What looked like an Inauguration Day march against police brutality and the Fraternal Order of Police-supported Donald Trump ended as something quite different; it was but one moving part of a swift and effective, multi-location shut down of six inauguration checkpoints across Washington, D.C. All of the actions were connected to the larger "call for a bold mobilization" by DisruptJ20, a loosely knit band of activists from around the country who committed to publicly challenging Trump and upsetting the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Around 7 a.m., in an event organized by D.C. Black Lives Matter and Baltimore Bloc, both part of the national Movement For Black Lives, key organizers paced in front of the Metropolitan Police Department, waiting for fellow activists to arrive.
Just a few feet away, a slick-looking frat boy scalped tickets to the inauguration, selling them for way too much to an old white dude in a red "Make America Great Again" hat and a classy trench coat who just didn't know any better.
"The fact that you woke up and decided to come here? That's resistance," April Goggans of Black Lives Matter D.C. said to a crowd that had grown to about 50 or so by 7:15.
Then she asked the group a series of questions: "Are we gonna be paralyzed by fear?"
Goggans mentioned D.C.'s Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham and told the group, "Never Newsham" as the next chief of police. She referenced Terrence Sterling, a 31-year-old unarmed black man killed by police in D.C. in September under Newsham's leadership. She also described D.C. as a city "ravaged by gentrification," and reminded the crowd that the police prefer to protect property over people.
Then Ralikh Hayes of Baltimore Bloc brought up Keith Davis, a black man shot by Baltimore police back in June 2015 who still waits in jail, still with a bullet lodged in his neck. After some other speakers and calls for intersectionality and shout-outs to "queer lives" and "cash-poor people" among others, the group marched. It didn't go far. Instead the line of activists twisted down a tall set of concrete steps toward one of the inauguration security checkpoints, spreading out as some pulled out chains and began to chain themselves to fences in front of security tents and to one another, singing, "Chant down Babylon, black people are the bomb! We ready, we ready!"
Throughout the morning, more groups arrived, pouring triumphantly down the same steps adding to the human blockade. The morning bounced between serious, strident resistance, complete with savvy use of "de-escalators"—people specifically chosen to get between protesters and Trump supporters and maintain protesters' focus on the action—and eruptions of dancing and singing, including a moment where Hayes, fellow Baltimore Bloc member John Gillespie and others shouted, "I love being black," and jumped up and down and sprinted around the checkpoint—a woke, joyous mosh pit.
The checkpoint on the 400 block of Indiana Avenue was eventually closed, to the frustration and occasionally the anger of those trying to get into the inauguration, some of whom pushed and shoved through the group. This was an ongoing pattern of the day: activists puckishly setting up blockades in protest and Trump supporters moving in on them or pushing through—with activists shoving back.
A "U-S-A" chant sparked up among the Trump supporters who were inside the checkpoint—supposedly a rejoinder to "Black Lives Matter." One Trump supporter from Ohio, who did not give his name, responded to the "Black Lives Matter" chants with "Clean pussy matters" and kept calling the group "the Klan with a tan."
"Most of them don't even have parents or jobs," said Wayne, friend of the "clean pussy matters" guy. Wayne, middle-aged and also from Ohio, had a grandmother who was a "diehard Democrat" who "worked election boards her whole life," he said. "My grandmother begged me every year [to vote] and I'd say, 'It don't matter, it don't matter.' I signed up this year."
He voted for Trump, yeah—"who do you think?"
But back to his grandmother: "She was old school Democrat though, I guarantee [the Black Lives Matter activists] weren't the kind of diehard Democrat she believed in though, this is unbelievable...If they want to protest, let's start putting time limits on it because this is ridiculous. Say you got a three-hour event, you get an hour of protest. People need to be professional and common sense. These people want it their way or no way. I don't even think they know what reality is—half of them ain't even got a job. If they're out protesting ain't no employer whose gonna have them."
Wayne pointed out that his 19-year-old son wasn't here today like all these protesters. He was at college, studying and that's how it should be.
And then there was David, who didn't want to give his last name either, from Indianapolis. He tried to rush past the chain of protesters while it was still forming. "I got to the very end right before they formed the chain and I got through, but my wife didn't," he said. So he pushed back: "They don't have the right to tell us to go back." His wife was on the other side of the blockade and she received some gnarly scratches on her arm in the chaos. David returned later on with his wife and noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, holding up the two as victims of BLM violence as his aggro-security guards shoved media and anybody else out of the way of Jones' well-rehearsed, swaggering stride.
