The morning of Donald Trump's inauguration began with members of DC Black Lives Matter and Baltimore Bloc, both part of the Movement For Black Lives, gathering in front of the Metropolitan Police Department at 7 a.m. for what at first looked like a march, but turned out to be a complex and effective protest wherein the groups blocked and ultimately shutdown one of the entrance gates to the inauguration off Indiana Avenue not far from the MPD headquarters.
Similar to recent actions in Baltimore, such as the #NODAPL sit-in at Wells Fargo and the #STOPFOP lock-in at the Hyatt, activists chained themselves to the gates and to one another, preventing access into the inauguration. More groups soon arrived and added to the human blockade and eventually that specific gate was shutdown, much to the frustration and occasionally the anger of those trying to get in, 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 and activists pushing and shoving back.
The morning action was impressive and overall there were no arrests, the police were reasonable (I overheard Commander Regis Bryant describing the protest as "peaceful" to other officers), and the mood of the action was joyful, with Baltimore Bloc's Ralikh Hayes among others leading the group in chants such as "I love being black" and dancing.
Protest getting joyful and victorious pic.twitter.com/zTIa0qe4Im— brandon soderberg (@notrivia) January 20, 2017
In sharp contrast was a series of escalations on the part of the police and protesters later in the day that began where Massachusetts Avenue NW, 12th Street NW, and L Street NW meet and ultimately resulted in the property damage that has presumably dominated afternoon news coverage instead of the anemic inaugural parade. It began when protesters began sprinting and MPD motorcycle police chased after along with police on-foot, catching up with the protesters and indiscriminately spraying them with pepper spray. This group included those who earlier had broken the windows of a Wells Fargo, Starbucks, and Bank of America and all of it had the air of the "black bloc" tactics of the Seattle WTO Protests of 1999 when corporate chains were targeted for property damage—and again, quite different from the Black Lives Matter, goal-oriented spectacle of this morning's action.
A group of nearly 100 were held behind a police line and detained and slowly arrested. This led to concerns from protesters of "kettling," a police measure for crowd control often criticized for escalating rather than deescalating. More and more protesters began showing up in solidarity, leading to a standoff with another round of police coming in, followed by another group—kettling inside of kettling, which seemingly trapped both police and protesters.
This broke into chaos following an arrest which protesters claim was particularly unnecessary—a protester was pulled across the line and arrested, randomly it seemed—and a plastic bottle thrown at police. Not long after, a few red-hatted Trump supporters pushed through the crowd, and protesters shoved back, tossing bottles. Police moved in again, spraying protesters, soaking a few of them. It was grotesque. A video spreading around shows an elderly woman being drenched and the police spraying a man who tries to help her out of the way.
From there, the police got even more aggressive, tossing "stingball" grenades, while police on horses moved dangerously close to protesters. What seemed to be tear gas moved through the air though MPD Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham has said tear gas was not deployed by officers, something like tear gas was in the air. Then the chaos continued to nearby K Street, where there was even more pepper spray, and endless "stingball" grenades, and what seemed like rubber bullets. Protesters began tossing bottles and bricks and rocks. The scene was a mess and the police seemed shockingly disorganized, with lots of yelling at protesters and superiors screaming at other officers, all of which was especially surprising given comments we heard from activists that in general, D.C. police are more equipped to handle this sort of thing than other cities.
And soon enough, a limousine got busted up, trash cans were set on fire, and the protest moved through D.C., breaking into small clusters of mischief-making groups, culminating in the limousine being lit on fire, emitting thick smoke and a pungent mix of pepper spray and burning rubber in the air.
Note: This post has been updated and adjusted after City Paper received a response from MPD Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham about the weapons deployed that he would confirm. He says that tear gas was not deployed and that while flashbang grenades were not used, as many reported, "stingball" grenades were.