WASHINGTON – Thousands of protesters from all walks of life – black, white, young, old – poured into downtown Washington Saturday to demand an end to police violence against African Americans.
It was the ninth – and by far the largest – day of demonstrations demanding justice for George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Protesters gathered across Washington at the city’s most iconic sites – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and near the White House – for simultaneous marches and mass demonstrations.
“I’m a single mom with a black son,” said Kim Cuthbert, 45, who lives in the Washington suburbs and was attending her first-ever protest Saturday.
She said her son is smart and knows what to do if he has an encounter with police, but “whether he knows what to do and what not to do, it doesn’t matter. So it’s important for me to be down here today.”
Morgan Hubbard, 13, said she came out to protest because “it really matters to me how the future turns out.”
“I can’t help but think ‘Am I next?’ and I don’t want that to happen,” she said. “I don’t want my little brother to be next, he’s seven years old. I don’t want that to happen.”
After marching down Constitution Ave., thousands of protesters knelt at an intersection north of the Lincoln Memorial. Music blared up and down 16th Street, a main city artery, as waves of people crisscrossed the city. Most people wore masks to guard against COVID-19, but the idea of social distancing seemed a thing of the past.
Around Lafayette Square near the White House, the gathering was more jovial with live DJs and protesters who brought their own rap and reggae music. Some protesters danced while one played Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?”
On Friday, the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, renamed the area “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” and muralists painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in large, yellow block letters on the street.
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The DC metropolitan police declined to provide a crowd estimate, and with thousands of protesters gathered at multiple sites across the city, it was difficult to get an accurate assessment.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters on Friday that local officials were projecting between 100,000 and 200,000 protesters.
With the temperature nearing 90 degrees in the afternoon and humidity above 80%, some demonstrators camped out beneath the awnings of hotels and restaurants to escape the sun. Some businesses in the district opened up their stores to give shelter, food and water to protesters. Some also gave their employees the day off to join the protests.
Kerrigan Williams, a 22-year-old graduate student at Georgetown, told the crowd through a megaphone that they would next be marching to City Hall, to tell Bowser that “sidewalk chalk, with Black Lives Matter, is not enough.”
“We are asking for the defunding of MPD, and for those funds to be diverted to mental health and food and housing security in DC,” Williams, a member of Freedom Fighters DC, later told USA TODAY. “That mural isn’t enough. If you don’t have any change behind that mural, it means that you didn’t mean those words that you painted. If you’re not going to change black lives in your city, then what does that mural mean?”
As the group walked north up 23rd Street, police officers worked to clear a path. Drivers of diverted cars honked their horns to show support for the protesters, while passengers raised their fists out of windows.
Food and merchandise vendors lined the streets, with some selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Others set up booths with water to prepare for the scorching weather and intense humidity.
Bowser, wearing a green mask, joined the crowd outside the White House, giving thumbs up to protesters and taking photos with supporters.
“We have a wonderful mayor,” said one man nearby as he passed out water.
Just north of Lafayette Square, a small group of children chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Black lives matter” and “We are young, but we are strong.”
Many protesters carried signs condemning racism and police brutality. “Without Justice, I Can’t Breathe,” one read, referring to Floyd’s last words – the same three words that have become a symbol of anger and frustration among the black community.
The marches and protests are taking place in an urban sea of boarded-up buildings, after businesses in the downtown area covered their street fronts to protect against window-smashing and vandalism that blighted the protests in the past week.
Security personnel, whether city police officers, National Guard members or other federal law enforcement officials, are on every street. Many stood while others engaged in friendly conversations with people on the street.
A large swath of the city has been blocked off, including several blocks near the White House and National Mall. Some protesters parked a mile away and carried their homemade signs down to Lafayette Square, where police had cordoned off and blocked traffic for several blocks around the White House — a much larger area than in previous days.
Near Capitol Hill, a massive crowd began to march, chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and “Hey hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go,” as they walked down Constitution Avenue.
Crowds also assembled at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of an iconic moment of the civil rights movement – the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
“We felt we needed to be a part of this history,” said Duane Johnson, 56, a claims supervisor from Denton, Maryland.
His wife, Tanya Samuels-Johnson, 52, an IT specialist said she wants to see a “peaceful revolution” in race relations. “It’s time for a change,” she said. “We need more sensitivity from the police.”
Three students from Coppin State University in Baltimore called for a complete overhaul of legal and political systems. “I have two young kids – and one of them is a boy – and I don’t want them to go through the kinds of things we did in terms of being racially profiled by the police,” said Nzinga Robertson, 20.
“These laws are not meant for us whatsoever,” said Brianna Bouldin, 19, also a Coppin student. “We need new rules protecting people of color.”
Demonstrations erupted around the country last week following the death of Floyd, a black man who was captured on video lying face down while a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, is facing a second-degree murder charge. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting.
In Washington, D.C., tensions have been rising between President Donald Trump and Bowser over how to police the protests, with the president promising to “dominate the streets.” Bowser has demanded that Trump withdraw military and federal law enforcement from the city, saying the mass deployment of officers and the presence of heavy equipment was only inflaming demonstrations.
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Trump plans to spend the day inside the White House and has no planned public appearances. The president sent out tweets paying tribute to the military on the 76th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings in France in 1944 that led to victory in World War II.
Contributing: John Fritze, Kevin Johnson and Deirdre Shesgreen