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Democracy in Crisis: Darkness at noon in D.C.

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Scenes from the Chinatown protest - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • Scenes from the Chinatown protest
Dozens of police officers block off the corner at 12th and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. gripping their batons and big canisters of pepper spray, faces obscured behind shields, as nearly 100 activists who had already been arrested are cordoned off behind them, waiting to be processed.

Protesters line the other side of the street. More and more arrive, chanting, yelling. “Let them go!”

A trial of pink smoke cuts through the air. There is the sound of a sting ball grenade and several officers open up with long orange streams of chemical warfare pepper spray. Many people reported that rubber bullets were also fired.

Because, today … we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

Union Station protest - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • Union Station protest


Earlier, a woman who said she lived in the neighborhood, was standing at the battle lines screaming at both sides, her body wrapped in an American flag, her face burned by pepper spray, now caked with milk of magnesia.

“Why are you doing this?” she wailed.

“For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth.”

Officers run at people holding their billy clubs in both hands at throat level. (Dalton Bennett, a Washington Post reporter was thrown to the ground).

Now they tackle a woman on the street, and use tall Clydesdale horses to menace anyone getting too close to the tackled protester.

Union Station protest - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • Union Station protest

“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Before the melee began, the streets of D.C. were weirdly empty, a ghost town, nothing like what we had seen in previous years, especially Obama’s record-setting first inauguration.

“We’re not seeing big crowds,” said Lacy MacAuley, an organizer for DisruptJ20 (a collection of groups that came together for the inauguration protests) and D.C resident. “We haven’t seen any area where we the protesters don’t outnumber Trump supporters.”

The ever-growing melee in Northwest D.C. around 12th and 13th streets began small enough. I was wandering around at the makeshift headquarters for DisruptJ20. I saw a small group of five young people wearing all black start to walk away with purpose. I followed them. They pulled on their masks, but suddenly appeared lost. “Where are they?” they asked.

"Thanks, Putin," at Union Station protest - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • "Thanks, Putin," at Union Station protest
I started to scan the street and saw it, the mass of black shirts they were looking for. We all ran towards them. By the time I reached them, they too were running, chased by police on cycles — motor and bike — swerving almost as if to mow them down. A protester threw a trash can into the street. It rolled into a motorbike, forcing it to stop. A sign from in front of a store went flying through the air.

Other officers came in from the other side. The group — which had allegedly been using Black Bloc tactics of property destruction and the like and, it was announced later, will now likely face felony charges — was cornered. That’s when they went crazy with the pepper spray and the batons—for the first time of the day (earlier, activists had chained themselves together to block a checkpoint into the inauguration and the police had not arrested anyone).

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

Suddenly, a man appears walking through the crowd, followed by followers and the mood changes, briefly.

“I am the president of America,” the man says. He is wearing a boot on his head and he has a long gray beard and Rasputin eyes. “I am also an amateur hostage negotiator.”

His name is Vermin Supreme and he actually did run for president, as he has since 2004 (he promised a free pony for every American).

Union Station protest - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • Union Station protest


A little later, the air again filled with pepper spray and what seemed like a gas, he gets right in front of the police line and squawks out the National Anthem, Jimi Hendrix style, through a bullhorn.

Another officer sprays gas into the crowd and “sting ball” grenades sound around the corner, where the heat of the action has moved. Lines of riot police face the protesters, some of whom threw bricks and concrete.

“Officers did not deploy tear gas and did deploy pepper spray and other armaments,” D.C.’s Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham told Democracy in Conflict. “A full accounting of the control devices deployed will be made available when we have it.”

“The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”

The same multinational corporations Trump railed against in the campaign, had their windows smashed — Starbucks, Bank of America.

“So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.”

The day ends with a burning limousine in the streets, a new symbol of our unity.

“Your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”

Chinatown protest, near an inaugural event checkpoint - PHOTO BY KATHERINE COPLEN
  • photo by Katherine Coplen
  • Chinatown protest, near an inaugural event checkpoint


The guerrilla chaos that filled the air like the pepper spray on Friday is washed away the next days as half a million people pour into the the city for the Women’s March, filled with righteous anger, solidarity, and community.

At one point, after the march has officially ended, a barricade blocking off Pennsylvania Avenue, leading towards the White House is knocked down. Marchers make their way to the fence on the other end, where Secret Service agents stand. An African-American woman walks up right beside them. “Whose house? Our house!” she chants, her fist raised in the air.

Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He is the author of the book Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff,"about a white sheriff who used hoodoo to govern a largely black county for 37 years. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on ethics and tyranny and became a reporter in an attempt to live like Socrates. He wrote the libretto for Rhymes with Opera's climate change opera film Adam's Run.

Additional reporting by Brandon Soderber

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