Demonstrations over racial justice have continued in dozens of cities across the nation for the past several weeks, but few protest sites have illustrated the dissonance between the Trump Administration and the Black Lives Matter movement as strikingly as what’s happened in the President’s own backyard.
In Washington, the area surrounding the White House and Lafayette Square has become the stage for a weeks-long standoff between protesters demanding an end to systemic racism and an administration that has chosen a stark law-and-order response to those calls. The sustained protests come in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Floyd, a black man, died after a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Most of the protests by the White House have been entirely peaceful. Nonetheless, this area has become a symbolic and literal front on which Trump and law enforcement have been pushing back against protesters — a high-profile spot that will be remembered by many as the place where an American commander-in-chief responded to his constituents with force and brutality.
Fresh demonstrations near the White House caught the President’s attention on Tuesday as protesters attempted to turn the area around Lafayette Square into a “Black House Autonomous Zone,” a protest encampment in the area similar to what activists established in Seattle after police abandoned the East Precinct. Protesters set up tents and barricades and painted “BHAZ” on the columns of St. John’s Episcopal Church in an effort to demarcate the zone.
It’s the same area, close to the White House, that peaceful protesters were forcefully removed from on June 1, with rubber bullets, tear gas, and officers mounted on horseback, allowing the President to cross the park to St. John’s for a much-criticized photo op with a Bible. The area has since been symbolically rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza by Mayor Muriel Bowser, though the act of doing so sparked criticism by protesters demanding to defund the police.
“There will never be an “Autonomous Zone” in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “If they try they will be met with serious force!” The tweet later got a label from Twitter, stating that the President’s statement violated the platform’s rules about “abusive behavior.”
His tweet followed an unsuccessful attempt by protesters on Monday night to topple a statue in Lafayette Square of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. President and a slave owner. He signed the Indian Removal Act in the 1800s that led to the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans, many of whom died on the resulting Trail of Tears march. Reuters photographs and videos circulating online from June 22 showed protesters tying chains and ropes around the monument in an effort to pull it down.
Law enforcement sought to forcefully remove the protesters soon after, again heightening tensions in the nation’s capital. Law enforcement officers used chemical irritants on protesters, shoved people and used batons to disperse the crowd, according to the Washington Post. At least one low-flying helicopter flew above the fray; the National Guard is already investigating whether helicopters were used inappropriately to disperse protesters on June 1.
In addition to threatening to use further force, the President also said early on Tuesday that protestors found to be involved in vandalization or destruction of federal monuments could face up to 10 years in prison. He noted he had “authorized” the arrests, and said it would be retroactive. “There will be no exceptions!” (No presidential authorization is needed, however, to enforce the existing Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act, which is aimed at protecting veteran memorials and the law Trump cited.)
In remarks at the White House before departing for Arizona later in the morning, Trump said an executive order regarding the monuments was in the works. “And all it’s really going to do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way,” he said. He went on to refer to protesters as “hoodlums.”
The President’s critics say his heavy-handed response to the protests in Washington, a city which is almost half Black, has only aggravated the racial divisions that the nation is working to address. “It’s very clear that you have a standoff of sorts between the federal government and local government, a standoff of sorts between a KKK-endorsed President and the largely Black population that surrounds him,” says Ravi Perry, chair of the Political Science Department at Howard University in Washington. “It’s very clear that this President has chosen not to discuss and [have] dialogue, but has chosen instead to divide.”
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that police armed with batons and bikes cleared protesters out of the area they were trying to claim as the autonomous zone. The BHAZ initiative has echoes of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) autonomous zone in Seattle. There, protesters have run the area for weeks, but city officials said it would be reclaimed by law enforcement following recent shootings in the area.
Asked whether the President had given any type of order that would result in the arrest of protesters, among other questions, a White House spokesperson did not respond on the record.
Local protest organizers are not intimidated by the President’s threats on Tuesday, issued after last night’s protests. “What I’ve realized is that Trump often makes threats when he feels backed into a corner,” says Nina Ego-Osuala, President of the Student Bar Association at the University of the District of Columbia who has organized local protests. She was not in attendance during the protests on June 22.
“He never makes any threats that are viable … he just talks because that’s what he likes to do,” she continued. “There’s other ways to communicate without threatening people, especially as the President.”