Days of Revolt: Notes on DC's Summer Uprising

Early in the morning of August 13, forty-one protesters were arrested on suspicion of Felony Riot Act and Assault on a Police Officer charges. Images released from DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) displayed the horror wrought by alleged rioters: overturned newspaper boxes, disturbed trashcans, and subversive graffiti. Although the images may look tame to anyone who has ever spent a late night drinking in Adams Morgan, MPD has assured that these crimes were Very Serious, and thus had to be applied to groups of protesters. Although they would be released the following day with most charges dropped, many are still fighting questionable charges or trying to retrieve seized valuables.

This mid-August event was a flare-up in what had otherwise been a generally conflict-free summer of protest against systemic racial inequality. But this event – which at the time seemed like the biggest news in DC – now pales in comparison to the incredible encounters between police and protests that occurred the weekend of the 28th. While daylight protests were largely peaceful and went on without turmoil, nighttime encounters between police and protests produced harrowing images of a plaza under siege. And the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets by police to disperse protesters highlights the futility of the so-called “reforms” passed by the District council – police evaded council legislation that prevented the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by arbitrarily declaring protesters as riotous.

How do we make sense of these late-August actions demonstrated by MPD? We can start by reviewing the evolution of both BLM Plaza and the nature of these protests in general. I’ve spent the summer mingling and demonstrating with protesters across the city, and share some of my observations here.

An Evolving Protest Scene

Black Lives Matter Plaza – the renamed and repainted street perpendicular to Lafayette Park – has become a place where protesters and organizers have acted to congregate, plan, and stage demonstrations throughout the summer. But since the plaza’s evolution from battlefield to de-facto public park, community activists and civic organizers have used the space in a variety of innovative ways: to initiate demonstrations, distribute food to the hungry, record music, put on concerts, screen movies, engage in mass meditation, and host mass public celebrations. These events and actions not only built community in a city that was in desperate need of healing, but also kept the dream of systemic police reform alive and centered that dream around Black lives and Black community.

Still, the initial swarm to the streets, prompted by the murder of George Floyd and inflamed by Donald Trump’s overreaction, died down as June continued on. Maybe it was the result of diminished excitement for portent revolution, or the sweltering summer heat. Regardless, the DC government began to slowly, and quietly, return the space to “normal.” Cross streets that run across the plaza began to reopen up to traffic - preventing or dissuading spontaneous demonstration. The clever “DEFUND MPD” graffiti, which solidified the core demand of protesters who occupied the space in the first place would be removed (and on the weekend of the 28th…put back up, and then removed again). Artwork and signs that marked the history of the space would mysteriously vanish, only to be replaced by pictures of those messages (sanitized, of course, of the most incisive or revolutionary commentary).

Throughout the summer, there had been attempts made to reestablish a people’s insurgency, with the most forceful gambit made by protesters to establish a “Black House Autonomous Zone,” in the spirit of Portland’s CHAZ. Yet, protesters never succeeded in creating a permanent settlement. This failure was not due to lack of will or initiative – but the result of constant intervention (sometimes violent) engaged by the police to break up any structures or supply chains that were constructed. This ultimately resulted in the occupation of the (protester friendly) St. John’s Church by MPD – which to this day is restricted to public access and guarded by a constant police presence.

And in a final bout of indignity, Muriel Bowser launched an aggressive PR effort to redefine the message broadcast by local protest as one against Trump and racial inequity in general, rather than outrage against an over-reliance on police and policing as the government’s mechanism for delivering public safety and order. Enabled by her two shallow appearances at the Democratic National Convention, this allowed much of the DC gentry to feel safe returning to a synthetic post-COVID, post-uprising normal, despite the lack of any fundamental systemic changes to policing, locally or nationally.

A city full of enthusiastic Democrats, many have been eager to center all conversation of these uprisings on removing Trump from office in November. To that end, dampening any perception of popular unrest became a paramount objective, lest examples of public protest be used by Trump to instigate his base or (once again) call on federal forces to occupy the streets. Maybe, in some sort of galaxy brain move to aide Democrats in the general election, Bowser’s attempts to diminish unrest might seem sensical. In denying Donald Trump easily exploitable examples of left-wing hostility, Democrats are able to make Donald’s claim of a left-captured Democratic Establishment look foolish in the eyes of “moderate” voters. But part of this strategy means ignoring obvious discontent from an outraged public; and this sours many core- Democratic constituencies on the value of the formal political process. This strategy (if it is truly a strategy) risks dampening turnout among young voters and the political left in an election where every vote is required to forcefully jettison Trump from office.

And so, feeling unheard by a political system that seemingly takes their support for granted, a core group of marchers and demonstrator never really stopped. Many groups lead actions consistently throughout the summer. One group had even vowed to march every weekend, indefinitely - a promise that, so far, has been maintained. But, because elected leaders and mainstream media either did not care, or did not want, to recognize this discontent, many demonstrators felt that more aggressive tactics were necessary to draw attention to discontent: “No Justice? No Peace!” is more than just a rally cry, after-all - it's also a threat. And so in August, many groups started to become more assertive, leading to tense public moments (such as this one in Columbia Heights) where demonstrators confronted the public for their perceived complicity in political inaction.

