WASHINGTON — Official violence creeps up before it explodes.
From my vantage point at the barricade between protesters and Lafayette Square, just north of the White House and a hair west of 16th Street, I could see and feel it moving forward with military precision. Even if I didn’t realize at the time that the objective would later turn out to be a presidential photo-op.
Members of the Washington, D.C., National Guard marched up to the front line, joining the ranks of U.S. Park Police and law enforcement officers from various federal agencies to form a wall.
They were all wearing riot gear. But there was no riot.
Around 6:10 p.m., Attorney General Bill Barr, who has repeatedly portrayed the president’s critics as dangerous saboteurs of the government, walked briskly between the lines of the interagency police force. But no one was threatening the police. It was an entirely peaceful protest, the kind that occurs in Washington without incident, seemingly every day.
The dissonance between the show of civil obedience — a peaceable assembly petitioning its government for a redress of grievances — and the display of state power was unnerving. It wasn’t exactly tanks in Tiananmen Square, but the potential for the armed troops to take what the military likes to call “kinetic” action against a docile crowd grew by the minute.
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I remembered I had seen an email about the president delivering a speech on the civil unrest around the country.
“Guys,” I wrote to my editors, “there’s such a build-up right now I think POTUS might be speaking from here.”
Colleagues near me quickly agreed there was no way that was going to happen.
“From the Rose Garden,” one of my editors wrote back.
“At 6:30,” another wrote.
Trump’s going to unleash this force as he speaks, I thought. That’s his style.
I shared the thought with my colleagues on the ground, who had been putting themselves in harm’s way to report on the protests — and rioting — for a few days. On a conference call earlier in the day, Trump had called governors “weak” for not using more force to crack down in their states. He would want a demonstration of his machismo to accompany his remarks.
My colleagues were more receptive to this idea than the notion that Trump wanted to leave the White House to deliver his speech from Lafayette Square.
At some point, I realized I didn’t have anything yet in my notebook about the sentiments of the crowd and that I might be running out of time to interview people. I spoke to Alisha Earle, a 43-year-old longtime Washington resident who still refers to South Carolina as her home state. She said it was her second day of protesting. She hadn’t come out every day because she wasn’t “with” the looting going on in the city.
“I understand it, but I’m not with it,” she said. She said she hoped that the protests would draw attention to injustice the way that broadcasts of police abuse of black children in Birmingham, Alabama, who were attacked with fire hoses and dogs in 1963 helped sway public opinion toward new civil rights laws.
“We’re tired,” she said, adding that she felt compelled to demonstrate, despite her discomfort with looting and rioting, to honor 400 years of oppression, civil rights activists, her grandparents and future generations of her family. People who focus on the looting rather than the injustice “might be part of the problem,” she said.
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Then the troops in Lafayette Square advanced toward the barricade. They were so close I could see the fear in the eyes of one young police officer through the face-shield attached to his bright blue helmet. And I could see anticipation, perhaps even excitement, in the eyes of others. After a few minutes they moved back a hundred feet or so.
I had no idea at the time that Trump would praise peaceful protests as he was crushing one less than two blocks from where he stood, and all for a political purpose.
Someone announced over a loudspeaker that the city’s curfew — 7 p.m. — was approaching and the crowd would be hit with force if it didn’t disperse on its own. But few could hear the warning clearly. A Park Police helicopter’s blades chopped loudly through the air overhead. The crowd chanted for officers to “take a knee” to show solidarity with the cause of ending the extrajudicial police killings of African Americans.
When members of the National Guard stepped back from their line and fell to a knee, the protesters cheered. But they had only lowered their profiles so they could put on gas masks.
It seemed obvious that the peaceful crowd would be hit with a frontal assault. But the federal authorities were a decoy.