In Front of the White House in the Time of Trump
A group of tiny preschoolers in brightly colored t-shirts, all linked together for safety, was being led by their chaperones across the street at one corner of Lafayette Park. Nearby, in the section of Pennsylvania Avenue barricaded from unauthorized vehicles for presidential security, a guided excursion of Segway tourists was winding its way in front of the White House, where backed up against the high wrought-iron, spear-topped fence, families from all over the world and students on field trips from around America were posing for pictures and selfies with the most famous house in America as a background.
In the park itself, D.C. visitors, wearied by the June sun and blocks of walking, were resting on shaded park benches next to Washington workers enjoying a lunch-time break outside their government offices.
The scene would have been idyllic if it weren’t for the four police officers mounted on their horses in the middle of the park, as well as an inordinate number of armed officers milling around the area.
At the opposite end of Lafayette Park, the reason for the enhanced protection became obvious. A crowd of about 100 protesters, many of them carrying signs proclaiming “Sanctuary for All, Safety for All”, was rallying against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Perspiring speakers inspired the crowd with short, ardent orations, some in Spanish and others in English. The fiery remarks were met with shouted chants, which also alternated between the two languages.
Nearby church bells chimed to signal that it was once again noon in D.C. As soon as the sound of the bells ceased, a single officer with a booming voice began shouting to all except the protesters: “People you must move back. Move back into the park. You cannot stay here.” His voice remained calm, but the authoritative volume and the officer’s demeanor indicated a sense of urgency. Other officers moved to direct lagging onlookers away from the White House area and into the recesses of the park.
In minutes, members of the crowd came up with a story for their abrupt removal. Police had found a suspicious black bag in front of the park. It was unattended. Post 9/11, everyone knew what that could signal. A bomb. A bomb in front of the White House. As the story was relayed through the park, those who were concerned about that possibility hurried their pace. But others, determined to see what was actually happening, paused in place.
Apparently, there was no bomb. The area had been cleared so the protesters, directed by Casa of Maryland, could march single file in a large circle in front of the White House, shouting pro-immigration and anti-Trump slogans.
By now, crowds of the curious had returned to Pennsylvania Avenue. Many shot pictures or video, looking pleased to be able to capture the First Amendment in action. Some shouted support to the marchers. Some jeered the protest. Others weren’t so sure. A group of four twenty-somethings stood to the side watching with interest. Their heavy southern drawl and D.C.-purchased attire, including two Make America Great Again hats, one red and one blue, indicated that they were tourists, not locals.
“I guess they don’t like Trump,” one said.
“No” another responded, “They’re protesting for those illegal immigrants.”
“But what’s that got to do with Trump?” a third asked.
Outside the widening circle of protesters, a group of middle-school students and their teachers from Massachusetts were huddled around their D.C. guide.
“Now listen. You’ve got to pay attention. These kinds of things happen all the time around here,” the guide explained, trying to be heard above the din of the protest. “It’s not dangerous, but you’ve got to be aware. This is the stuff you learn about in school in action. I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t let people voice their opinion.”
It was clear that in order for the students to get any White House pictures, they would have to move through the protesters. The teachers lined them up with their paired partners and the contingent weaved their way around demonstrators.
Before the Massachusetts students could complete their picture taking, officers again began announcing: “You can’t be here. You must move back.” Other officers physically directed both protesters and onlookers back toward the park.
All of the crowd and the majority of the demonstrators immediately complied with the authorities. But in a clearly planned move, 20 of the protesters, instead of heading to the park, walked to the sidewalk in front of the White House and sat down, one next to the other.
By now, it was apparent that the rally and march had turned into a staged demonstration of civil disobedience. A few officers began making calls on cell phones to detail the situation and receive orders on how to proceed. The majority, including the quartet on horseback, assumed strategic positions. A police van arrived and a group of obviously specially trained officers in Army fatigues emerged. Each one carried two rings of bright orange plastic wrist restraints on their belts, the new type of device which has replaced the old metal handcuffs once used in mass arrests. Some of the officers headed back to the van and brought out large pieces of white canvas and poles, which in a matter of minutes they had assembled as an area where the protesters could be processed and arrested if they refused to move. The single van was soon joined by two more vans, which would transport the arrested protesters to jail if that became necessary.
For the next 20 minutes, as officers continued their preparations for whatever would come next, the crowd of protesters behind police barricades chanted to their seated comrades, many of whom were still waving the signs they had carried in the march.
“Shame on you, Donald Trump,” they called out in unison.
“We’re so … proud of you. We’re so proud of you,” they chanted to the silent but defiant 20 fellow protesters across Pennsylvania Avenue awaiting their fate.
On two separate occasions, an officer with a megaphone walked down the seated line. Although his remarks couldn’t be heard, it was assumed by the crowd that he was urging the protesters to disband and explaining exactly what would happen if they didn’t. After a third attempt, it was clear that the demonstrators were not going to abandon their protest.
Officers began arresting protesters in groups of three. Each protester stood up, placed his or her hands behind their back, and had an officer place the restraints on their wrists. The officer then accompanied them to the canvas tent, where they were processed and escorted to one of the awaiting police vans.
The last of the protesters had been arrested without incident and the White House area returned to normal, or as normal as anything in Washington is these days. Small groups of onlookers and protesters gathered in the shade to discuss what they had just witnessed. Others, unaware of what had been transpiring over the past 90 minutes, headed to get as close to the White House as they could for pictures.
A lone man, dressed in a plain white short-sleeved dress shirt, black pants, and black dress shoes approached one of the groups.
“Pardon me, but is this where the protest is?” he asked.
“You missed it. It just ended,” one of the group replied.
“But Trump isn’t supposed to announce his decision (on climate change) until later today and I was told we would protest before that,” the well-dressed man said.
“Oh, this was the immigration protest,” one of the more informed members of the just-concluded demonstration answered. “That protest isn’t until 3 o’clock. And then there’s one at 5, but I’m not sure what that one is about.”
“Are you sure it (the climate change protest) will be here and not on the other side of the White House,” the man asked, obviously not wanting to miss an opportunity to have his voice heard.
“Yeah, it will be here. All the Trump White House protests start in Lafayette Park,” he was answered. “You’re in the right place. This is the place we all should be this summer if we’re opposed to Trump.”
Dave Price is a former journalist and educator who now operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in D.C. focusing on 3 subjects — the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging. You can read more of Price’s writing at his Write on with Dave Price author’s website.