WASHINGTON — Swann Street is a normally quiet stretch between the well-heeled neighborhoods of Dupont and Logan Circles. But for hours on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, this picturesque block of small, historic row houses was filled with pepper spray, the sounds of flash-bang grenades and police wagons filled with arrested protesters.
The street also played host to an extraordinary dialogue between police and demonstrators that touched on several of the complex and emotional issues at the core of the intense protests that have spread around the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Scenes of aggression and empathy unfolded as police alternated between arresting protesters and engaging them in conversation about the state of race relations in America.
An Washington police officer in riot gear wearing a patch indicating his last name was Gonzalez tried to convince an African-American protester that he shouldn’t assume that “people of color in the department” did not share the concerns of those who had taken to the streets. His voice full of emotion, he lamented that the inclusion of “minorities on the police” had not helped spur more reforms.
“What has changed?” the protester asked.
“Plenty has changed,” Gonzalez said, adding, “Not enough.”
The exchange was just one of dozens that took place early this week as D.C. Metropolitan Police officers arrested nearly two hundred people on the block. During a press conference on Tuesday, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said 194 people were arrested in the vicinity of Swann Street and 15th Street NW between about 9 p.m. on Monday and early Tuesday morning.
Police corralled the crowd on Swann Street using pepper spray and flash-bangs as military choppers flew low overhead. When Yahoo News arrived on scene at around 10 p.m., the situation was relatively calm. Police used bikes to block off a line of protesters from those who were being arrested for violating the 7 p.m. curfew.
One senior-ranking African-American officer who wore a patch indicating his name was Tubbs was overheard telling a younger African-American protester about his 31-year-old son.
“Will you be proud of him if he gets pulled over by the police, his neck is stepped on, and he dies?” the protester asked.
“I would be highly agitated, and pissed off, and I wouldn’t be out here in the streets,” Tubbs replied. “I would be at an attorney’s office getting it corrected.”
Late Monday night, a group of protesters managed to avoid arrest by taking refuge in the home of a man named Rahul Dubey, who opened his doors to them even as police shot pepper spray into his home. In an interview with Yahoo News, Dubey blamed the officers for “unleashing hell on innocent protesters” on the block.
But Gonzalez told Yahoo News it was important not to assume all officers involved at the scene felt the same way about the protests.
“The first mistake that the community is making is believing that the majority of us ... are not pissed off at what those police officers did,” Gonzalez said, in an apparent reference to Floyd’s death. “Of course we’re pissed off. It makes us all — it makes everybody look bad.”
Tubbs piped in to share his own thoughts on Floyd’s death.
“I’m pissed off as a person, not as a police officer. I’m pissed off as a person and a police officer,” Tubbs said. “However, because of my job, just like my skin color, I’m thrown in a box. ... You all are profiling all of the officers out here as bad people because of the profession that we do.”
Gonzalez referred to the people who have started fires and conducted looting during the protests. Then he addressed the crowd standing in front of the bikes. “They hide behind you and everyone else,” he said.
The protesters questioned the pair further. One asked Tubbs, who said he is a 32-year veteran of the police force, if he thought the officer who killed Floyd in Minneapolis was a “bad apple.”
“Are there any bad apples in your family?” Tubbs asked, rhetorically. “Human nature is what it is. ... I don’t put anything past human nature. ... On a given day, under the right circumstances people have, a whole lot of things that can come out. … I think he was an individual making some very piss-poor and crazy decisions.”
Yahoo News asked Tubbs if he believed there was racism in D.C.’s police force.
“Do you believe [there’s] racism in America? D.C. is part of America,” said Tubbs, adding, “That is a self-answering question.”
Asked if he had family members taking part in the protest, Tubbs shrugged. “I’m participating as a member of my family,” he said. “I’m here with you on ground zero standing up for what’s right.”
“Most people just want change,” a white protester replied.
“I would hope that would be the story,” Tubbs replied.
“Do you want change?” the same protester asked.
“Every day,” Tubbs said. “If I didn’t think change was possible, I would just give up.”
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