LAFAYETTE SQUARE: Staging a show of domination in Washington’s free speech park.
In England, perhaps the best known Royal Park is Hyde Park in London. It has been a safe venue for free speech and protests since the 19th century. The historic Speakers Corner also resides there. Though the women’s suffrage movement was officially banned from having demonstrations there starting in 1908, the first wave feminists persevered until 1913. That movement was able to gain crowds of hundreds of thousands until the authorities gave in. In 2003 a massive demonstration convened on the park, and speakers like Vanessa Redgrave, the Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter and Bianca Jagger rose to speak to large crowds in opposition to the Iraq war. For Brits, Hyde Park remains a sort of sacred zone for free speech
In the U.S., beginning in late May, as the massive Black Lives Matter protests against police and vigilante killings of African-Americans began in hundreds of cities and towns, America’s equivalent of the Britich free-speech space Hyde Park, Lafayette Square in Washington DC (Sometimes called Lafayette Park), was seized in a performance of state force. This performance ended in a bizarre a climax that suggested the repression of primarily peaceful acts of protest had received Divine sanction. After that day of state-sponsored theatre, the park was barred to the public for ten days with heavy black twelve-foot tall steel fencing, while within its boundaries it was occupied by various combinations of Military Police and other federal forces. This occupation and closure of the park evolved following the violent expulsions of peaceful protesters and press. The expulsions were launched after an inspection of the federal forces and the demonstration in the Square by the head the of the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr, in consultation with his boss and ally President Trump.
Since his appointment by Trump, Attorney General Barr, head of the Department of Justice, has remained at his side, an aggressive defender and legal advocate who has been launching investigations-of-the-investigations into many alleged Trump offenses that have gone to the courts or those that resulted in the President’s impeachment. The events that were staged after the violent clearing of Lafayette Square seem to have been partly conceived by Hope Hicks, former Communications Director at the White House who left to take a position at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, and who has recently returned as the President’s senior adviser. It has become clear, however, that Barr was the prime mover in instigating the action by paramilitary and military forces in the nation’s capital against peaceful demonstrators. Those actions were staged for the benefit of a certain groups of the public — the President’s base of supporters, the protesters who were drafted into participation at a personal cost, and an audience around the world who it was feared, respected the president less after he had retreated to the White House’s deep underground bunker the previous weekend. This piece of state theatre took place in four Acts.
It took place on Monday the 1st of June after the President angrily asserted, in a conference call the previous weekend with all the U.S. governors, that all the governors should act to «dominate» the demonstrations throughout the country. If they did not, he berated the governors, the people would see them as «jerks.» If they did not dominate the streets using police and the National Guard, he would as President call on US military forces to «do it for them.» The telephone call was recorded and leaked to the public and was widely published and broadcast.1
The first Act of the display was the President’s speech in the White House rose garden, where after a very brief tribute to George Floyd—the African American man the nation had seen murdered on video by police officers in Minneapolis, and which set off a nation-wide uprising—Trump repeated his promise to bring in military forces to suppress the demonstrations. During that speech the strange performance began to unfold on and around Lafayette Square. Act II of the performance, in which the square was violently cleared using pepper gas, flash-bang grenades, clubbings and beatings, rubber bullets, and even military helicopters, was not originally visible via the cameras focusing on Trump and his live audience on the White House lawn. There was an overlap in which the rose garden audience was excluded from viewing the second act created for the benefit of the other audience the White House officials wanted to impress, the protesters. The latter were thrust into a dangerous form of immersive theatre. The President then left his podium in the rose garden for Act III of the event, in which he walked determinedly, flanked by Senior advisors and Cabinet members marching from the White House through the emptied park to the far side of the Square. The cortège followed the leader to a well-known two hundred year old Church where, in Act IV, where he donned the mantle of religion by holding a Bible over his head, or at times beside his head—and upside down for a minute or two—so this might be broadcast to the vital base of his committed base of supporters, which is usually 30% or more of the voting population. There was no Act V, just a critical reaction, including that of former Republican cabinet members and military leaders, that was almost universally devastating for the producers of the spectacle.
In observing Trump and Barr’s modus operandi one is reminded of Shakespeare’s Richard III and his powerful public relations man and legal counsel, the Duke of Buckingham. It might be instructive to go back to those figures and their relationship—on stage and in history—to reflect on their political campaign to bring Richard to absolute power. In Shakespeare’s version of Holinshed’s history, the two ran a successful conspiracy to promote tyranny, in part by manipulating the masses. Even those who have defended Richard’s role in history might admit that if he was actually liked, it was as a sort of populist.
