Ok so, typing this up for @kcrabb88. I want to stress that even though I saw the police vs. “black bloc” scuffle that so enraptured reporters, this was only a very small part of the numerous protests going on, the “black bloc” did not do a hell of a lot of damage, and I wasn’t too freaked out. (Actually, a couple of times I thought, “Holy shit, this is going to be so useful for writing ‘Les Mis’ fic!”)
I went to out to protest in DC with a small group of friends. We were mostly following other, larger groups– we’d intended to go help the Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a check-point, but got a text that they had all the people they needed, and it would be better to join a group marching from Logan Circle, to shut down a different check-point. So we did.
A bunch of anarchists were just ahead of us, shooting flares. I honestly just thought it was a sort of celebratory, fireworks sort of deal. “How exciting,” said I, before we began having to climb over knocked over trashcans and newspaper dispensers. Some of the newspapers were on fire– but only the ones with Trump’s face on them. So far, nothing unexpected.
Then people began taking baseball bats to parked cop cars and glass bus stands, and throwing rocks when they didn’t have bats to hand. I was just kind of confused by this, and looking around, as the Black Lives Matter protests I’d gone to before hadn’t included stuff like this, when I noticed the heavy-duty protesters dressed all in black and holding PVC pipes had pulled down Anonymous masks or pulled up scarves over their faces and ran up to a Bank of America and a Starbucks. It wasn’t until the glass actually shattered that I realized they were breaking windows. A lot of the other protestors seemed really pissed off by this and were shouting at the “black bloc” to come back and keep marching and to stop pulling focus. Then the chants shifted from “The people, united, will never be defeated!” to “Slow down, don’t run!” and “Don’t feed the alligators!” (This last one is I think a code for ‘the police are coming to arrest people’?) and then there was just a WALL of police officers in riot gear just behind us.
My group and I just fucking bolted down an alley on the opposite side of the street from the smashed stores and watched wide-eyed as the police inexorably marched on, followed by half-a-dozen cop cars and then police on bicycles (???). The alley had a little concrete barricade in front of it, to keep cars from driving in, so we stood behind it, half because I said, “Oh look a barricade!” and dragged people behind it and half because my friend Aurora, our BLM veteran, said that it would be best if we quickly made ourselves onlookers.
We stayed where we were, watching the police disappear down the street, and then heard what sounded like a goddamn bomb going off behind us (this was probably the most alarming bit). Aurora said it was just the police firing sound grenades behind us. We saw the main core of serious, masked anarchists running past us, maybe about a block away to the left of us, chased by more sound grenades, and a truly absurd number of police. There couldn’t have been more than fifty people still running as a group, but there were hundreds of cops chasing them. A small contingent of protesters with bandanas over their faces surprised us from behind (we were pretty startled because we had thought the alley was a dead end) and told us to get the hell out of the street.
We retreated into a Devon and Blakely (a local D.C. coffee shop chain), avoiding the shattered glass from the Starbucks next to it, before the police started firing tear gas. I didn’t see that part– I was in the bathroom– but I saw people later sitting on the lawn of a nearby church, trying to wash out their eyes.
I can’t actually remember how many times I’ve reread the barricade section of Les Miserables, and I think I’ve seen the musical close to 30 times, which made witnessing actual violent protest and immediate state repression take on a strangely theatrical quality, as if it wasn’t actually happening.
Weirdly, my fiancé (a white dude) was the most shaken by all this. He was fine when we rejoined a different feminist group and marched to McPherson Square– that was entirely peaceful and the police and National Guardsman standing around were actually really kind and helpful, pointing the way to various sites, suggesting where to find bathrooms, helping people to find the tents the J20 organizers had set up.
… I really don’t quite know how to conclude, just that I think it got blown the hell out of proportion. It was the most violent protest I’ve ever witnessed, but it wasn’t a riot.