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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!