Revisit the hope and despair of 2020 with the Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence Artifact Collection at the MLK Library in Washington, DC.
If, during the dark days of summer 2020, you had told me that the protest signs covering the fence around the Trump White House would one day be in a museum exhibit, I would’ve been surprised.
Surprised that we were still alive, that museums existed and dissent was permitted.
None of which seemed certain in June, 2020, after Trump had Black Lives Matter protesters beaten in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC.
Trump Builds a Fence
I had seen the fence go up. Trump felt afraid, even after flooding the city with thousands of paramilitaries, so a fence was built. Not just around the White House, but the whole complex, stretching from 15th to 17th St and from H Street down to Constitution Avenue, putting public spaces like Lafayette Square and the Ellipse behind chain-link.
As the fence was constructed, armed yahoos faced off against BLM protesters on 16th St.
Armed yahoos – I have no other way of describing them, for they were men in riot gear, but no identifying badges or IDs, clad in a mish-mash of khaki vests and jeans.
To this day, I have no idea who they were. The city was full of mysterious armed men in a variety of uniforms. Supposedly for security. Unlike January 6th, the National Guard protected the Capitol and the city’s monuments and memorials. Blackhawk helicopters thundered over my apartment building, making it feel like I lived in Baghdad.
On June 5, 2020, Mayor Bowser painted Black Lives Matter on 16th St in yellow letters so large that they were visible from space.
The Fence Becomes a Memorial
And the fence along H Street, built for Trump’s protection, became a platform for expressing opposition to the regime. Soon it became covered in signs, every BLM march adding more, until the signs were so thick that you could no longer see the White House.
It was known as the Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence. BLM protest groups gathered here before marching up 16th St, led by a go-go band on a truck. Victims of police violence came to memorialize their losses. Americans who grieved for what their country had become attached their hand-made messages to the fence.
Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence was a tourist destination, a place for solemn reflection, our version of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes, photographers would bring stepladders so that they could peer over the fence and get photos of the dictator trapped in a prison of his own creation.
As documented in the exhibit at the MLK Library, Trump mobs tore down the signs on several occasions. They were replaced. During the “stop the steal” rallies in November and December 2020, Proud Boys vowed to destroy the fence. When the police blocked off the streets, the thugs attacked random people and vandalized a church.
When Biden’s victory was announced on November 7th, it was where DC came to celebrate. I had been at the Wharf at the time and by the time I reached BLM Plaza, it was jammed with thousands of people. I watched people drinking champagne and taking gleeful selfies. On the spot where I had seen armed yahoos face off against demonstrators, a shirtless man stood on a bus platform, leading the crowd in chants. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
The Fence is History
After Biden’s inauguration, the fence came down. DC had Lafayette Park back, as I wrote in The Washington Post.
The signs that covered Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence were preserved and are now on display at the MLK Library in Washington, DC.
They look so neat and clean in the quiet, climate-controlled library. When viewing the exhibit, the outcome seems so certain, that Trump would lose, possessing the quality of inevitability, like other civil rights struggles.
But it was anything but certain, as anyone who lived through 2020 can tell you.