Downtown D.C. burns after another night of protests and provocation near the White House

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The capital was awash with anger and pain as tear gas blew along the streets and rubber bullets flew Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning. Protesters clashed with law enforcement for the third straight evening outside the White House, and numerous businesses were vandalized by rioters defying a citywide curfew. Flames and smoke rose into the night, and officials and journalists struggled to understand who exactly was responsible for the worst of the damage. 

Protesters gathered throughout Sunday in Lafayette Park, which is across the street from the White House and has been a focal point of the demonstrations that began here Friday evening. During that first night, protesters breached barricades in front of the White House leading to hours of clashes with the Secret Service, which eventually cleared the park using pepper spray and reinforcements from the U.S. Park Police. The situation reportedly led security officials to move President Trump into a secure bunker. On Saturday, the park was fully barricaded by Secret Service, Park Police and National Guard troops. Barred from the area, the protesters swept through downtown, where they vandalized local businesses by breaking windows, spraying graffiti and lighting fires. 

The crowds were back in the park on Sunday evening, which began with relative calm. A law enforcement contingent that included the Secret Service, Park Police and military police troops stood behind barricades and periodically launched tear gas and pepper spray at the demonstrators, some of whom threw objects and fireworks.

Two African-American men, who said their names were “Donny T.” and “Rev,” explained why they came to the park despite the potential of danger.

“People keep getting killed,” Donny said. “I want people to stop dying.”

The protests in the nation’s capital are part of a wave of civil unrest that has swept the country since George Floyd died in Minneapolis after being taken into police custody on May 25. A Minneapolis police officer was filmed pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Floyd moaned and pleaded. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired along with the other three officers on the scene, and he has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The man who goes by Rev contrasted the situation with the arrest of Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who shot and killed nine African-Americans in 2015 during a Bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C. When police apprehended Roof, they calmly cuffed him and walked him toward their cars.

“What happened to him? They walked him out,” Rev said of Roof. “A guy who didn’t kill nobody [gets a] knee on his neck.” 

Demonstrators vandalize a car near the White House on Sunday as they protest the death of George Floyd. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Regarding the protests, Donny added: “People get aggressive because they feel like the cops are aggressive.”

Donny also theorized that the violence was fueled by frustration over lockdowns and unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What are people going to do?” he asked. “They’re tired of being in the house. People are not getting money.” 

As the protests have spread through the country, there have been mounting questions about the motivations for the looting and vandalism witnessed in numerous cities. Some observers have placed much of the onus for the unrest on violent police responses to the demonstrations. Some protesters have also expressed concerns that anarchist groups and white supremacists may be fueling the vandalism and detracting from the core message of the demonstrations. Law enforcement has recently become concerned with white supremacists adopting “accelerationist” ideology that calls for exploiting situations — including the pandemic — in an effort to provoke widespread violent racial conflict. 

One man in Lafayette Park on Sunday was shouting at the National Guard troops over the barricades.

“It’s no point for them to be here. It’s not a military issue,” the man, who declined to give his name, told Yahoo News. “It’s an issue that has to deal with us black people against racist white people, period … racist cops. We’re not saying all cops are bad, but they need to hold the ones as an example for the s*** that they do.”

Protesters in the park also focused their anger on President Trump, who was assumed to be nearby in the White House and spent part of Sunday evening posting messages on Twitter indicating his support for an aggressive response to the demonstrations.  

Protesters on Sunday at the White House. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

With the mounting tension, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered a citywide curfew starting Sunday at 11 p.m. With about an hour to go before the deadline, Yahoo News spotted a white man in Lafayette Park wearing a mask, a large tactical backpack and a Hawaiian shirt, which has become a symbol of right-wing accelerationists who hope to spark a race war they have termed the “Boogaloo.” The man said his name was John and explained why he came out to the protest. 

“It’s a bit of a historical event, figured I’d ought to show up,” he said.

Yahoo News asked if he was aware of the potential symbolism of his shirt without using the phrase “boogaloo,” which is still relatively obscure. John indicated he was aware of the potential message but denied it was one he meant to send. 

“I have heard,” he said. “It was the first shirt I picked up. I’ve heard of it. There’s the whole ‘Boogaloo’ thing. It’s really more of a meme than everything.”

John said he was at the park “just for George Floyd and, I guess, all the problems we have in this country, experiencing police brutality and such.” He added that he was planning to take an exam to become an emergency medical technician. 

“Our first responders are a critical part of what makes this country great,” he said. “But we’ve got to get rid of the problems.”

John also offered an ominous prediction for the evening’s protests.

“I was here last night and it was a bit of a s***show,” he said. “Something’s telling me, if something’s going to kick off, it’s going to be in about an hour.”

At around 10 p.m. the protests did indeed take a turn. Protesters lit multiple fires, igniting a small building on the edge of the park. Flames also reportedly spread in historic St. John’s Church, located across from the park on H Street Northwest. At around 10:20, law enforcement advanced in the park and repeatedly shot tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bangs toward the crowds who spread into the downtown.

Demonstrators in Washington, D.C., on Sunday protest the death of George Floyd. (Alex Brandon/AP)

After the curfew took effect, protesters remained in the area in defiance of the order. They continually clashed with law enforcement from multiple agencies, including FBI teams in military gear, the National Guard and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were dispatched to deal with the continued demonstrations on Sunday. 

Multiple businesses and office buildings in the downtown area were damaged as demonstrations continued into the early hours of Monday morning. An ATM was removed from a SunTrust bank near Farragut Square. Protesters moved in a large column down I Street Northwest, where they smashed windows, set fires and looted businesses including two coffee shops, La Colombe and Compass. The demonstrators also lit fires inside buildings on I Street. Eventually officers from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, supported by FBI teams with military camouflage and assault rifles, moved down the block and dispersed the crowd with flash-bangs, gas and rubber bullets. 

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to questions on Monday morning about how many arrests were made or the number of injuries. 

After the large confrontation on I Street, bands of protesters and looters and squads of heavily armed officers continued to move through the downtown area. The groups spread far farther north, away from the federal buildings and toward the commercial heart of the city and the residential neighborhoods beyond — raising the ominous question of whether the unrest would persist and spread in the nights to come. 

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