The burning church
St. John’s Episcopal Church, a favored place of worship for Presidents over two hundred years, at the far end of Lafayette Square from White House, had a fire in the basement which was quickly put out on the May 31. It was on the first day of the protests, most likely started by a single person, at the moment when national frustration had hit the boiling point. I received a text the next morning from a Republican friend. She wrote she had been in tears because “the church all the presidents attended … is burning” (The attachments forwarded to me showed images of flames emerging from the church on the powerful right wing Fox News cable network) I was saddened that my friend had not—much like other members of the right of the republican Party—expressed concern about the videotaped nine-minute torment and murder of a black citizen on a Minneapolis street, which everyone in the country had been able to watch from start to finish. (To be fair, many Republicans who are merely «conservative» and not Trump nationalists, expressed shock upon seeing watching the murder on television. For my part, I found it unsettling that my friend, as with many like-minded adherents of the right in the US today, would grieve that an iconic structure, emblematic of the institution of the presidency along with religion, was «burning» without having expressed any emotion about this pivotal slaying of yet another unarmed black man, one of very many.
The next day I was able to write back that the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington reported that fire had been contained in one room of the basement, which they cleaned up the next morning, and that the Bishop herself was not concerned with property loss but the loss of innocent black lives. My friend wrote back, «Have you been downtown? It looks like Beirut.» As that would have taken thousands of firebombs, depending on which Lebanese war she was referring to, it was clearly, a fantastic piece of hyperbole. (This was months before the recent explosion that once again devastated that ill-fated city.) I mention it because this reveals the lens through which many Americans, especially on the right, view the events based on a sense of priorities that prevents them from seeing a struggle for justice in process.
It does not excuse instances of destruction of property to assert there has been no urban uprising in the country’s history, perhaps in any country’s history, which hasn’t had some degree of damage and destruction of property, before organizers could get a handle on things. We should perhaps distinguish between “uprisings” and protests and marches that were coordinated by an organized leadership—like that of Martin Luther King and others in the Civil Rights movement. But speaking of past urban uprisings King had said they were a natural outcome of the pent-up frustrations and fears of people who have been oppressed.
Many of the new «nationalists» who have diverged from conservatism are attracted to narrow information sources, which springs from their rejection of all «mainstream media.» They therefore turn to the Murdoch family’s powerful news network, but also a myriad of social-media sources, websites, and Twitter threads from conspiracy theorists and their organizations. Aside from FOX, these are sources that do not feel responsible for fact-checking at all. They draw from floridly paranoid but popular conspiracy networks like «QAnon» and «Info-wars» among hundreds of others. It should be mentioned that, to a lesser degree, the left suffers from the social media distortions as well. Trump himself, however, with his almost daily furious slurs against the «mainstream» media via Twitter, and at his press conferences, has increasingly helped convinced his followers to shun and scorn all traditional and reputable media sources. Trump has on various occasions dubbed the older venerated media and press as «enemies of the people.»
Producing and promoting a «command performance»
Let us back up several steps to Trump’s speech in the White House rose garden. Echoing Attorney General Barr’s pronouncements singling out one alleged «organization» as the driving force behind what they portrayed as a violent uprising, they targeted «Antifa.» The word, as is widely known, is short for «anti-fascism.» The myth, very current in right wing media, is that this «organization» has the singular goal of sowing «anarchist» terror and seeks only to promote violence. Therefore, the President concluded in the lead up to the Lafayette Square event, that he would declare Antifa a terrorist organization, and bring in the various branches of the armed forces to suppress them, even though the military exists to combat potential foreign adversaries on the battlefield, not American citizens. That is clearly an unconstitutional promise. Since the events, the media have been able to find no single account of bombings or shootings by the so-called Antifa in recent years. (Note: This was true from until August 29 when—during a confrontation with protesters launched in a now-familiar fashion by hundreds of Trump supporters in Portland Oregon—a man who had claimed previously to be an Antifa supporter—shot an ultra-right activist whom he claimed was attacking with a knife. The «Antifa supporter» was tracked and shot down by half a dozen police officers without warning on September 3.)
