How Upheaval On The Streets of D.C. Conjured the Unimaginable About America

Ryan Lizza

This week is the 31st anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, in which the Chinese government crushed pro-democracy activists and then spent decades lying about what had happened and suppressing truthful accounts.

The event immediately became a political issue in America. During the first presidential election after Tiananmen, Bill Clinton accused George H.W. Bush of “coddling tyrants” for his allegedly weak response to the crackdown. Ever since, Tiananmen has offered American officials the opportunity to brandish, when convenient, a kind of moral superiority about the dangers of China’s one-party tyranny.

In what can charitably be described as awkward timing, on Tuesday, a day after peaceful White House protesters were attacked with tear gas by police, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China for disallowing a Tiananmen remembrance vigil in Hong Kong and met privately with survivors of the massacre in Washington.

Nobody casually familiar with American history would be naive enough to think that the U.S. government hasn't tried to stuff bits of history down the memory hole, George Orwell's term for the chutes used to incinerate inconvenient facts in 1984. But the fight to control the narrative and shape the meaning of major events is usually more subtle. Like Pompeo, we all like to believe that Tiananmen-level suppression of the truth is out of the question in America.

The past week has presented some challenges to that assumption. I spent the last few days outside the White House covering the demonstrators (both peaceful protesters and violent ones), inside the White House listening to the new press secretary respond to the growing unrest, and online watching President Donald Trump maneuver to take electoral advantage of yet another crisis. Something seems different from previous incidents of police violence about the fight to control the story of the George Floyd protests.

At least in Washington, these are big, confusing, spontaneous demonstrations drawing in an eclectic group of people who usually get labeled generically as protesters. They have been squaring off against a wide array of police forces from both the federal and local governments in Washington (Secret Service, Park Police, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department) who have in turn acted within shifting rules of engagement.

The core grievance that has sparked these events is morally unambiguous: American cops murdering black men. But on the ground things are messy.

The crowd outside the White House on Sunday night was divided. Park Police in riot gear and body-length plastic shields were arrayed in a long line bisecting Lafayette Square, a tree-lined park of winding paths and wooden benches that many Americans know from scenes of secret meetings in political thrillers. Facing the cops were hundreds of protesters squeezed against black metal barricades that, as the day had worn on, were pushed from the north edge of the park to its interior.

At most White House protests the police are irrelevant. If you’re protesting Obama’s health care bill or Trump’s inaction on climate change, you probably have little reason to interact with the cops doing crowd control. But when the issue is police brutality, the cops themselves suddenly become the targets of the protest.

Among the demonstrators, there was no clear unified position about tactics in Lafayette Square. The main division seemed to be over the use of violence (meaning throwing stuff at the cops) and property damage. Many people stuck to chants about the killing in Minneapolis: “Say His Name! George Floyd!” “I Can’t Breathe.” Others targeted the president and the cops in front of them: “Fuck Trump,” “Fuck the Police.”

But a sizable faction threw water bottles, rocks stashed in a pile behind a tree, and — reportedly — bricks pulled from the sidewalk. (I saw where bricks had been pulled out but never witnessed one being thrown.) The water bottles were the most common projectile and they would often land against a policeman’s plastic shield with a distinctive thud.

Other times, because of the tall trees that needed to be cleared, a bottle would ricochet off a limb and back into the crowd. “Sorry, friendly fire!” one young man yelled when he accidentally hit a civilian in the head.

Shouting matches erupted between the protesters hurling things and the majority of people there who were insistent on nonviolence. “Fuck you, you’re not even black!” one young black woman yelled at a man scolding her about throwing things.

But the shaming by the anti-violence majority was strong enough that I noticed the few people attacking the police became increasingly furtive when they launched anything.

Given the wide latitude that American cops have to respond with force to the slightest provocation — and the frequency with which they exercise it — it was surprising to see them get pelted and not react. I pushed up close against the barricade and watched them as they occasionally dodged projectiles and were taunted as pigs and racists and, if they were black, Uncle Toms.

But eventually they did react, and Monday night was then taken over by the violent faction of protesters. At least three fires were set — one in a historic building at the edge of the park, one in the middle of H Street, and one in the basement of St. John’s Church. And at around 11 p.m., the city-imposed curfew, in a few dramatic thrusts police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets and quickly cleared Lafayette Square. Tiny plumes of the gas lingered and traveled long after it was unleashed and when you walked around you could suddenly inhale a stray whiff.

The munitions used to spread the tear gas can also include rubber bullets, bright flashes of light or loud booms (the stinger CS Rubber Ball Grenade is a popular brand that delivers all four and was seen on the street in D.C. this week). The police used them to push the protesters further north. There was no discrimination between news personnel and protesters. If you were in the crowd you were targeted. I got hit with a rubber bullet in my hand and thigh as I was filming the scene with a phone. It hurt and my fingertips and leg were still bruised days later. That relatively minor interaction with the violence that the state can unleash was deeply instructive. It gave me a fleeting glimpse of the mindset of some demonstrators who are fervently anti-police.

