Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Lot More Ice Cream Trucks, a Lot Fewer Humvees at D.C.'s Largest Protest Since George Floyd's Death

By Christian Britschgi - June 06, 2020 at 08:40PM

Demonstrators who may have numbered in the tens of thousands poured into D.C.'s streets today to protest police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. It was the city's largest protest since Floyd's death.

The atmosphere was festive, the participants were peaceful, and the law enforcement presence was relatively small and hands-off. This marks a contrast with Washington's protests earlier in the week, which were angry, tense, and marked by vandalism, arson, and indiscriminate police crackdowns.

Early in the afternoon, crowds of demonstrators stretched all along the National Mall, from the U.S. Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Speeches were given at each end, while periodic marches would break off and head toward the White House.

Other demonstrators gathered just north of the White House at the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza. The St. John's Episcopal Church and Hay-Adams hotel along the plaza were both set on fire last weekend. On Monday, police cleared out peaceful protesters from the area with batons and pepper spray so that Trump could give a short speech in front of the St. John's building.

Today, in contrast, a large but upbeat crowd milled around the plaza, waving signs and shouting the familiar chants of "black lives matter" and "no justice, no peace." Further up the block, demonstrators danced to music blasting from loudspeakers.

Helping beat the heat were countless stations where people could grab free water, sports drinks, and granola bars. Some people were even passing out bagged sandwiches. Others brought pizza.

One group of high-school-aged girls handing out Gatorades and Ritz crackers to demonstrators told me they'd managed to raise $2,000 to supply their snack stand in just 24 hours.

Further away from the White House, bars and restaurants that had been boarded up or closed earlier in the week selling beer and hot dogs to passersby.

The police presence at today's demonstrations was minimal compared to past days. Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, was still heavily fenced off, but the large contingent of riot police and National Guard troops that had been stationed there was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, a group from the New Black Panther Party occupied a section of the fence, from where they delivered short speeches through megaphones."How many of you know what a nightstick feels like? How many have been choked out by police?" one shouted. A few people in the crowd replied in the affirmative.

A handful of police cars and military vehicles were positioned a few blocks from the White House, but they were outnumbered by ice cream and food trucks. The law enforcement personnel standing next to the vehicles looked mostly bored. One National Guard trooper waved periodically to protestors.

Helping to keep things calm was a contingent from the group Social Workers for Justice, who passed out snacks while wearing bright red "de-escalation" t-shirts.

One woman with the group explained that they'd been founded only a couple of days ago. They've been coming to protests to try to calm down anyone they saw getting too heated or angry.

"We go the same places as the cops without having to beat people," said a man with the group.

Also present was a group of around 100 nurses, doctors, and medical students marching with signs reading "White Coats for Black Lives."

One man with the group, a second-year medical student at George Washington University, told me about the ways the medical profession had perpetuated racism in the past. (He mentioned the Tuskegee experiments as an example.) Continuing health disparities today, he added, make it crucial that doctors and nurses show solidarity with the black community.

When I asked about the risks large gatherings like today's posed for spreading COVID-19, he read a prepared statement claiming that these marches shouldn't be considered a transmission risk given the role they could play in ending systemic racism. But protests against shelter-in-place orders were still a transmission risk, he felt, given that they were opposed to public health interventions and were "rooted in white nationalism."

The large marches in D.C. today were replicated in cities across the country. News reports indicate that those rallies also tended to attract large crowds and little violence.


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