziest time," the man said. "It's '1984.' Conservative voices are being silenced."
When a group of Black Lives Matter protesters passed on the opposite side of the street, the Proud Boys launched into a chant of "Four more years!"
The miles of fencing that enclosed the monuments on the National Mall seemed a visible reminder of the nation's divisions. The silver wire extended down East Basin Drive and around 15th Street, preventing an early wave of Black Lives Matter activists from converging at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as they had planned. They met up instead at the National Museum of African American History and Culture before pausing in a shady patch near the Washington Monument.
Patty Wood, 67, stood talking to Ebony Johnson, 32, who had draped a blue flag with white stars atop her Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
"After seeing what's going out here today, I'm not sure what this flag represents," said Johnson, who describes herself as African American and Native American. "But for some reason, it makes me feel safe."
"No, it's okay," consoled Wood, who is white. "The Republicans have stolen our flag and our country, and we need to take it back."
During such an unrestful time in the nation's history, it might be hard to imagine that anyone would visit the District on the Fourth of July just to relax. But as they spread out under a tree, Mark and Joannie Hines looked out from the spot where Johnson had earlier stood and saw a largely empty expanse of tranquility.
Mark had spent months away from his wife and three children while battling the coronavirus as a nurse in Delaware. Joannie had never been to the East Coast and flew out here to meet Mark for the weekend. It was Mark's 38th birthday, and they had never seen the national fireworks before.
"It's been hard - a lot of loss," said Mark of his work with patients. "This is a little weekend reprieve."
Mark, who is white and an Army veteran, and who is so far virus-free, said he thinks the unprecedented health crisis has left people more receptive to social change after the killing of Floyd.
"It's a time of change. It's needed change," Mark said, citing change in stances by NASCAR and the National Football League. "The country as a whole has kind of done a 180 from where it was four years ago."
Then Mark turned to the more mundane concerns that normally occupy people on the Fourth of July. "We've got the ice chest. We've got the shade," he said. "I think we've got the prime spot."
Not far away, Patt Cannady was laughing with her siblings as she stretched out in the shade. Cannady, 27, who is white, said she has a good life and is happy a lot of the time. Even so, she was reluctant to truly celebrate, considering Americans who have a different experience of life in her country. Chants of "No Justice, no peace!" rode on the air as she spoke.
"I am thinking a lot about how other people think about the holiday and how your privilege sort of affects how you can view this holiday," she said.
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The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein, Hannah Natanson, David Nakamura, and Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.
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As statues tumble and a frightening virus spreads through the land, far fewer splashes of color will burst onto the night skies across America on the Fourth of July. Instead of parades and picnics, the nation's 244th birthday was a muted celebration by people who are frustrated and strained, yet intriguingly, persistently hopeful about the future.
A triple whammy of deadly disease, wholesale economic paralysis and a searing reckoning with racial inequality largely canceled the nation's birthday bash. But despite Depression-level unemployment and pervasive sadness, polling and interviews across the country reveal an enduring - even renewed - reservoir of optimism, a sense that despite the coronavirus and perhaps as a result of protests in big cities and small towns alike, the United States can still right itself.
Months of quarantine and the continuing anxiety of life under the threat of an uncontained virus has shrunk social circles, leaving many people lonely or bored. In Clear Lake, Iowa, where there would normally be a parade, a carnival and a grand fireworks display over the water, Rachel Wumkes instead spent the day in her in-laws' pontoon with her husband and their five children.
"I feel discombobulated right now because we should be doing everything and instead we're just kind of doing nothing," said Wumkes, who works for the town's chamber of commerce. "There's so many scary things right now. We're all kind of melancholy this year, trying to put a smile on our faces."
Americans' pride in their country has dropped this year, especially among Republicans, according to the Gallup Poll. National pride declined to its lowest point in two decades of polling, as the portion of Americans saying they are "extremely" or "very proud" of their country fell from 92 percent in 2002, months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to 63 percent last month. The number was far lower for nonwhites: 24 percent.