In any case Antifa is not one coherent organization but a very loose grouping of people from activist Democrats to anarchists.2 Meanwhile, during the last four years organizations that monitor extremist groups found dozens of instances of killings by right wing terrorist groups, who carry military style assault weapons into public events, are widely documented. Those latter groups, such as «Proud Boys», «Atomwaffen», «Boogaloo Bois», and numerous unofficial armed militias to this day have received no mention from the President, or from Attorney General Barr, the top law enforcement official. Meanwhile, those heavily armed groups are sending members to attend protests in small town America with assault weapons slung over their shoulders, to «protect» communities from mythical busloads of «Antifa terrorists» based on warnings of such conspiracies on social media. Some of them have only been able to stand by to monitor peaceful locals in small-town BLM protests—while anticipating the arrival of busloads of those alleged far-left terrorists.
Both Attorney General Barr and the President had been threatening to employ the Insurrection Act of 1807, a law that was put in place by Thomas Jefferson when the renegade politician Aaron Burr made moves to conquer more western territory to create a new nation over which he himself would rule. To be able to put down Burr’s militias, Jefferson asked for measures allowing him to be prepared to combat Burr’s forces in the field.
In his rose garden speech, when Trump advocated the use of the armed forces against civilians, he referred in a curious manner to «one beautiful law» that would serve his cause. That, as is the case with much of the President’s rhetoric, left those who noticed his terminology perplexed. Did it mean we all live under a shared notion of the law or did it refer to the Insurrection Act? Then, further shattering the coherence of his speech, he added he would use the law to «protect your Second Amendment rights.»3 From the conservative perspective that amendment refers only to the right to bear arms. Trump’s statement here was completely outside the parameters of the speech. What could he mean? Did he aim to suppress violence? Or did he want the military to support the widespread acquisition of assault weapons by US citizens? As always, Trump’s lack of clarity works on his behalf when it blows dust in the eyes of his listeners on all sides. When he lacks logic and drops rationality, he seems to believe his enemies will be thrown off balance while his supporters will take a cue from his innuendo.
The rose garden speech was both a prologue and a smokescreen for what was going on in Lafayette Square. Again, the end of what I have called «Act I» (the rose garden speech) overlapped with the initial scenes of Act II (the siege of the park). So, for his live and television audience in the rose garden, Act II was all backstage noise. While media cameras were facing the wrong way, Lafayette Square, America’s, free speech park, was being brutally cleared—but not by the Washington DC police.
For the most part the Military Police, the Federal Park Police (on horseback) and National Guard cleared the Square. There were other forces who could not be identified as they bore no badges or insignia, and when asked they refused to tell Washingtonians who they were. Investigative reporting revealed these phalanxes were paramilitary riot suppression forces from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Within twenty-four hours Trump’s former Defense Secretary, General Mattis, who resigned in 2018, made a public statement in which he excoriated his former boss. As it was reported in The Atlantic:
«I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,» Mattis writes. «The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding…» He goes on, «We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.»4
Trump and Barr and echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III
When Trump marched through the park, it was captured on camera, with the President erect, with his chest greatly inflated as is his wont in his outdoor appearances before the cameras, followed by his advisor Kellyanne Conway and his press spokesperson Kayleigh McEneny, as well as Secretary of Defense Esper. Esper later expressed his regret for taking that walk as part of the «staged» photo op, as did General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the central commander of the entire US military—who had been wearing camouflage fatigues, something which has high symbolic value. Such combat dress is used by members of the high command only when they are going into the theatre of war. Secretary Esper also expressed regret for his earlier public reference to the Lafayette Square protest as constituting the «battle space.» He explained it was a slip of the tongue due to the fact that those around him were using military jargon.
When Trump made his «walk,» videotaped by a White House team, Lafayette Park was clear and free of all protesters, though dissipating clouds of chemical gas, pepper balls and pepper spray hung in the air. The members of his cortège had all been directed to stand in line in a show of loyalty, with the boarded-up windows of St Johns Church as a backdrop for the final act. (The boards were a protective measure—not to cover over a burned interior.) That scene did not quite come off, for as they began to understand what was being staged, Defense Secretary Esper and General Milley decided to inconspicuously edge away from the tableau. This potentially «comic moment,» if any of this were truly funny, was not captured on camera. The rest was. The captured visuals were what Genet called in his classic work The Balcony, «A true image, born of a false spectacle.» 5
Trump was given a large leather-bound Bible to hold up, carried into the scene by his daughter Ivanka in a designer purse, for once not from her own line of accessories. He held the Holy Book beside and above his head, as if the higher he held it the more lofty his moral position. For a moment it was upside down. There were no clergy with him, something Richard III did not neglect to include in a similar staged scene. In fact, the DC Church was used as a backdrop without a word to the bishop or the rector overseeing the church. The bishop later pointed out that the President had not come to pray nor to read passages from the Bible. He did, briefly, invoke God loudly. Then he declared the photo op over, and the characters in his tableau vivant marched offstage.
