Enhanced security kept the most aggressive protesters from disrupting President Trump’s inauguration, but many are questioning the harsh police response in nearby conflicts. Journalists, legal observers and passersby were pepper-sprayed and arrested along with those who allegedly had smashed windows and thrown bricks at police. In all, 230 people were arrested on charges of felony rioting.
From morning to afternoon, protesters dressed in black damaged property and clashed with police, regrouping after being dispersed by clubs, sprays and sound grenades. A limousine that was smashed just east of the White House was set on fire hours later. Landscaping bricks became projectiles and newspaper kiosks became heavy weapons causing more than $100,000 in damage, according to court documents. Windows of Starbucks, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, McDonald’s and a local liquor store were smashed. Six police officers were briefly hospitalized and injured protesters were treated by dozens of organized volunteer medics.
Milk of magnesia was the treatment of choice for pepper spray and Ryan, a protester from Pittsburgh, slumped against a building as he recovered. “I walked up to the front of the line at the wrong time,” he said. He hadn’t meant to clash with police, but was proud to support those who had. “I guess I had to be here as part of my personal conscience,” he explained, connecting opposition to Trump with the struggle for racial equality. “Given time, given the decades, it becomes the mainstream idea that what he was fighting for was what is right,” he said while he dried his eyes and bloody nose.
But just around the corner of the roving melee, chaos faded. Nearby streets were quiet, with Trump supporters and sign-carrying protesters strolling peacefully. Closer to the security zone, however, shouts of protest were loud as ever. With the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route between the Capitol and White House more secure than ever, protesters who vowed to disrupt the celebration focused on blocking Trump supporters from entering.
Starting at 8:30 a.m., groups of protesters locked arms or tied themselves together with ropes or chains to keep the long lines from moving through security checkpoints. The number of protesters and their resistance to being dislodged seemed to determine the amount of force police used to remove them. Several times these groups reformed at the adjacent checkpoint, but this tactic seemed to dissipate by early afternoon.
Stronger every four years
When Bill Clinton was inaugurated there were no barriers preventing anyone from attending the parade. Checkpoint tents with metal detectors and searches were first erected after the controversial election of George W. Bush in 2001, though large groups of protesters easily bypassed them by breaching weak fencing. By 2005, sturdy 10-foot square rubber-coated steel fences lined the parade route, and one effort by protesters to unlatch and breach the fence was repelled by police and pepper spray. By 2009 the security perimeter was extremely secure, but that year no one wanted to protest Obama’s messages of hope and change. Record attendance brought waves of goodwill and optimism. In 2013 each link of those super-fences was reinforced with bolts and metal bars, but few protested then, either.
This year those bolts were more even more heavy-duty, as were the barricades blocking vehicles from approaching. National Guard trucks and dump trucks filled with sand kept traffic from coming within blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. Adjacent sidewalks hosted rows of four concrete barriers, letting pedestrians through, but nothing else.
After Bush’s controversial election, metal barriers resembling bicycle racks were used, ineffectively, to close off entire streets. Every four years since, those barriers have lined Pennsylvania Avenue itself, just ahead of single-file rows of National Guard soldiers and police officers. Buses brought 3,200 officers in from around the nation to line the parade route.
Alongside the parade at the Navy Memorial on 17th Avenue the ANSWER Coalition hosted a daylong protest on a 28-foot stage. The cost of that stage and sound system was raised in just 11 days after a court agreed to allow it. “After over one year of legal struggle to overcome the stonewalling of the National Park Service and Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, we have prevailed, with our attorneys from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, in opening up space for mass assembly at the presidential inauguration,” said an ANSWER spokesperson.
A second protest site, in what ANSWER leaders say was a better, elevated location near the White House at Freedom Plaza, was denied to the group on Jan. 17, when the US Court of Appeals for the DC District ruled that the National Park Service could designate the plaza for bleachers hosted by the Presidential Inauguration Committee. Judge Cornelia Pillard wrote that the bleachers are content-neutral, “because it makes no reference at all to speech, let alone the content of speech.”
There was no neutrality on the other end of the massive event, outside the security perimeter near Union Station, where #DisruptJ20 organized a rally and the largest march of the day. Colorful puppets and thousands of signs made their way west, where they walked into a scuffle between police and masked protesters near Franklin Square. A police charge was halted and the conflict eased as each side waited for the other to act.
Standoffs were common throughout the day as police cleared an intersection or stood shoulder-to-shoulder while street crews cleaned up burning debris. Protesters would stand just ten feet in front of the row of police, with a no-man’s-land between them and any thrown objects met with bursts of pepper spray.
At times those police lines would encircle large groups, pulling people out one-by-one to be arrested, including Alexander Rubenstein, a journalist for Russian-funded news site RT America. “I was hit in the face with a flash grenade, it blinded me for a moment and my ears were ringing for a while … By the time I was done being treated and I could see again, we were encircled by police and I was told that everybody present would be arrested. It doesn’t matter that I’m press,” he wrote at RT.com.
The Committee to Protect Journalists Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría has asked that the charges against six journalists be dropped. “These charges are clearly inappropriate,” he says, “and we are concerned that they could send a chilling message to journalists covering future protests.” Charges against Rubinstein and three other journalists were dropped, but two journalists still faced felony charges as of Jan. 30, the Guardian reported.
Attorney Jeffrey Light Jan. 20 filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of a lawyer and 50 other unnamed plaintiffs, claiming police indiscriminately arrested people. Those “trap and detain” tactics were abandoned as part of a 2010 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by nearly 400 protesters arrested in a 2002 protest of the World Bank at Pershing Park. The D.C. Government dropped all charges and paid $8.25 million to the protesters who were harshly treated. The same group later received $2.2 million from the National Park Police in a related settlement. The federal government agreed to new terms of engagement with demonstrators in the nation’s capital, in what US District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called a historic settlement that should guide police agencies nationwide. Current Interim D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham was one of the commanders leading those arrests in 2002.
One demonstration that was unchallenged by police was a march to promote marijuana legalization, where 4,200 joints were handed out and smoked. Marijuana is legal in D.C., even though smoking it in public is not. Mayor Muriel Bowser said pot enforcement Jan. 20 “would not be our first priority.” Several smokers were happily toking right next to police at security checkpoints.
Of the day’s many actions, the group most likely to have been noticed by the new president had secured tickets for the very front section of the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol. Six people from Democracy Spring, which advocates against big money in politics, stood up wearing shirts that spelled “RESIST,” and loudly denounced the new president as they were carried away.
J.S. Decker is a writer based in Oshkosh, Wis.
From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2017
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