Marching for Peace and Equality

As the past week wore on, the violent confrontations between police and protesters lessened. Starting midweek the crowds at the daily protests remained peaceful, and I looked ahead to the weekend and considered taking the kids to a peaceful march ourselves. I didn’t make this decision lightly, keeping their safety in mind first. But I also realized that we couldn’t live so close to a huge event and not take part. Mark and I decided on a plan to see the action while staying far enough to keep ourselves safe. And off we went.

We set off on foot around 2PM, walking one mile and arriving at the Dirksen Senate Office building right next to the Capitol building. We hung back enough to give ourselves space from others, which remained our theme for the day. We stayed on edges, walking on the sidewalk instead of in the street. We wanted to give ourselves physical space because of covid, but I also always wanted a quick exit in case we needed to leave right away.

After some remarks and chants, the march started. The crowd streamed down Capitol Hill, heading in the direction of the White House. I can’t even begin to describe the power of seeing so many people, all carrying signs, chanting slogans, and demanding change. Media describes the crowd sizes as “over 10,000”, but it was clearly more people than that.

The chants. Say her name: Breonna Taylor. Whose streets: our streets. This is what democracy looks like. No justice: no peace.

One of the more poignant moments for me was watching the crowd stream past the now-shuttered Newseum. The building facade includes the text of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and I felt so much pride to witness thousands of Americans exercising that very right:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The crowd streams past the shuttered Neweseum, peaceably assembling to their hearts’ content

We asked the kids if they wanted to continue on, and they did. We ended up walking all the way to the White House. We stayed to the south, where the Washington Monument is. We did not go to the north side, where Lafayette Park and the newly-renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza sit. I later read that the largest protest of the day assembled there.

We saw some police presence, but very little. They mostly hung back and watched the crowds, and protesters mostly left them alone. Only the assembly of officers outside the FBI headquarters and again at the US Customs and Border Protection headquarters looked vaguely menacing all kitted up in their riot gear. But again, they and the protesters did not engage each other.

We eventually turned back and headed home, surprised by how long we stayed. I was pleased to see the kids interested in pushing on.

Now comes the challenge. After taking part in such a historic event–what next? Exercising our right to peaceable assembly is an important first step, and I’m pleased that the kids saw the power of that firsthand. But what change we enable will make the difference in actually seeing equality for all Americans. I’m still figuring out what that will look like for our family.

This Week in Washington Has Been the Longest Year of My Life

Hey there! It’s been a while. I wrote my last post almost one year ago, the last night before leaving Japan and returning to the US. Over the past year I weighed letting the blog just sit versus periodically updating some big milestones of re-entry to US life. Not updating won out until this past week, with the events following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Given everything that has happened here in Washington DC lately, I felt compelled to document in a little more detail the experience of living through it.

A giant disclaimer: I’m trying to document purely what the experience has been like for us as residents of DC during a historic time. I’m not asking for pity for us, or trying to paint ourselves as victims–because we’re not. Especially for friends in different US cities and around the world, I attempt to paint a picture of what it has been like to witness the things you all watched on the news this week. Given all of that, I’m not a journalist. So my bleeding heart/lefty leaning side will surely come out.

So let’s get started!

Lincoln Park is green rectangle in the center-right of the map view above, and our house sits just north of that

First a little geography. We live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, just north of Lincoln Park. So we are about one mile from the US Capitol building to our west and one mile to the DC Armory to our east. The White House sits not quite 3 miles (about 4.5 km) away. Lafayette Park lies due north of the White House. It has been a traditional site for protests going back decades.

The photo below shows Tessa and I stopping during a bike ride for a quick selfie in Lafayette Park a few weeks ago. Directly between us and the White House you can see tents of peaceful protesters who have lived in the park for years in support of various causes. Historically, the long-term protesters and White House security personnel maintain an understanding on how each side regards and treats the other; the nearby St. John’s Church gives the protesters and other homeless residents access to bathrooms and shelter.