On the Fourth, Chris Chappelear left Omaha, where the big parades and fireworks displays had been canceled, and headed over to Arlington, Neb., his grandparents' tiny hometown 35 miles away, where the rocket's red glare gave proof through the night that the flag was still there.
Despite all the country has gone through this year, he believes there remains something to celebrate.
"Everything feels really strained right now," said Chappelear, who recently completed a term as chairman of the Nebraska Federation of Young Republicans. "But people are trying to make it work, and I think there will be meaningful change. I like the national conversation that the protests started. With social media, too many people only see what their own people think. But as a millennial, I think changing the guard, with new, fresh blood in leadership, would go a long way toward cooling down tempers."
In the wake of nationwide protests against police violence, Americans have become somewhat more optimistic about the country's future, though a plurality still say life will be worse for people in the next generations, according to a new Pew Research poll. Though 71 percent of Americans said they feel angry about the state of the country - and 66 percent said they are fearful - the survey found an uptick in optimism since last fall.
Overall, 25 percent of those polled said life will get better for Americans; among whites, that number held steady at 22 percent, but among blacks, the optimism number jumped from 17 percent last fall to 33 percent this month.
On most Fourths, Greg Carr makes his way to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to hear the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. He always carries with him the text of Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
There was no mass gathering this year, but Carr, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University in the District of Columbia, nonetheless read the speech, which affirms Douglass's admiration for the Founding Fathers' "great principles of political freedom and of natural justice" but concludes that "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
This year, Carr feels an unaccustomed "optimism coming from black folks who see the terms of the American myth being renegotiated in the streets." He said the coronavirus epidemic "has laid bare the structural inequalities in this country, and the deaths from the virus triggered this general strike."
The protests, Carr said, have been expressions not only of anger and frustration, but also of joy: "There's dancing, there's celebration - they're celebrating victories that are about America and about human rights and the feeling that 'I feel better outside than I did being stuck inside the house.' "
Carr spent the day reading the speech and attending Zoom conferences critiquing the Fourth of July. His is not a celebration of America - "This is still the white man's country," he said - but rather a celebration that Americans are asserting their rights.
"What black people want is to be left alone," Carr said. "Let us live."
Figuring out exactly what the Fourth celebrates has been the work of nearly 2½ centuries, and especially in traumatic times, that effort can seem anything but unified.
In 1968, the Fourth arrived in a moment of deep national division. Riots burned through American cities, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy remained fresh wounds to the national psyche, and 36 percent of Americans - including 48 percent of blacks - told pollsters that the United States was a "sick society."
In that traumatic year, the Fourth featured demonstrations on the Mall in Washington highlighting "the plight of the poor," and in Philadelphia, protesters opposing the U.S. involvement in Vietnam chanted, "End the war now!"
But in most American towns, the Fourth unfolded as it always had, a cheerful mélange of parades and fireworks, baseball games, fried chicken dinners and flags aflutter in a humid breeze. A Gallup Poll that summer found that most Americans did not consider their country "sick," arguing that a small number of people were responsible for violence on the streets and that the country was no worse off than it had been in other eras.
That debate has ebbed and flowed for half a century.
"This year's conflicts are the clash of two different, incompatible visions of America," said John Fonte, a historian who is director of the Center for American Common Culture at the conservative Hudson Institute. "It's systemic justice against systemic racism, the America of the American Revolution and the Constitution - the idea that we've had an advance of rights for more than two centuries - against the view that America was flawed from the beginning by slavery.
"We are reaching the climax of that debate, and it appears this year that we are moving away from the vision of an American legacy that needs to be transmitted, toward that vision of America as a country that needs to be radically transformed."
Fonte has watched as statues have fallen and protests have blossomed, not only against Confederate generals and soldiers who were traitors to their country, but also against George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.
The historian has little expectation that Americans will reach any consensus on who we are and what we stand for. Fonte called the rejection of some of the nation's most honored figures "overreach."
"Most people in most countries want to love their country," Fonte said. "They don't want to think this is a terrible nation that has done terrible things for hundreds of years. But we're going to have to choose. Something has to give."
