WASHINGTON – Thousands of protesters from all walks of life – black, white, young, old, straight, gay – poured into downtown Washington Saturday to demand an end to police violence against African Americans.
It was the ninth – and by far the largest – day of demonstrations demanding justice for George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and the many other black victims of police abuse.
Protesters gathered peacefully across Washington at the city’s most iconic sites – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and near the White House – for simultaneous marches and mass demonstrations.
“It’s awesome – it’s a long time coming,” said Stefani Jackson, 52, a psychotherapist and social worker from Rockville, Maryland. “People have had enough – black, white and brown.”
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“I’m a single mom with a black son,” said Kim Cuthbert, 45, who lives in the Washington suburbs and was attending her first-ever protest Saturday. She said her son knows what to do if he has an encounter with police,but she no longer trusts that his practiced caution will be enough.
“Whether he knows what to do and what not to do, it doesn’t matter. So it’s important for me to be down here today,” Cuthbert said.
In another part of the city, Randy Talley, 58, a producer at a Washington marketing firm, held aloft a sign that read: “Silence is no longer golden.”
“I could no longer sit on the sidelines, watching on TV,” said Talley, who is white and said he typically doesn’t attend protests. Next to him was Jeighdeane King, a 46-year-old native of West Virginia with a “Hillbillies support Black Lives Matters” placard.
King, who now lives in Washington, said she’s been horrified by the accounts of African Americans being killed at the hands of police. But she was heartened by Saturday’s massive turnout.
“It restores some of my faith in humanity,” King said.
Tanya Samuels-Johnson, 52, an IT specialist said she wants to see a “peaceful revolution” in race relations. “It’s time for a change,” she said.
“We felt we needed to be a part of this history,” said her husband, Duane Johnson, 56, a claims supervisor from Denton, Maryland.
People marched into downtown from Washington’s suburbs, and the city buzzed with a festive energy, a contrast to a gathering on Sunday night where some activists clashed with police and looters smashed up local businesses – leading to mass arrests. There was no sign of that on Saturday, as protesters sang, danced and chanted. Even if protesters were not celebrating, the tension that had marked earlier demonstrations was not evident.
Morgan Hubbard, 13, said she came out to protest because “it really matters to me how the future turns out.”
“I can’t help but think ‘Am I next?’ and I don’t want that to happen,” she said. “I don’t want my little brother to be next, he’s seven years old.”
Different scenes unfolded across the city. After marching down Constitution Ave., thousands of protesters knelt at an intersection north of the Lincoln Memorial – the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
On 16th Street, a main city artery, music blared and waves of people marched through a sea of demonstrators. Most people wore masks to guard against COVID-19, but the idea of social distancing seemed a thing of the past.
Around Lafayette Square near the White House, the gathering was downright jovial with live DJs and protesters who brought their own rap and reggae music. On Friday, the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, renamed that area “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and muralists painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in large, yellow block letters on the street.
The tone was more somber outside the Smithsonian National African American Museum
“I feel the gravity of this moment now more than I ever have before,” Phillip Malcolm, 26, told a crowd of several dozen of protesters there. “All I want is to wake up in the morning and not feel like someone’s knee is on my neck.”
The DC metropolitan police declined to provide a crowd estimate, and with thousands of protesters gathered at multiple sites across the city, it was difficult to get an accurate assessment.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters on Friday that local officials were projecting between 100,000 and 200,000 protesters.
With the temperature nearing 90 degrees in the afternoon and humidity above 80%, some demonstrators camped out beneath the awnings of hotels and restaurants to escape the sun. Some businesses in the district opened up their stores to give shelter, food and water to protesters. Some also gave their employees the day off to join the protests.
Kerrigan Williams, a 22-year-old graduate student at Georgetown, told the crowd through a megaphone that they would be marching to City Hall with a message for the mayor: “Sidewalk chalk with Black Lives Matter is not enough.”
Williams said she and others wanted more substantive action, including a defunding of the local police department and money redirected to mental health, food aid and housing security.
“That mural isn’t enough,” Williams, a member of Freedom Fighters DC, told USA TODAY. “If you’re not going to change black lives in your city, then what does that mural mean?”
Malaika Simmons, 24, said she too wanted more than murals. “I don’t want to be a hashtag,” Simmons said. “I want to be able to live and feel safe and not have to worry about racist police officers profiling me.”
Bowser joined the crowd outside the White House, wearing a green mask, giving thumbs up to protesters and taking photos with supporters.
“We have a wonderful mayor,” said one man nearby as he passed out water.
Just north of Lafayette Square, a small group of children chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Black lives matter” and “We are young, but we are strong.”
The marches and protests unfolded against a backdrop of boarded-up buildings, after businesses in the downtown area covered their windows and doors to protect against the vandalism that blighted earlier protests.
Security personnel, whether city police officers, National Guard members or other federal law enforcement officials, were on every street. Many stood in silence, while others engaged in friendly conversations with people on the street.
One encounter, in particular, captured the uneasy dynamic; after nightfall, about a half dozen uniformed Secret Service agents outside the U.S. Treasury building came onto the sidewalk and engaged with the protesters — between a black chain link fence. The scene occasionally grew tense — at one point protesters slammed on the fence — but there were also moments where the police and protesters talked.
“I agree with this whole protest,” said one of the Secret Service officers, who is black. “I appreciate you being out here.” The officer declined to identify himself to a reporter, asking he be identified as “Officer G.”
One woman asked the officer how the system should be changed. The officer responded by saying black officers were trying to change it from the inside.
“Do you want an all-white police force,” he asked. “When I take this uniform off, I’m still black.”
The officers eventually walked back into the Treasury building. But Officer G raised his fist to the crowd, and they cheered and banged on the fence in approval.
During most of the day, a large swath of the city’s downtown was cordoned off, including several blocks near the White House and National Mall. Some protesters parked a mile away and carried their homemade signs down to Lafayette Square.
Near Capitol Hill, a massive crowd began to march early in the day, chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and “Hey hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go,” as they walked down Constitution Avenue.
Three students from Coppin State University in Baltimore called for a complete overhaul of legal and political systems. “I have two young kids – and one of them is a boy – and I don’t want them to go through the kinds of things we did in terms of being racially profiled by the police,” said Nzinga Robertson, 20.
“These laws are not meant for us whatsoever,” said Brianna Bouldin, 19, also a Coppin student. “We need new rules protecting people of color.”
Demonstrations erupted around the country last week following the death of Floyd. The officer, Derek Chauvin, is facing a second-degree murder charge. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting.
In Washington, D.C., tensions have been rising between President Donald Trump and Bowser over how to police the protests, with the president promising to “dominate the streets.” Bowser has demanded that Trump withdraw military and federal law enforcement from the city, saying the mass deployment of officers and the presence of heavy equipment was only inflaming demonstrations.
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Trump spent the day inside the White House and had no public appearances. He sent out tweets paying tribute to the military on the 76th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings in France in 1944 that led to victory in World War II.
Just before 7 p.m., he posted a message seemed aimed at the scene outside his front door: “LAW & ORDER!”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Deirdre Shesgreen, Nicholas Wu, Tom Schad, Michelle Martinelli, Chelsey Cox, Matthew Brown