While playing scenes to his own political base, Shakespeare’s master of medieval populism, Richard III claims to have been on a religious retreat at Baynard Castle, and has his spokesperson and legal counselor Buckingham summons the Mayor and the populace he and Lord Catesby had previously been firing up at the Guild Hall: people who craved one good man to run a country fallen into chaos. Actually, they had to use paid clacquers drumming up cries of support to convince the reticent crowd at the Guild Hall that Richard had an enthusiastic base. Buckingham advises Richard quite specifically how to set the scene to use the religious side of populism: «The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear; / Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit: / And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, / And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord.»6
When the Londoners arrive they find the rising tyrant—for now, Lord Protector of the realm—deeply engrossed in said «prayer book,» and he plays to the crowd in the square, as choreographed with his counselor Buckingham. Richard enters «on a gallery above,» which would provide the proper positioning and backdrop for staging the scene. A «lofty» position indeed. Baynard is a castle, not a church, but the two priests in vestments provide the religious visuals.
MAYOR: See where his grace stands ‘tween two clergymen.
BUCKINGHAM: Two props of virtue for a Christian
To stay him from the fall of vanity;
And, see, a book of prayer in his hand, —
Famous Plantagenet, most gracious prince,
Lend favourable ear to our requests;
And pardon us the interruption
Of thy devotion and right Christian zeal.
Richard plays hard-to-get and refuses the throne in spite of Buckingham’s appeals on behalf of «the people.» Buckingham’s role in the scene is to act as if he must beg him, on behalf of the crowd at this rally, to seize the throne on behalf of the people. Richard performs with panache in making his absolute «refusal» to be acclaimed King. And now the people chant and cry out. It turns into an outcry against a leader’s competitor for power familiar among populists. Like the constant gleeful «lock her up!» chants against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, we might call this a «Lock him up!» moment for young heir, Edward. (He will indeed soon be locked up, in the Tower, with his brother The Duke of York, and murdered there as well.) Richard, accedes to the people’s will that he should proceed to seize power. But Richard reminds them all that they must do their part so that nothing he does that is illegal will touch him. He must be teflon, as we say in our own time, and demands a pledge of the authorities present.
But if black scandal or foul-faced reproach
Attend the sequel of your imposition,
Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof …7
The Duke of Buckingham will handle policy and cleanse all Richard’s actions from the taint of illegality. At the same time Richard demands the Mayor and the people from the Guild Hall pledge loyalty to defend him against those who will see his methods as scandalous or corrupt in his campaign to solidify his power. This dynamic lives on in modern populism.
Richard can now ride upon a fanatic base of supporters, even if they are a minority. From here on he increases his purges of those who do not show undying loyalty, often giving frequent commands like «Off with his head» (which surely inspired Lewis Carroll’s creation, the Queen of Hearts). This process actually starts earlier in the play with the execution of the widowed Queen Elizabeth’s relatives, and in the fourth scene of Act III when he takes down one of his chief advisers, Lord Hastings, who hesitates to support the illegal act needed for Richard’s usurpation of power. He begins, in the case of Hastings to accuse dark forces—a sort of «deep state,» if you will, secret a secret group of conspirators—arrayed against him. He does this with a sudden outburst which disorients the assembled nobles, demanding they support an extraordinary irrational accusation that his physical deformities were brought on by his enemies, without leaving them time to breathe:
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damnèd witchcraft and that have prevailed
Upon my body with their hellish charms? … 8
Hastings, now condemned, sees that his misplaced loyalty is part of a political disease. When Richard sends him to execution, he exclaims, «Woe, woe for England! and not a whit for me; for I, too fond might have prevented this.»9 The folly of his self-delusion has been deadly. By disagreeing with Richard, he pulled himself out of his protection racket: (i.e., Always support me, and don’t expose what I do, and I’ll take care of your enemies.) Many who don’t support the tyrant’s power will have to go—some resigning their responsibilities and making themselves scarce, others who will, in a literal way, get the ax.