Stopping for a quick White House selfie in Lafayette Park during a bike ride on May 10, 2020

Last weekend the protests in DC started heating up, and on Sunday night DC’s mayor Muriel Bowser set a curfew of 11PM Sunday to 6AM Monday. We woke up Monday to news of violent protests and looting occurring overnight. My friend Petula is a columnist for the Washington Post, and she posted some frightening photos from the scene at Lafayette Park. Protesters overturned cars and set them on fire. In response, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds.

A rubber bullet fired at protesters on Sunday at Lafayette Park [Photo: Petula D.]

At work on Monday my co-workers and I discussed how ill at ease we felt. Something bad is coming–I can feel it, one co-worker said. I rode my bike home on Monday and took some photos of stores and restaurants in our neighborhood that had windows smashed overnight.

Monday afternoon we learned of earlier curfews, effective 7PM to 6AM the next day. They were in effect both Monday and Tuesday. It was strange to imagine that simply walking my dog or chatting outside with a neighbor became grounds for arrest.

Early evening on Monday, Mark and I watched live on TV as US Park Police charged in to clear Lafayette Park of protesters. Flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets preceded Trump’s photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. We watched the split screen in disbelief, not understanding what we were watching.

Tuesday brought another night of curfew. As we sat in our yard eating dinner we noticed a small plane overhead, which is unusual for our part of DC. I speculated aloud that perhaps flight paths were altered, then joked that maybe it was the Russians. Tessa immediately flashed a peace sign at the sky and smiled while we laughed.

Unfortunately the truth turned out to be far scarier. According to vice.com, the FBI and military are flying surveillance aircraft over the DC protests. Now I realize that this makes me sound absolutely crazy. But again: the military is flying aircraft over DC. It’s Saturday night as I write this, and the same planes are flying circles overhead right now.

The flight path of surveillance aircraft over DC on Tuesday night, with our house’s location marked with the purple X

And the noise. All week long we heard non-stop helicopters. And sirens. The sirens and helicopters sounded all through the night, making sleep impossible. In the still night air we could hear flash grenades fired at the White House, over three miles away. We strained to hear rapid popping, trying to convince ourselves that it was only firecrackers and not gunfire.

After the first few chaotic nights, the protests quickly became peaceful. One final curfew on Wednesday night lasted from 11PM to 6AM Thursday, and no curfews were declared after that.

Meanwhile the police presence in DC ramped up.

Washington DC is not a state. Instead, it’s a city with federal oversight, and this status limits the mayor’s powers compared to other cities and states. Trump brought in National Guard from outside the area despite the DC mayor’s request not to. As documented by politico.com, federal law enforcement agents started appearing at the now-peaceful protests, many of them without markings to identify what agencies they belonged to. My friend Robert took the photo below and saw others approach the officers and asking where they were from; their questions were ignored and left unanswered.

Now a common sight in DC: heavily armed law enforcement officers without any marking indicating their agencies [Photo: Robert P.]

Throughout the week National Guard units from outside DC assembled at the DC Armory a mile away. My friend Denise lives across the street from the Armory and had some rather alarming encounters with armed National Guard soldiers on her corner. We also witnessed lots of armored vehicles rolling through our neighborhood just a few hundred yards (meters) from our house.

Military vehicles rumble past Lincoln Park, only a few hundred yards/meters from our home

Meanwhile Mayor Bowser’s and President Trump’s feud heated up. The White House security team expanded the perimeter of streets closed to the public around the White House. Mayor Bowser decided to emphasize which streets still belong to DC, and it all came to a head with Friday morning’s surprise news: DC’s Department of Public Works and local artists started painting BLACK LIVES MATTER directly on the street in letters so big that satellites can pick it up from space.

She also renamed Lafayette Plaza, making it Black Lives Matter Plaza. My initial reaction was glee, but that quickly changed when I started hearing why some Black Americans were not thrilled. The Black Lives Matter DC movement criticized the move as an empty gesture.

My friend Greg was not especially impressed either, posting the following to Facebook: Ladies and gentlemen, we are now pawns in a feud between the mayor of DC and Trump. This gesture is how movements get hijacked.

So that’s our week.

On Saturday we took the family to march in the peaceful protests, and I’m so glad we did. That will get its own blog post. Stay tuned!