May you live in interesting times.
– An old Chinese curse
No fan of Trump, I contemplated leaving the city for the Presidential Inauguration. I ended up staying for leaving was a kind of surrender. The inauguration was just in one corner of the city and could easily be ignored.
But the pull of history was too strong to ignore. I’m a writer and a photographer. These historic events are material for me, to be captured in photos and transmuted into fiction, like how I turned my election night experience into my short story, Victory Party.
I wanted to be in the room where it happens. Or at least on the street.
On Fridays, I go to Friday Coffee Club, a meetup of bike folks at A Baked Joint. The coffee shop was open so I went, figuring that I might run into some inaugural crowds.
Nope. A couple hours before the inauguration and the streets were empty. H Street had been blocked off to traffic so I rode down the middle of it, just seeing a couple of buses go by. There’s always a line at A Baked Joint but on this Friday, nobody was there. And there were no bikes out front. Just a couple of Friday Coffee Club people had made it in.
The only action on the street was from the anti-Trump demonstrators, who were assembling at McPherson Square. It started to rain, so I headed home to watch the inauguration.
As Trump wrapped up his “American carnage” speech, I heard a helicopter overhead, hovering just a few blocks away. A well-organized band of anarchists (oxymoron alert) had thrown rocks at Starbucks and other businesses. It takes a lot to get the DC police to arrest you but they did, making more than 200 on Friday.
The helicopter went east and continued to hover, eventually drawing me out my apartment, camera in hand, expecting to see one of those typical DC protesters where people chant and sit in the street.
But McPherson Square, packed with anarchists and the Black Bloc, had a very different vibe. Within five minutes of entering the park, I saw a Trump supporter get punched in the head and knocked unconscious by a guy who was dressed like Bane. The First Aid tent was nearby; the medical volunteers did nothing, unconcerned about a Trump supporter’s injury. Instead, National Guardsmen came into the park to rescue the guy. The police were lined up outside the park and would not come in.
I live in DC. It’s my city. I felt afraid in that park, in a way that I never did during the Occupy and other demonstrations in DC. Violence has an ugly quality that’s instantly recognizable. You feel it when it occurs, an anxiety rippling through the crowd.
The kids in the hoodies weren’t going to square off against the heavily armed police. Instead, they were looking for soft targets, such as businesses and lone Trump supporters. Or you and me, if they wanted to – the police were not coming into the park. I left.
14th and K was the epicenter of the protest. In front of the Washington Post building, the windows of a limo had been smashed in by the demonstrators. Protesters were standing on it. Then members of the Black Bloc marched by, their faces covered. Someone threw something into the limo. It caught fire, black smoke billowing up into the sky.
I snapped some quick pictures. People said the gas tank was going to blow. Others said the police were coming.
As I turned to leave, I saw a woman behind me, silently pleading for peace. It’s her heartbroken face that I’ll remember more than anything else. Within seconds, I would be running as the police fired flash-bangs into the street.