A long line of former loyalists are purged or must flee the cauldron of political chaos. When Richard finally seizes the throne, Buckingham, in Shakespeare’s telling, is reticent to follow the most depraved orders, to eliminate the young original heir to the throne and his brother in the Tower of London. But he feels it is finally time to see how Richard handles the «art of the deal,» and asks for the position and extra power long promised him.10
Richard taunts him, comparing him to a mechanical clock that keeps chiming and interrupting his thoughts, concluding flippantly, «I am not in the giving vein today.»10 Buckingham makes one last effort to see if the narcissistic all-powerful ruler will keep the deal they made. Richard makes it clear that Buckingham is becoming a bother, turns his back on him and walks out. And then Buckingham:
And is it thus? Repays he my deep service
With such contempt? Made I him king for this?
O, let me think on Hastings and be gone
To Brecknock, while my fearful head is on!11
Bit by bit things move to open revolt. In the end, when Richard cries out famously that he will sell his kingdom for a horse, the irony is grand. He will be happy if he only has one horse to serve him. None of his multitude of former supporters will be coming to his aid.
Even the loyal must fear for their status
This puts one in mind of the way President Trump purged increasing numbers of his previous loyal advisers. Beginning with his Secretaries of State; first Rex Tillerson (who got himself fired by calling the President «moron» after a meeting among other things) and then the slavishly loyal Jeff Sessions, whom the President saw as treacherous because former opponent of civil rights in the Senate stuck with legal standards when he recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian attempts to help get Trump elected in 2016 (Sessions had run Trump’s campaign which was being investigated). For General Mattis, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, the breaking point came when Trump abruptly broke commitments made to various allies in the Middle East, notably the Kurds in Syria; FBI Director Comey was terminated abruptly in 2017 when he refused to stop investigations into the Russia connection; following him acting Director of the FBI McCabe was forced out for similar reasons; the administration’s most senior advisers on European and Russian Affairs, Fiona Hill, Aleksander Vindman and Tim Morrison, all of whom were sure to be out of their jobs when they testified at impeachment hearings against the president; and even former Homeland Security Secretary Kierstjen Nielsen who, after a furious and abusive verbal assaults from her boss openly in a cabinet meeting, began to institute the most infamous policies involving the detention and the separation of thousands Central American children from their families at the southern border. After giving her all to her boss in an astonishing moral compromise, with no thanks, she resigned. John Bolton, National Security advisor from 2018 to 2019, is the most famous example, having written a best-selling memoir of his time working for a President he says was unfit for office. The list of fleeing and purged appointees, mostly from the President’s own party, would take many more pages to recount.
Richard III was not truly on his way to the throne until his rally with the prayer book.
So, what did our recent scene of this sort of religious populism, the walk to the Church in Lafayette Square, mean? What did the grand gestures signify? First and foremost, the visual statement that the President clearly intended to make in his own staged tableau (like that of Richard’s) was that he rightly had all the might of law enforcement and the armed forces under his control: even where it was not constitutionally possible. He led the walk to the church after obliterating the presence of peaceful dissent. Another thing it signified was that he could proceed where and when he wanted. He was a man who held the divinely sanctioned power to lead.
The tableau at St. Johns Church in Washington also conjures up a scene in the modern classic play, previously mentioned. Jean Genet would have appreciated the way it echoed the famous photo-op scene from his play The Balcony where customers at a theatrical bordello pose as rulers photographed for the press with all the costumes and iconography of political and religious power, in the face of a mass uprising. Genet included a general in uniform, a bishop and a magistrate. The scene staged by Barr and Trump indicated a sacred space had been violated by the protesters, and the Leader was there to restore the sacred peace. Unlike Shakespeare’s Richard, or Genet’s phony ruling class in The Balcony, he did not find members of the clergy to stand with him. Within hours the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Mariann Butte, who has oversight over St. Johns Church, stated that she was appalled by this staged event. She wrote in the New York Times:
Yes, I was outraged by President Trump’s use of the Bible and the backdrop of St. John’s Church for his political purposes. I was horrified to learn that while he was threatening to use military force across America, peaceful protesters were being forcibly removed from Lafayette Park so that he might pose before the church for a photograph. I wasn’t alone. My phone lit up with messages from people across the country…12
Some of the military leaders who have hinted at concerns that the entire show from the rose garden speech to the tableau vivant at the church, and the use of helicopters, military police and the brutal National Guard tactics, was a test run for a possible deployment of military or Federal forces to control a any sort of volatile situation after the November elections. If so, for the moment it has collapsed due to the sheer hubris driving the spectacle. One must stress: for now.
