Across the country protests against racist police violence have only grown stronger in the face of brutal efforts to crush the uprising. A clear turning point was seen in Washington, D.C. as as protesters’ determination escalated sharply after June 1 when Donald Trump decided to violently remove peaceful demonstrators so he could pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church near the White House.
Trump’s decision to make a public show of strength appeared to be in response to humiliating accounts of his retreat to the underground bunker, with accompanying images of the White House lights going dark, as protests grew outside on the previous Friday. Whatever the reason, his attempted show of domination misfired badly. If anything, Trump and his team created a textbook example of how NOT to attempt to dominate a situation when people rise up against racist police violence.
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had announced a city-wide 7 p.m. curfew for the evening of June 1. The protesters, peacefully gathered at the church, were not in violation of the curfew when police and the National Guard launched a coordinated attack.
Nicole Roussell, a member of Party for Socialism and Liberation at the scene, who was clearly identified with press credentials, described what occurred: “I was there. I witnessed and experienced what actually happened. It was a stunning and sudden unleashing of violence from heavily armed law enforcement agencies, some of which were on horseback against peaceful protesters and the media. There was a barrage of rubber bullets, stinger grenades, tear gas, mace, and flash bang grenades. People were trampled. Many were chanting, “We are peaceful, peaceful protest” during the violence. There was no order to disperse from law enforcement, and after law enforcement drove this crowd from H Street by the White House, the President and his entourage including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General strode across Lafayette Park, walked up to St. John’s Church, held up a Bible, had a photo op, turned around and returned right back to the White House.”
The Trump entourage’s display of dominance had the opposite effect. Roussell continues: “Trump’s entire performance has, if anything, strengthened the resolve of the people and it’s drawn even larger layers of the population into the movement. . . . Two nights after the events on Monday [June 1] on H Street at St. John’s church, the marches grew to their largest number any time since the killing of George Floyd. More than 10,000 people surrounded the White House, marched to the U.S. Capitol, the Trump Hotel, and through the city. And it wasn’t just D.C. It was everywhere.”
Trump’s foolish photo op may have signaled his strength to the right wing Christian base, but it also brought swift condemnation from others. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, expressed outrage, telling the Washington Post she “was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop.”
Trump’s visit to a Catholic shrine the next day brought another rebuke from Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who said it was “reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.”
Fractures in the ruling class also became visible as high ranking military leaders expressed opposition to Trump’s call to deploy the national guard against civilian protesters.
While the ruling class squabbled, police around the country attempted in vain to crush the uprising, unleashing waves of violence against protesters. The nation’s capital was no exception. Police surrounded dozens of protestors on Swann Street, leaving no exit in an aggressive kettling maneuver that went viral on social media. A homeowner on the street opened his door for dozens of trapped protesters who were being beaten and tear gassed. The infuriated police fired tear gas into the house as approximately 70 or 80 people fled inside for safety. Those who managed to escape into the house spent the entire night inside, fearing violent police reprisal. Accounts of what amounted to a police riot spread widely on social media and in the corporate news.
As police around the country violently repressed crowds of people peacefully protesting police violence, the video evidence of widespread police violence became undeniably self-evident. Corporate media narratives about a few “bad apple” cops began to crumble, just as the narrative about “outside agitators” had fallen apart when protests spread around the country.
There have been so many protests in and around Washington, D.C. over the last several days that it’s difficult to even list them all. One particularly significant demonstration organized by the Stop Police Terror Project DC drew a large crowd in spite of heavy rain on June 5.
The group posted: “Our demands remain clear and we’ll continue to fight for a DC that is free of racist militarized policing as we working to #DivestFromMPD and ensure that Black liberation is at the forefront of our fight. When Black lives are under attack, we stand up and fight back.” Several organizations joined in support of the demonstration, including Coalition of Concerned Mothers, The Black Swan Academy, BYP 100, Black Lives Matter DC, Party for Socialism and Liberation – DC, and the ANSWER Coalition-Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.
At the protest, people chanted “No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police!” before Sean Blackmon spoke: “We’re so happy you came out today despite the inclement weather. But you know it’s good that we do this. The cops kill us in any weather. They kill us in the blazing sun. They kill us in the pouring rain. They kill us.in the driven snow. And so if the weather don’t stop racist police terror, then the weather shouldn’t stop resistance to that racist police terror.”
Blackmon noted that that Breonna Taylor would have been celebrating her 27th birthday on that day if police had not killed her. People around the world have made clear that while the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis may have launched the growing wave of protests, it was not an isolated incident of police murder.
Explaining the name of Stop Police Terror Project DC, Blackmon spoke of deep systemic violence: “The reason why we use “terror” instead of “brutality” is because we feel that if a cop shoots you, that’s an isolated act. If a cop beats you, that’s an isolated act. Even if you have a group of cops that beat a bunch of demonstrators, that’s an isolated act. But when you connect those acts to the fact that the material conditions of Black folk in DC are such that they find themselves without the necessities of life, without the access to those necessities, food, clothes, shelter, healthcare, education, gainful employment, living wages and so on, and how we see that the system of capitalism is at the root of both of these problems.”
The racist murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor triggered the growing uprising, but they are not the only cause. The political establishment’s obvious contempt for poor and working class people devastated by the Covid19 pandemic and the resulting fallout has added fuel to the fire. Billions of dollars go to billionaires while millions of people struggle to stay afloat without a paycheck or are forced to work in spite of the pandemic. People were fed up before the mass revulsion that followed when they viewed the video from Minneapolis.
The political establishment and corporate media have lost control of the narrative in the wake of such a powerful and growing protest. Much of the police violence is occurring in cities with Democratic mayors who offer progressive-sounding statements while facilitating the repression. Black Lives Matter DC responded quickly when Mayor Muriel Bowser had a Black Lives Matter mural painted onto the street near the White House: “Mayor Muriel Bowser must be held accountable for the lip service she pays in making such a statement while she continues to intentionally underfund and cut services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in DC.” Protesters also responded by painting “DEFUND THE POLICE” in bright yellow letters on 16tth Street two blocks from the White House.
Saturday, June 6, saw the biggest crowds, with an estimated 25 protests across the city drawing about 150,000 people speaking out in the largest protest against police violence in Washington D.C. history. As the PSL-DC contingent marched, Sean Blackmon spoke of international solidarity: “We’re here from Party for Socialism and Liberation and the struggle against racist police in the United States is directly connected to the struggle against the apartheid genocide system against the Palestinian people.”
The politicians and corporate media will try to co-opt protests, but the uprising is growing and shows no sign of stopping as people raise their voices and take to the streets.