Protesters leave mark around White House as Trump hunkers down

John T Bennett
REUTERS

"The police are getting more active. Watch your back."

That was the advice one black man gave near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and I Street NW, just a few blocks from the White House.

He was wearing blue slacks and a blue windbreaker jacket with casual loafers, hardly the same attire being worn by many of the protesters – face masks or bandanas, tank tops, some carrying bags with unknown contents – who were gathered near by on the edge of Lafayette Park near the executive mansion.

"The crowd is gathering around the corner, near the park," he said, raising his voice over the screams of handsaws being used to cut plywood to board up office building lobbies, where windows had been busted during three nights of violent protests over the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis, while he was in police custody last Monday.

"They're pretty fired up. Getting there, at least," said the man, who appeared to be around 50 with slightly thinning salt-and-pepper hair. "And the police are getting squirrely."

Minutes before, on a walk from 18th Street NW down I Street then to Lafayette Park, some office building lobby windows remained busted, round holes still visible in shattered glass.

Most of the windows on the ground-floor level of the building at 1722 I Street NW were busted. An empty cash register till laid on the sidewalk out front. "GEORGE FLOYD" was spray painted in orange on the windows that made it through Sunday night's looting and protesting.

'F*** 12'

All the windows at a Bank of America had been busted out as workers cleared the shards of glass and readied plywood to fill the broken windows. "F*** 12" had been spray-painted on the screens of the ATMs inside. The number 12 has become a phrase intended to express frustration with police officers and a perception of abuse of their power.

That slogan, and a few others, are all over the nation's capital.

The themes of the political graffiti are the same. So are the colours: Always orange or black.

The statue of David Farragut, the US Navy's first admiral, in a square downtown that features his name, was tagged with orange paint.

The person who applied the bright paint wants the admiral's likeness to come down. "PUT MLK HERE," the message reads, a reference to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

A few hundred feet away, one pane of a revolving door of a restaurant and bar was tagged with this also in orange paint: "Racists eat here." That watering hole, Blackfinn, is a popular lunch and happy hour spot for the wonky Washington policy and business types who work in the many office buildings that line Connecticut Avenue NW and other streets.

White and black Washington Metropolitan Police Department officers chatted in their vehicles and under trees on a warm day in DC, just one block separating them from the protesters who had gathered at the park.

Outside the posh St. Regis Hotel, where White House officials sometimes chat with reporters in ornate ballrooms over gourmet breakfasts, a line of MPD police motorcycles gleamed in the late-spring sunshine. They were parked where taxi cabs typically line up to take hotel patrons to Capitol Hill, federal agencies or other places where Washington's work typically is conducted.

Only the luxury hotel is closed due to the coronavirus, as has been much of downtown DC for months. But the city has come to life for three consecutive nights to protest the latest death of a black person at the hands of white police officers.

"Things have been popping out here. People want this s*** to change, man," said a man who identified himself as Malcolm but declined to give his last name or say where he lives. Asked if he expects more of the same on Monday night, the man, who appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s, Malcolm replied as he rejoined the chanting crowd: "Most definitely."

As the crowd yelled at a line of uniformed US Secret Service and Park Police officers inside the park, all wearing riot gear, a black woman escorted a white man out of the crowd. He explained his view that they were making all police officers "look bad." She pleaded that he leave and "let them have their say." They reached an accord and parted with a coronavirus-era elbow bump and told each other to "stay safe."

'Let's take to the streets!'

The crowd that had gathered by mid-afternoon had doubled in size by 3.30pm.

"Let's take to the streets," a young black woman yelled during a break in the chanting. The crowd roared its approval as she led them eastbound down H Street NW. Their destination seemed undecided until a young white man pulled a blue bandana over his face to cover everything below the bridge of his son-reddened nose and yelled: "The Capitol."

Before that scene, the crowd – composed of black, white, Asian and Latino faces – chanted "George Floyd!" and "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" before they departed for the home of Congress. At one point, they had a message for Donald Trump, who reportedly has spent some time during the protests in a secure bunker under the White House, as they yelled in unison, "Quit your job!"

As the crowd filed down H Street, moving in pockets of two or four or five people, some wearing medical masks amid the ongoing pandemic, they repeated the chants.

The throng was organised, angry and seemed to have clear leadership directing their chants and march. But on some downtown buildings, were messages that were not so clear. For instance, a block from the White House was this, in black paint: "Free us from mind control."

Such messages are giving fuel to Mr Trump and others that "anarchists" are mixing with those protesting police killings of black people -- seeking to take down the government and a perceived wealthy establishment. To that end, companies like CVS, Bank of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other large corporations had taken a lot of vandalism downtown.

But other messages were more clear. As the protesters walked down I Street around 4pm., a young black man wrapped grey duct tape around an aluminium baseball bat.

As he and others chanted "Black lives matter," he thrust the potential weapon into the air. The younger man walking with him pointed at the bat. They both let out a scream as the man carrying the bat pounded it on the pavement.

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