After the park was emptied with the gas and rubber bullets, widespread theft and vandalism began. There was almost no police presence in downtown D.C. and I watched as people set cars on fire, cleared out a jewelry store, and ransacked a department store. Skirmishes among protesters continued. “You’re an asshole and I’m not sticking around for this bullshit,” one woman yelled at a teenager taking a 2-by-4 to an office window. One of the only physical fights I saw was between two people arguing about the property damage. But it only takes a very small number of people with hammers to break a lot of windows when there is no one around to stop them, and many parts of D.C. looked gutted the next morning.

Monday was a very different story. There were fewer protesters and more police. National Guard members had flooded into the city and a caravan of armored vehicles rolled out of the White House menacingly. Nearby, armored Humvees, which patrolled Washington after 9/11, blocked off streets to the White House. In Lafayette Square, the peaceful protesters now overwhelmingly dominated. (I heard of one report from a protester I interviewed who said he did see a water bottle thrown that day.)

What changed were the rules of engagement.

I happened to be turning the corner from I Street onto the small stretch of Connecticut Avenue that leads to the park. I was suddenly facing hundreds of panicked protesters running at me, a plume of smoke rising behind them accompanied by the bright flashes and loud booms of modern crowd control munitions. One older black man who had been at the front of the line when the police moved in was screaming as he looked skyward and had his eyes flushed out with water by a white woman.

For historical purposes, it is worth repeating what happened after 6 p.m. on Monday, June 1, in Lafayette Square: unarmed and peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality were assaulted by cops using tear gas and pushed north so that Donald Trump could walk to St. John’s Church and hold a large bible in front of cameras.

Sometimes when you are too close to an event you can lose perspective. The details you witness as a reporter can take on exaggerated importance. Those bricks! The smashed ATM machine! Similarly, outside observers who have an interest in constructing a certain narrative can become blinded to the reality on the ground. On the left, there has been an inclination to downplay the vandalism, looting and violence committed by some demonstrators during these protests. The real issue, the argument goes, is police brutality and emphasizing anything else obscures that.

It’s a fair point, but it can also be pushed too far and get wielded as a cudgel against reporters describing reality. It can be an attempt by activists, often with good faith motives, to erase inconvenient truths about their movement.

But that instinct on the left to shape the narrative of the protests pales in comparison to how the Trump administration and its media and social media cheering squads tried to reframe the Monday assault by denying that tear gas was used and alleging a level of violence that nobody witnessed. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes a range of chemical agents used by police for crowd control as "tear gas." Whether someone is hit with chloroacetophenone [CN] or chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile [CS] or some other chemical weapon, the point is to incapacitate the target and cause him to flee. It works.)

The efforts to spread a false defense for actions that were broadcast live and shocked America’s closest allies was some Tiananmen-level memory-holing. (Though, to be clear, there is no comparison between the massacre in Tiananmen Square, where thousands were killed and a democracy movement was extinguished, and what happened in Lafayette Square.)

Overnight on Monday the police constructed an 8-foot black fence around the park, essentially adding Lafayette Square as a large buffer zone protecting the White House. Police in green fatigues, perhaps from the National Guard, now formed an even thicker line behind the fence. St. John’s Church, scrubbed and repainted, now served as a gathering spot for demonstrators. Protesters attached yellow sticky notes to the church doors with the names of victims of police violence. The protests on Tuesday were large and peaceful all day, with crowds that swelled by new supporters outraged by Monday's disturbing scenes.

Most protesters went home after the 7 p.m. curfew but a core group of largely young people remained late into the night. The groups were becoming more organized. Logistics for bringing in water and food and milk to wash out tear-gassed eyes were being coordinated. A few people seemed to be emerging from the chaotic early days of the movement as organizers and they strictly enforced a no-violence rule.

“Peaceful protests!” they yelled when things got rowdy or a water bottle was hurled.

But as the crowds dwindled after midnight, some protesters shook the new perimeter fence hard, perhaps trying to pull it down. The line of fatigued cops marched forward in unison and when the shaking didn’t stop they sprayed tear gas indiscriminately, including at at least one television crew. Dozens of people turned around and booked down the street between St. John’s Church and a boarded up luxury hotel, The Hay-Adams. People choked and vomited. One man with asthma was in severe distress and paramedics arrived to help him. I inhaled just a whiff and when I woke up on Wednesday the mucous membranes in my throat were still raw and irritated.

A police officer at the scene from the Department of Homeland Security was asked what he would call the chemical agent that the cops had been using for two days.

“Tear gas,” he said.