Solemn chants, unified marching, protest signs, 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, tear gas, broken glass, striking batons, fire, screaming.
Following months of lockdown, Americans are gathering outside in droves, anguished and outraged, following the death of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery… and how many more.
This reckoning for justice stems from pandemic restlessness, soaring unemployment, a hazy future, and the deafening cries of the ignored.
The country is unsure, uncertain, mangled, and fractured.
Without a clear, linear path towards restitution, many of our most institutionally hamstrung — namely Black Americans — have decided to take to the streets and seek justice for themselves.
I witnessed the languished frustration firsthand at the nation’s capital — the weekend following Floyd’s death — along with the unsavory flip-side of unorganized protests.
That weekend, hundreds gathered in front of the White House on H Street, masked and discontented. Above those peaks of fabric were furrowed brows and eyes steeled with outrage.
The atmosphere was peaceful but intense. People were clearly frustrated with the culmination of woes that struck the country, and they refused to voice their misgivings quietly or timidly.
Hip hop music streamed throughout the mile-long assembly, frequently interrupted with chants to say their name. This while officers stood militantly in rows, looking to maintain both their focus and their line.
There was no immediate cause for concern, but friction was overwhelmingly present. Two opposing waves thinly restrained by a wall of social principal.
Police were poised to subdue the crowd with extreme prejudice; protesters were antagonistically self-aware, seemingly daring officers to do so.
This continued for hours until night drew closer and tensions heightened.
The crowd was becoming more emboldened and police appeared on-edge. As daylight began to evaporate, so did the restraint that held back unbridled discord.
Water bottles were flung anonymously — which was returned in-kind with tear gas. At this point, police began to take the antagonism personally.
What followed was a string of retaliation.
A flood of tear gas being dispersed at unsuspecting clusters, then a garbage can lit ablaze two blocks down; rubber bullets fired haphazardly and fireworks erupting near officers just seconds later.
It was a flurry of disjointed chaos.
Unwitting and peaceful protesters quickly became victims; some were crying from pepper spray and others had blood dripping from their foreheads as a result of “nonlethal” shots.
This occurred in tandem as people antagonized authorities without punishment. Police vehicles were smashed in, even more fires erupted, I saw a man walking forward, suspiciously holding a brick before a nearby peer spotted this and snatched it away, chastising him.
Although officers were mostly left unscathed, they were losing patience and keen on shutting it down. On the line, officers began pushing back protesters, rubber rounds were fired with increasing frequency, and a haze of gas dusted the roads.
Just one day prior, the White House was placed on lockdown and the president was rushed into a bunker. It appeared law enforcement was not in the mood for déjà vu.
*BOOM* *BOOM* *BOOM*
Stun grenades were now being deployed.
The thunderous explosions left everyone in a panic, running into the darkness and trying to avoid being trampled, arrested, shot, gassed, killed.
Streets were barricaded, police cars were everywhere, officers were patrolling — some mounted horseback — and a helicopter was circling the area, only adding to the theatrical pandemonium.
The night devolved into a tense arena of anarchy and madness. I had never seen anything like it outside of Twitter, and only in countries with sham or crumbling democracies.
After police forcefully ushered the remaining people away from Lafayette Square, the disarray seemingly spilled downtown. Cars were on fire, people were defacing every surface, and broken glass peppered the sidewalks.
If the day was a measure of protest unity, conjoined by institutional dissatisfaction; the night was individualized dissent, moved by personal motivations.
Some looters walked eagerly into broken storefronts only to exit glumly, discovering they couldn’t find what they wanted. Others left with their newfound treasure and quickly disappeared as alarms rung into the lawless night.
Rumors swirled by word-of-mouth that the national guard was heading into the city with no intention of compromise. Precarious activity eventually fizzled and the majority of those remaining, myself included, soon vacated the aftermath.
At face value, you could easily spin the mayhem as reason enough to discredit protests, and to some extreme, Black Lives Matter.
I believe, however, the less obvious answer is looking at the why. Why is the public this restless? Why are enough people dissatisfied with the status quo for this to be an issue? What does this say about our country where a silver lining for some is the edge of a storefront’s broken glass?
This is what it looks like when democracy is failing. When the government does not serve the best interest of its populous and millions are left exposed and disenfranchised. When financial disparity, healthcare inequity, and a blatant refusal to address these dire, structural dilemmas lingers.
It should taken seriously that so many people lean towards believing our institutions themselves are bad-faith actors. Trust is essential for communities and society at large to exist. If people believe their best option is to take matters into their own hands, government loses pragmatic value.
We are in a moment of sobering clarity. A moment of national introspection that posits the question of why and how things have grown so untenable.
In the mist of ambiguity, we are hurting, we want answers, and we demand accountability. In addition to the laundry list of tasks ahead, reconciling these failures is paramount. That… or we cozy up to the long night of riots ahead.