"You just trying to start some shit, aren't you?" one protester jeered at Jones. One of the de-escalators tugged the protester away.
The police, for the most part, hung back and just stared, even when small scuffles broke out between Trump supporters and protesters. When MPD Commander Regis Bryant surveyed the scene, he said the police were "not gonna take any action" to stop the protest. He matter-of-factly told officers on the scene, "they're peaceful so what else can we do?"
There were no arrests, though Baltimore Bloc said in a group statement that they had planned for that possibility: "In all direct action, violent police overreaction is a real possibility and when dealing with people's safety we always plan for every contingency."
At another checkpoint shutdown, however, the police were aggressive, dragging members of Future Is Feminist across the ground, pulling on them, pushing them, and pepper spraying some of the women, a continuation of tactics seen the night before at another DisruptJ20 event where protesters confronted Trump supporters at the Deploraball, an especially toxic event held by Trump supporters.
"The way police acted was telling of their priorities. They clearly understood their job to 'serve' and 'protect' as meaning to serve and protect property of businesses and people behind their gates," Baltimore Bloc said. "They showed no care for the safety of anyone in the public, let alone the chained black bodies being attacked by inconvenienced Trump supporters."
Still, it was nothing like the series of escalations traded by police and protesters later in the day. A little before 11 a.m. a few hundred anti-fascists using "black bloc" tactics (identities disguised with black clothes and black scarves and moving en masse) broke the windows of corporate chains such as McDonald's and Starbucks and banks such as Bank Of America and Wells Fargo. Not long after, the group was cornered by police and liberally pepper sprayed, most of them arrested—though multiple sources tell City Paper that those in the black bloc who actually damaged property mostly escaped arrest. The 200-plus arrested, which includes six reporters and some legal observers, have all been charged with felony rioting.
Later on in the day, the protesters confronted police and eventually busted up and burnt a limousine that was parked in the area (and one of them also virally sucker-punched Internet-famous white supremacist and alt-right icon Richard Spencer in the face). As Natasha Lennard wrote in the Nation, black bloc is not "a group but an anarchist tactic—marching as a confrontational united force, uniformed in black and anonymized for security. Once deployed, the tactic has an alchemic quality, turning into a temporary object—the black bloc."
The police seemed unprepared and disorganized, especially when officers encountered black bloc. Officers froze, nervously gripped batons, averted their eyes from protesters talking shit or telling them how "just following orders" is what Nazis did during the Holocaust, or fumbled around with pepper spray canisters. Other officers acted quickly, recklessly, and sadistically. They held batons straight ahead and aimed at protester's necks; they blasted pepper spray in all directions at anybody in the area—including (as one viral video showed) an elderly woman—and often while the police themselves were chasing protesters. Officers waved around and aimed at groups their weaponry that shot what seemed to be rubber bullets (Interim Chief Newsham said a full list of what was used will be released soon, though not before press time) and used "stingball" grenades; and lots of screaming and arguing among the officers.
The impulse might be to set-up a stark contrast between the "peaceful" protest initiated by The Movement for Black Lives and other groups who shut down checkpoints and the brick-throwing, property-damaging, semi-militarized black bloc protesters. But both forms of protests were met with the same type of police violence and weaponry. And to witness the ruthless, terrifying efficiency within which black bloc destroyed the windows of Starbucks and Bank Of America—swooping in to smash a window and pulling back for the next member to continue the damage—proves they were well-organized and intentional. It too was "an action."
"To say [black bloc] are merely apolitical and irrational young people is at best intellectual laziness, at worst, a political lie," writes Francis Dupuis-Déri in the 2014 book, "Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs?: Anarchy in Action Around the World." Dupuis-Déri spends a little over 200 pages taking black bloc seriously while also considering the many problems with this kind of oft-violent resistance.
Baltimore Bloc view black bloc as part of the same protest movement though they neither praise or condemn such tactics. "If we intend on accomplishing our objectives and goals, a variety of tactics will be necessary," Baltimore Bloc said. "Therefore we are not dismissive of black bloc tactics. At the same time, there is no way to give blanket approval of it either."
Activists considered Friday evidence of a police force immediately emboldened by the Trump regime.
As protesters stared down police, bandanas up, anticipating another downpour of pepper spray or another baton to the neck, demanding the release of detained and arrested black bloc, Donald Trump was being sworn in as the next president and a new section titled "Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community" popped up on the White House website.
"The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public," it read. "The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it."