American opinion reaches a tipping point on a long history of inequity
Several polls after these events showed over 60% of the American public disapproved entirely of Trump’s actions during the events, and 77% of Americans expressed either support or sympathize with the Black Lives Matter protests.13 Additionally, certain demographics who helped win Trump the election in 2016 seem to have been repelled by the methods used against mostly peaceful protesters. This includes the suburban white female vote that went for him in 2016. Two thirds of white women soon indicated in polls they would not support Trump in an election since his actions during the Black Lives Matter protests.
The battering of journalists wearing clear «Press» markings on their clothing, the use of rubber bullets, (one female US journalist lost an eye when she was shot in the head) were captured by cameras and video. Various protesters were seen in photos of multiple black bullet bruises on their torsos. Elsewhere, journalists, were attacked with impunity in other American cities even when clearly wearing clearly marked «Press» shirts. Not a few commentators thought this outcome would become inevitable back in 2017 when Trump continuously labeled mainstream media and reporters in Stalinist fashion «the enemy of the people.» With the presidential campaign approaching, one can anticipate it could get worse. Elsewhere in the country, in Minneapolis, Omar Jimenez, a black CNN journalist was handcuffed and arrested while doing a live televised report.14 His white associate was not arrested. A German Deutsche Welle crew was shot at by police while reporting in Minneapolis after identifying themselves as Press, and later were tracked down on foot, with officers raising their rifles at them.15
On the other side of the equation, there have been various of instances when police «took the knee» with protesters. This symbolic gesture of homage to the dozens of dead innocents in the black community, had been taken up by sports teams before they were sanctioned by their various leagues for doing so. The penalties and the ban on the gesture of taking the knee have now been rescinded by the sports leagues. When the Sherriff of a district in Flint Michigan led his team in taking off their armor, and taking the knee with protesters, he diffused a tense situation and was greeted with joy and relief from the protesters. The Sherriff suggested that they turn the event into a parade, and the protesters and police marched off together.16 There have been similar instances around the country.
Trump had given two public comments about the need to have justice for the extra-judicial execution of George Floyd. Tellingly, he didn’t mention any names of the many other black citizens killed in the recent years, caught on video. To discuss this social crisis properly at this juncture, there is a moral obligation to reflect on a representative list as these deaths are a unique loss to American life. George Floyd’s death was the final straw that took African Americans and other Americans to the breaking point. But his death increasingly represents all the victims. Just some of these include:
Eric Garner, suffocated by police on the street in in the New York borough of Staten Island, while crying out, «I can’t breathe,» in 2014 after trying to sell packages of cigarettes on the sidewalk; Breonna Taylor, a hospital emergency medical technician, shot multiple times in her bed at home in March in Louisville; Ahmaud Arbery, surrounded by three pick-up trucks also in late February this year while he was out running in the Atlanta area, shot three times in a vigilante action by a former police officer and his son; Philando Castile, shot through his windshield multiple times in 2016 after being stopped by a police officer along a Minnesota road allegedly to inform him of a faulty brake light on his car while his girlfriend and her little girl were in the vehicle; ten year old Tamir Rice in 2014 in Cleveland, who was shot by an officer from his police car without warning while playing with a toy plastic pellet-gun; Sandra Bland, also in Louisville Kentucky in 2015 stopped allegedly for a rear light check, yanked from her car, handcuffed, threatened, and placed in jail for three days until she was found hanged, an apparent suicide, in her cell.
And now, raising the stakes—even after all the coverage, in the midst of the current protests, white Americans have been astonished at how relentless the persecution of black men—and women—can be. On June 1st during the first week of protests, in Louisville, David McAtee, a well-liked restaurant owner in his community was shot in the chest and killed by National Guardsmen, while police officers who had shot pepper balls into a group of people the restaurant—and six pepper balls at McAtee’s daughter at the door— neglected to turn on their body cameras. After two more weeks of national protests, on Sunday June 14 Rayshard Brooks was found sleeping in his car by two Atlanta police officers at a Suburban restaurant. After forty minutes of polite interaction he failed a breathalyzer test, they began to handcuff him, and after a struggle he fled in fear, grabbing an officer’s taser. He was shot in the back twice while running away.
