Washington protesters express optimism after week on edge

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Demonstrator dance as they protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – On Monday, they were forcibly removed from the street by law enforcement. On Saturday, they danced.

The tens of thousands of racially diverse demonstrators who flooded Washington to protest injustice and police brutality reshaped the mood of a city that has been on edge this week. Bursts of looting and violence early in the week prompted a dramatic clampdown by law enforcement that gave the nation's capital the feeling of an occupied city, complete with military vehicles, helicopters buzzing low to the skyline and National Guard troops on patrol.

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But on Saturday, go-go music — a distinctive D.C. offshoot of funk — blared from a truck that looked more like a parade float. Impromptu dance parties popped up. A black man shared a fist bump with a black police officer. People used chalk to write messages of support on the street.

The purpose of the protest was somber: to demand changes to police practices and pay homage to George Floyd, the black man killed by Minneapolis police. But the displays of levity, unfolding against the backdrop of damaged buildings marked with graffiti, amounted to a moment of catharsis for a city and nation in crisis.

Some said they saw the beginning of a new movement.

“This is us walking across the Pettus Bridge,” said Kendyll Myles, a 33-year-old project manager, referring to site of the iconic 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. “This is that type of awakening that our country needed.”

The scene on Saturday was starkly different from earlier this week when law enforcement moved aggressively to push back protesters from a park in front of the White House. Within minutes, President Donald Trump walked across the park to appear before cameras at a church where he held up a Bible, but didn't offer any prayers. The episode has been widely criticized.

As demonstrations are expected to spill into another week, there are questions about whether the scope of the protests can become something more durable.

Unlike the major Washington protests of the past, Saturday's events weren't strongly organized. In some cases, they were mini-marches that began in residential neighborhoods before converging on 16th Street, one of the major roads leading to the White House, where Trump spent the day without any public appearances.

Many protestors carried signs urging participants to vote with the passion they brought to the streets. The Rev. Al Sharpton has said he's organizing a March on Washington for late August that would energize voters heading into the fall presidential campaign.

There were signs of cultural change. Those who led demonstrators in chants were almost exclusively people of color.

Several white people who were approached for an interview demurred, saying that white people do enough talking and that this was a moment for their black and brown counterparts to have the spotlight and set the agenda.

That's one reason some black protestors said they thought this moment was different from previous demonstrations against police brutality. The fact that large numbers of white people would march alongside them fueled some hope that change might happen.

“You can finally see it, the different races out here,” said Carl Sirls, a 26-year-old airline worker. “It's not just black people. It's not just white people. It's everyone.”

Pamela Reyolds said she hoped the massive size of the crowd and the diversity of the participants would help build momentum behind reforms including a ban on police chokeholds and a requirement for law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“It took protest, it took rioting to happen,” the 37-year-old teacher said. “But I think they're finally listening and they're seeing that this is everybody's fight.”

There were still plenty of signs of anger on Saturday.

Outside the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, a protestor moved close to a line of law enforcement and shouted they had no right to patrol the city. A few blocks away at the Trump International Hotel, protestors regularly shouted epithets at the building. One man used a bullhorn to ask police how they could justify guarding a building associated with a president who has backed aggression toward protestors.

More broadly, the expressions of hope don't mask the deeper challenges facing Washington or the nation.

The city is home to one of the largest income inequality gaps in the country, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. The racial divide is stark and has grown as longtime black neighborhoods have gentrified, sending home prices soaring. The coronavirus has taken a disproportionate toll on the black community.

Mayor Muriel Bowser is under pressure to reduce funding for the city's police and reinvest that money elsewhere. The local chapter of Black Lives Matter derided Bowser's widely publicized move to paint Black Lives Matter across one of the streets near the White House.

“This is performative and a distraction from her active counter organizing to our demands to decrease the police budget and invest in the community,” it said on Twitter.

But as Bowser strolled that section of the street, the crowd in this overwhelmingly Democratic city burst into applause for a woman who is increasingly the subject of Trump's ire. Art Lindy, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, shouted “Vice President Bowser” as she walked by.

Bowser “has done an incredible job standing up to the face of federal power,” the 56-year-old construction manager said.

A few blocks north, Jake Mathai was passing out free bottles of water to any demonstrator who needed relief from the heat and humidity. He said it was the least he could do for protestors and expressed particular admiration of younger people who showed up.

“When I was 18, I was never doing this kind of thing,” the 36-year-old said. “These kids are going to be me in 18 years. But much better because I wasn't doing this.”

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