At the White House, the Lights Were Off

Anyone home? Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As Washington’s 11 p.m. curfew neared, the crowd of protesters in front of the White House was reaching a breaking point. The barricade sliced Lafayette Square in two: a line of police officers, dressed in riot gear, on the side closest to the White House, and the demonstrators, dressed in face masks, spilling out onto H St., stationing themselves in the grass or in trees, or on the steps of St. John’s church.

As the crowd grew, so did the chaos. Water bottles soared overhead, landing with thwacks on the ground or bangs against the shields of police officers. They responded with tear gas, which traveled across the park in wispy chemical clouds that sting the eyes and the throat, making it hard to breathe.

Just outside the White House, fires burned and plumes of tear gas filled the air. The president gave his final statement of the day at 8 p.m. on Twitter: “FAKE NEWS!”

“Who the fuck is throwing shit?” a young female protester screamed. Six days after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota, a day of peaceful demonstrations in Washington — and in cities around the country — was giving way to a night of American carnage. She charged at the group of men hurling water bottles, “Are you trying to hurt us?”

For a while, at least, she seemed to be in the majority. The agitators — whom the president has claimed are led by “left-wing extremists” and “Antifa” — were outnumbered by people with signs that read “AM I NEXT?” and “WHO DO YOU SEE? I AM NOT YOUR ENEMY.”

The 11 p.m. curfew just minutes away, a man dragged a large construction sign from the sidewalk and into the middle of the street. He set it aflame, aided by others who added kindling: bags of trash, branches snapped off of trees. Another fire was set across the street at a small building on the edge of the park. A third fire was set on the sidewalk, near a shattered streetlight.

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto

A fire broke out in the basement of St. John’s, a historic 19th-century episcopal church that’s welcomed to worship every president since James Madison. The D.C. fire department eventually put it out, reportedly before there was significant damage.

Flash bangs and gas sent the crowd scattering. Around the block, on I St., a car was fully on fire, bursting with POP POP POP sounds every few minutes, like exploding cars do in the movies. A woman calmly walked up to the blaze and aimed a small extinguisher, which did nothing.

A group of demonstrators carried an injured woman away from the crowd and the police. She’d been hit in the head by a canister and needed a medic, but there were no medics on the scene. Meanwhile, office buildings and stores had their windows shattered with hammers and planks of wood from construction sites. Young men leapt through the jagged glass. Dozens raced to the broken-open Nordstrom Rack. A security guard, a tall black man, walked briskly behind them. “I’ve been told not to intervene,” he said.

At the White House, they shut off the lights.

Correction: Due to editor error, this article originally featured an image of the White House that was taken several ago. The currently visible image is accurate.

At the White House, the Lights Were Off