Similar incidents never captured on video are well documented, but clearly others have never come to light. No one knows how many more vigilante killings have happened, like that of the teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed carrying a bag of skittles from a 7-11 convenience store in Florida in 2012. (The vigilante who struggled with him and shot him was found innocent and released.)
As the protests spread in the country, a chilling image from a dark past reemerged in the wind-up to this year’s high profile celebrations of «Juneteenth» (The commemoration of the June 19th announcement by the Union Army after the Civil War to blacks in Texas that that slaves had been liberated). Casting a pall on the celebrations is news that on May 31 and June 10 two black men were found hanging from trees in southern California, only 50 miles apart. The, deaths, were quickly ruled suicides but relentless advocacy by activists and families have caused the cases to be reopened and turned over to the FBI.17 As I write, three similar instances have come to light.
What has happened, and what is to come
While for a week and a half, the «free speech park» in Lafayette Square where the President’s enablers enforced his right to «walk to church» was fenced off to the public and filled at all hours with security forces. At the same time, on adjacent 16th Street the DC Mayor had renamed two blocks «Black Lives Matter Plaza.» The asphalt of the avenue leading to Lafayette Square had been painted with boulevard-sized yellow letters that can be seen in satellite images from space.
On June 9 Mayor Muriel Bowser assigned municipal workers to take down the black steel fencing at Lafayette Square. Volunteers returned to salvage hundreds of signs, messages and art from the fence, moving it to construction corridors sheltered from the weather across the street. Various museums and institutions have also expressed interest in procuring this free-speech memorabilia for the long-term.
The pageants and spectacles staged by the various rulers through history to manifest their power and their power-base are generally remembered for the hollow events they were. They are as nothing compared to the long parade of lives that lost in the face of oppression. Lafayette Square, despite the performance intended to «dominate» that space, is likely to be seen all the more as a magnet for change and justice than it was before. It represents the public square throughout the country that can give rise to a new more complete conception of justice. It must be acknowledged, with dry eyes, that it possible, perhaps probable, that there will continue to be attempts to invade and fence-off this greater public square as things move forward. That, it is almost certain, will not be the end of the matter.
One sign hanging on the fence the day after the siege that, for a time, emptied the Square in Washington, bore the hand-written line: «We’re still here.»
1. Ed O’Keefe. “Trump tells ‘weak’ governors they ‘have to dominate’ As civil unrest divides the nation.” CBS News, (June 1, 2020).
2. «What is Antifa and why is Donald Trump targeting it?» Jason Wilson,The Guardian, (6 June 2020). Mark Bray, a historian and the author of Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, said in a telephone conversation that antifa is a loose movement of ‘decentralized revolutionary self defense opposed to the far right.” See also, Jessica Suerth, «What is Antifa?» CNN.com (Sun. May 31, 2020). «Antifa positions can be hard to define, but many members support oppressed populations and protest the amassing of wealth by corporations and elites. Some employ radical or militant tactics to get their message across.»
3. CNN.com, «Read: President Trump’s Rose Garden Speech on Protests.» (June 1, 2020).
4.Jeffrey Goldberg, «James Mattis Denounces President Trump,» The Atlantic, (June 3, 2020).
5. Jean Genet, The Balcony (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 75.
6. Richard 3.7.46-49
7. Ibid. 3.7.96-103.
8. Ibid. 3.5.60-63.
7. Ibid. 3.7.96-103.
8. Ibid. 3.4.60-63.
12. Mariann Edgar Budde, «Bishop Budde: Trump’s Visit to St John ‘s Church Outraged Me.» (New York Times, June 4, 2020).
13. Giovanni Russonello, «Why most Americans Support the Black Lives Matter protests,» (New ork Times, June 5, 2020).
14. Austa Samichian-Clausen, «A Black CNN Reporter Was Arrested Live,» (The Hill, Washington DC, 29 May 2020).
15. “Minneapolis Police Shoot at, Threaten to Arrest DW Reporter» (DW News, 31 May 2020. Video).
16. «These Cops Love You.» The Guardian, (31 May, 2020).
17. Madeleine Carlisle. “FBI Actively Reviewing Investigations.” Time Magazine. (17 June, 2020).