WASHINGTON: One of the recurring themes of the last 3 1/2 years is that President Donald Trump has disrupted Washington, just as his voters demanded.
This is true in a certain sense: The Trump White House has been a chaotic drama, a procession of scandals, leaks, investigations, feuding protagonists and trampled norms.
But one of the overlooked realities of the reality show is that the day-to-day existence of so-called official Washington has felt anything but disrupted. This gilded capital has actually been a serene and lovely place to live, work and visit, at least for those who can afford it. The trend has only accelerated through what until recently was the booming economy of the Trump presidency.
These last months, though, have been something else entirely. The reality has relegated the TV maestro in the White House to something of a sideshow.
In recent nights, the streets around the White House have been clogged with thousands of protesters, demonstrating against the police killing last week in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man. The crowds have been multiracial and comprised a free-for-all of purposes. Landmark restaurants, offices and a historic church have been burned and vandalized. By Monday, Mayor Muriel E Bowser had set a curfew of 7 pm and activated the National Guard.
“Donald Trump is just a social media personality to us, the guy who told us to drink bleach,” said Artinese Campbell, 33, an African American woman who has lived her whole life in Washington and who had come downtown Monday afternoon, just a few blocks from the White House, to visit her bank before it was boarded up and closed early in anticipation of another night of protests. She said she was sympathetic to the cause of the protesters but hoped they remained peaceful and had no plans to stick around to find out.
“I think most of us are numb to presidents who come in and talk about ‘change,’ ” Campbell said. “Nothing really changes if you’re black in America.”
As with many metropolitan areas ravaged by the coronavirus and the nation’s economic crisis, Washington’s victims have been overwhelmingly working class, black and brown — inhabitants of the so-called real Washington who were priced out of the city years ago and forced to live outside its borders. Hospital workers and Metro drivers have gotten sick. Uber drivers and busboys have lost their jobs.
They would not, as a general rule, include the patrons of the Oval Room, a landmark expense account restaurant around the corner from the White House that was vandalized over the weekend, its front window tagged in red paint with a message of “The Rich Aren’t Safe Anymore.”
“Run, run, they’re coming,” one young woman yelled late Saturday night to a group of her fellow demonstrators on H Street NW, in response to a loud crack that went off about 200 yards from the White House, just after 10:30 p.m. It was never exactly clear who “they” were, or what people were fleeing or running toward. There were competing chants drowning out each other, masked participants who could have been anyone, a swirling fog of agendas. It was like Twitter in the streets.
One thing was certain: No one was bemoaning the “shattered norms” perpetrated by the Trump administration or celebrating the “peaceful transfer of power” that may or may not occur in a few months. Television pundits have labeled the upcoming election as “existential” to the importance to the country’s direction. But it also felt beside the point — like privilege talking — in the crowds of the last few nights. This chaotic tableau felt so much more urgent, and close to home.
“Say his name” was the most common chant of the protests, a call and response answered with a corresponding “George Floyd,” who died while under arrest last week after a police officer kept his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
During the weekend protests, there were recurrent cries of “I can’t breathe,” a visceral tribute to the last desperate words Floyd uttered before he lost consciousness. Trump’s name could be heard in a few chants, generally modified by an expletive. But again, he felt somewhere else, even as he was physically just a few hundred yards away, inside a darkened and barricaded White House.
One block away, on 16th Street NW, the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO were set ablaze during protests Sunday night. TV commentators described the conflagration as a strike against one of the fortresses of the American labor movement, a theoretical ally of the protesters in the struggle for a fairer power structure. Next door, flames engulfed St. John’s Episcopal Church, where two decades of presidents have come to worship — the so-called Church of the Presidents.
Suddenly, though, these monuments to American progress and history felt like quaint abstractions, cherished by official Washington but just another thing to burn down for the Washington disrupters of 2020.
On Monday on a sidewalk across Farragut Square, in front of the boarded up Oval Room restaurant, a protester named Athena Kapsides, a Washington public-school teacher, said that Trump had in fact inspired a great deal of activism in opposition to his own actions. In that sense, she said, he has been a catalyst for change.
“President Trump himself has tried to present himself as a fighter, but really he only fights for himself,” said Kapsides, who grew up in the Washington suburbs and wore a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who protested police violence against African Americans by kneeling during pregame renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Many believe that his statement resulted in his blacklisting from the NFL, where he has not played since 2017.
“He’s been a force for disruption,” Kapsides said of Trump. “But maybe not always the kind of disruption he planned for.”
As dusk approached near the White House on Monday, a crowd built on the edges of Lafayette Square. Cries of “hands up, don’t shoot” grew in volume and intensity. Marquette Austin, 50, a lifelong resident of Southeast Washington, was passing through on a bike ride with his girlfriend and decided to stop and join.
Austin represents a different inhabitant of “permanent Washington,” a phrase that gets tossed around in the higher echelons of the federal government and its adjoining private sectors of lobbying, consulting and assorted other white-collar dependents. Few such inhabitants were actually born and raised in Washington, and few of them seem to ever leave once they settle into the warm bath of what Trump has branded “the swamp.”
Austin works for the city water department and said he had seen firsthand how privileged, predominantly white neighborhoods like Georgetown received better service than poorer areas east of the Anacostia River.
“It doesn’t matter if there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House, this is our reality here,” Austin said. “It does not tend to change. That also feels permanent.”