Many leapt to deem these actions “unproductive” or “damaging” to the cause. Aside from the fact that this armchair-activism is ignorant to the complexities of movement organizing (how messy demonstrations are, how difficult it can be to marshal people, and how difficult it can be to diffuse conflict), they are also untrue. Aside from some local press and a catalog of movement journalists, nothing seemed to be drawing attention to ongoing summer demonstrations across the city. And when activists have few vectors for registering their discontent with the political system, actions like these look to break the cycle of inaction. When the Mayor actively talks over protesters, the Democratic Presidential candidate ignores them, the national press talks about them as if they were pawns on an electoral chess board, and economic recession and quarantine severely limits the ways any one person can engage in civic activism - what options are left?

The near murder of Jacob Blake on August 23 sparked a national uproar that mirrored the initial response to George Floyd’s murder in late May. For DC, this reagent cojoined a tally of flammable conditions on the ground: a toxic RNC Convention which took place on federal grounds and inflamed the general public, heightened political tensions in Kenosha and Portland, a large influx of demonstrators into DC in memorial of MLK’s March on Washington, and a long summer of unrecognized dissent within the city.

While I want to stress that the daylight activities of that weekend were extraordinarily peaceful, as the sun set each night these elements tended to explode into rowdy dissent. On the night of August 29, marchers were met with riot PD at BLM Plaza. Mass confusion and anger set off by heavily-armored police and explosions of tear gas, and further instigated by murmurs of the Trumpist Pustsch in Portland, created the conditions for physical confrontation between MPD and protesters. On BLM Plaza, protesters were met with an aggressive MPD, allegedly responding to thrown water bottles and launched fire-crackers with tear gas, mace, and rubber bullets. Protests continued into Sunday, which despite a diminished size still elicited a dramatic response from MPD, where the night eventually ended in harrowing snatch-and-grab mass arrest that dispersed protesters and cemented an image of chaos into the eyes of protesters and viewers.

Finally, on August 31, the ordeal descended into further drama when Mayor Bowser held a truly shocking press conference where she denounced “outside agitators” for sparking unrest, expressed fear of descent into a “race war,” opined if organized protest might be considered domestic terrorism, and accused the US Attorney’s Office (an office controlled by Trump’s DOJ) of failing to charge arrested protesters. Bizarrely, the USAO responded by accusing Bowser of pushing charges without enough evidence; that August somehow ends with representatives of Trump’s DOJ defending protesters by proxy against overzealous police department brings a demoralizing conclusion to a tumultuous month.

Where we march from here

It’s unclear where all of this leaves us now. As tensions flare nationally, a local failure to address, or even acknowledge, the immediate concerns of protesters will keep us on a path for collision between the people and the state. Ultimately, I fear three larger outcomes if this course is not impeded: (1) protests will continue until elected officials agree to more aggressive protest disruption tactics and allow for mass arrests that further expose protesters to the brutality of our law enforcement system; (2) tensions between police and protesters will continue until someone is killed or seriously injured, sparking wider and less reserved unrest; and/or (3) protesters, especially younger ones, become weary and jaded to the political system all together, reorienting electoral power both locally and nationally to conservative forces. [Editor's note: this article was written before the murder of Deon Kay, and so that reaction to that event is not considered here.]

But this doesn't have to end in tragedy or inaction. The right way to end this uprising will be for local leaders to pursue true systemic change. In policy terms, this means, at the very least, action to reduce the size of police budgets and concerted reinvestment into underserved communities; performative action and regulatory tinkering have not worked to end systemic racism and over-incarceration, and will no longer satisfy a public wise to that old shell game. The Defund MPD Campaign, of which Metro DC DSA is a partner of, represents one of the clearest calcifications of public demand for change. Additionally, the grassroots organizing outfit Palm Collective has also developed a list of demands which would be favorable (although they curiously fall short of demanding the defunding of MPD).

Aside from continued involvement and support for direct action, activists and political actors must be sure to explore political channels for reform. Where current elected officials are reluctant to address the whims of protesters, realistic electoral paths to long-term change must be developed. This city has shown that leaders can run on a platform of re-imagining public safety and win, and so sending more people-powered politicians to office will create serious electoral momentum which activists and organizers can leverage to enact real reforms and claim victories. Where the system makes honest and meaningful change, even where marginal, tensions will simmer and the potential for aggressive confrontations between protesters and the public will be dampened. Where some may be (rightly) skeptical of the electoral capacity to change the American criminal justice system, building an electoral foothold is essential, at least, for giving the movement time to rest, develop strategy and make progress towards a reformed system of justice.

It has been a long summer, and it’s tempting to give into the comfort of nihilism and accept that our society is not built to recognize or change in the face of undeniable injustice. But the events I witnessed over the summer still leave me with hope. During many protests – and particularly those that turned chaotic – I was always shocked to see the resolve of strangers to protect, heal, comfort and coordinate in the face of an aggressive and violent state. This resolve was fueled by a contagious commitment to see things change; evident not only along tense police lines, but demonstrated in countless marches engaged by activists in the drop-dead summer heat. The will to change is here - and so next steps are logistical. If this energy can be effectively channeled, systemic reform to the way we consider justice may be delivered yet.

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