For me, the urge to protest began on Thursday. Reading about demonstrations and nationwide movements by newspaper, I looked out my window at the serene cityscape of Old Town Alexandria. Why wasn’t there anything happening here? I wondered. I did an admittedly cursory search of social media and Google to find any events to join locally. Nothing in particular came up. I shrugged, assuming nothing was planned, and went about my day. On Friday I began to see social media posts from King Street, the main thoroughfare of commerce and life in Alexandria. Protesters. Thursday evening. What the hell? I thought. I even tried to find an event such as this and failed. How were protests both widespread and underground? I don’t think I’m the only one who struggled that week with guilt, a call to some type of action, and also a sense of helplessness. I was and still am trying to address those issues in my life.
Pressure was clearly mounting everywhere. On the streets of almost every city in the United States. Many across the world too. On my couch, in comfort, I didn’t want people like me to do what they so often do and sit out. I asked on Facebook about how to get information on such events. Quite a few friends direct messaged me Black Lives Matter DC Google docs (with instructions ) and posted informative links. Probably not coincidentally, public articles began to appear as well. Thousands were expected to gather in DC over the weekend, without central organization even. On Saturday morning, Cheryl and I sat down to our morning ritual of tea and newspapers. I was agitated sitting there. Cheryl could tell. She wasn’t pleased, not being a big fan of an antsy Evan. We talked and I agreed to take the Metro into town, without a plan. The heat and personal medical issues were enough for her to sit today out. One of the odder things about this was that I hadn’t taken the Metro into DC in over three months thanks to COVID-19. I masked up, made sure to take a little hip belt with water and snacks. It was 90 degrees, after all. I speculated briefly that if there were issues I wanted to be ready to walk home from DC.
(COVID-19 Aside: I have to admit that despite wearing the mask throughout the day with 95% of everyone else, I didn’t care or consider much more for social distancing efforts or any other COVID-19 concern. Fair enough, I felt like I should somewhat stick to myself and not try to intentionally join with friends out and about. Felt good to be out in the city surrounded by people even as a stranger. I will say, however, that the mask gave an odd sense of being isolated and autonomous. I felt cut off from people. Unable to smile and share. This sense lasted the entire day for me.)
On the Metro, I texted back and forth with Cheryl about where I should head. A young BLM sign-bearing person got on in Crystal City. I asked her where she was headed and she didn’t know either. Another group of protesters got on a couple stops later. The train wasn’t crowded and it was easy to see who was there for what. Another couple got on in suits with bouquets of flowers. Funeral seemed a likelier destination for them. The protesters seemed to have a group and a plan. I briefly considered following them when the train stopped at McPherson Square. Felt right to simply get out and head toward the White House and the freshly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza at Lafayette Square and 16th Street. Overnight, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had the city paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in yellow paint down the street well within sight of the White House. I stepped out into DC. The city was eerie. Streets I’ve spent countless hours on over my 16 years as an off and on DC-area resident were devoid of cars. People wandered here and there. Away from the crowds downtown had a zombie apocalypse feel to it.
Sure enough, at Black Lives Matter Plaza, crowds surged. It looked and felt more like a festival than anything else. Various groups were handing out water bottles and free food. Bathrooms were even flagged here and there. I was in luck that a new protest was forming as I arrived, spearheaded by a foursome of African-American leaders equipped with bullhorns and surrounded by cameras. The main spokesperson was a charismatic, gender-nonconforming person. In the swell of the scene I couldn’t tell if they were trans or in drag. I joined as we marched in the hundreds first within view of the White House and then along city streets to Chinatown. There, we took a knee in silence. We listened to speeches. Polite quasi-uniformed officers emblazoned with DOJ and DEA patches on their black vests and national guard members in ACU standing next to beige HMMWVs blocked the crowd from leaving the closed off pedestrian area of the city. We turned south on 7th and continued to Constitution before kneeling again for a longer ceremony of silence near Archives with more chanting and speeches. When the crowd started up again down the 9th street tunnel, I peeled off to head back over to the White House and Washington Monument. Others milled about in similar fashion. When I read later that protesters casually picked up movements throughout the day in a plethora of locations, it didn’t surprise me one bit. Eventually I ended up back at Black Lives Matter Plaza and McPherson Metro Station to return to Cheryl and Alexandria.
Despite scenes of aggressive police presence from earlier protests during the week, downtown DC was devoid of much official presence. I found the lack of “normal” uniformed police a little surreal. Scattered throughout town were the same “DOJ” types and a handful of National Guardsmen I had directly encountered in Chinatown. They were friendly and engaging to the protesters. At one time I saw them clapping along. At others smiling and taking selfies. In Chinatown, the agent who appeared to be in charge opened up a vehicle and handed out water. It struck me that we were vulnerable as protesters to being hijacked by anyone attempting to incite violence from within our ranks, but nothing remotely odd happened while I was walking around town — or reported in DC after the event. The civilian officers out and about seemed like the older (35+), seasoned special agents across federal agencies with whom I’ve worked and trusted over my years in the government. The city had the right people on the streets this weekend.
The crowd I marched in was between one-third and one-half African American. Protesters seemed polite to each other but also didn’t seem to engage much individually. I don’t have enough experience with protest movements to know how the COVID-19 version differs. I don’t know what I expected when I headed out. I’m heartened that whomever was making crowd control decisions for the weekend made the choices they did. They didn’t look ready for a fight and that helped set a peaceful stage. The crowds lacked the anger and vitriol captured at earlier events for all to see nationally. But they were serious and determined crowds all the same. 2016 reminded all of us that the professionals and others of the DC area constitute a bubble out of touch at times with parts of the United States. That bubble joined ranks across income, age, and social brackets in Washington, D.C. on this Saturday to march together. I have no doubt we will vote and stay engaged. I don’t know what more than that means, though, for the times to come. Like many, I too hope that this movement generates genuine change, reform, and a sustained call to action.