This year, many Americans seem to be leaning toward the protesters' arguments, with large majorities of whites and nonwhites alike concluding that the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody reflected broad problems in how police treat black Americans, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in June.
That consensus gives Chappelear, the Nebraska Young Republican, hope that "we'll come through this crisis - battered and bruised and bloody, but we'll come through it. The country is still divided, but I look at my generation and the attitudes are different: I like the idea of Black Lives Matter, even if not the organization that runs it. With climate change and gay rights, there's a much larger acceptance among young conservatives, even here in Nebraska, than there is for older generations."
But deep divisions remain, and the painful and largely unsuccessful struggle to limit the spread of the coronavirus has reflected rifts that stretch back generations. The debate over whether governments should require people to wear masks, for example, is a classic American faceoff between individual liberty and common good.
"It's just a punch in the gut to see people around the world responding to the virus and we're sitting here not doing what we know we could do," said Spence Spencer, who has run the Fourth of July parade in the District's Palisades neighborhood since 2002. This year's parade was scrapped, replaced with a virtual parade online.
"We are broken but unbowed," said Spencer, a former State Department official who runs a nonprofit organization that focuses on enhancing the rule of law in Iraq and other conflict zones. "Our country has taken so much on the chin this year, on so many levels."
Spencer sees this spring's protests as "a cause for hope, a reassertion that the American tradition of getting people to act on a matter of social justice is alive and well." But the country's handling of the virus is a less hopeful story, he said: "Right now, that's a major failing. But I know we can turn a corner. That's a core belief."
Many Americans blame themselves, or at least each other, for the failure to restrain the spread of the virus as some other countries have.
More than twice as many people say the American public is doing a "bad job" dealing with the outbreak as say the public is doing a good job, according to a Monmouth University poll. Americans give their fellow citizens a worse grade than they give President Trump; 59 percent said the public is doing a "bad job" battling the virus, whereas 54 percent said Trump is handling the outbreak poorly.
Wumkes, the Iowa civic booster, compared the country's predicament to a trying chapter of her own life. Three years ago, she lost her husband to cancer. She despaired about her future, alone with two small children. Now, remarried and in a blended family with her new husband's three kids, her children ask, "Why can't we go to the movies?" and "Why are we always at home?" But Wumkes sees a light she'd have found hard to imagine a few years ago.
"Life is not all rainbows and unicorns," she said. "I pulled through that time, and we as a country can pull through, too. Maybe that's a small-town Iowa fantasy, but I'm hopeful we can persevere."
Despite the nationwide surge of worry and stress since the epidemic hit hard in March, more than 7 in 10 Americans told the Gallup Poll in mid-June that they experienced happiness and enjoyment through much of their day, a bump up in positive feelings since late March.
There's good feeling aplenty in Medora, in North Dakota's Badlands, this weekend. The parade was on. The fireworks, too. More than 128,000 Americans have died of covid-19, and 2.7 million nationwide have been diagnosed with the virus that causes the disease, but in this rural town, the 128 residents, augmented in summer by thousands of tourists visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, felt distant enough from the brunt of the virus to charge ahead with their celebrations.
Some people wore masks, and Douglas Ellison keeps hand sanitizer on the counter at the bookstore and inn he runs. Whether people use it is up to them. "I see it as an individual choice," he said.
His Fourth was an optimistic one. His inn is mostly full of visitors, and his vision of America remains mostly unblemished by this year's troubles.
"Out here, the tensions are not as strong as what we see on television," said Ellison, who also is a former mayor of Medora. "From what I watch, I see almost a mass hysteria, with people pulling down statues left and right, sometimes without even knowing who the person really is. It's great to have a national conversation, and there's an underlying benefit to the unrest, so we can be more aware of people who have not had all the benefits of our country. But unfortunately, it often devolves into shouting and recriminations."
Still, Ellison said, "the country will come together. My bookstore is history-oriented, and history teaches us that we will always continue to evolve. Every generation thinks their time is the worst it's ever been. No, it's been worse. All of this has been brewing since long before the president even ran for office. But the boil will simmer down. Time settles emotions. Things have a way of balancing and righting themselves. They always have."
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The Washington Post's Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.