Washington, DC – Protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “George Floyd” converged on the United States capital on Saturday thronging the streets from the Capitol building to a barricaded White House and Lincoln Memorial, to protest the killing of a Black man in police custody, on the 12th day of nationwide protests.
Military vehicles and officers in fatigues had closed off much of downtown Washington, DC to traffic, as protesters stirred by the death of George Floyd – who died on May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes – flooded the streets chanting and carrying signs including “Get your knee off our necks”.
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The demonstrators appeared to come from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, young and old, wearing mandatory masks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many had children in tow.
Floyd’s killing “caused us to rise up and realise we have to do something, we have to say something”, protester Alexis Daniel told Al Jazeera.
“Our system is unjust, social injustice still exists today. Our Blacks are being killed, our Blacks are still facing inequality.”
The signs held aloft by protesters echoed that.
“Justice, value, treatment, equality should not vary by skin color,” one read, another: “How many weren’t filmed?”, Implying Floyd’s death might have gone unnoticed if not for the videos detailing the last moments of his life .
Some of Floyd’s final words were “Please, I can’t breathe”, and “They’re going to kill me.”
The size of the crowds in the capital on Saturday indicated the momentum of demonstrations calling for meaningful change to end racism and police brutality in the US has not dimmed.
“I am here to fight for my seven-year-old daughter,” Marie Kelly told Al Jazeera.
“The US claims they are this big democracy and everyone has rights, they go to other countries to liberate, prove it here.”
The rally followed a week of largely peaceful protests in Washington that at times grew violent, with shops and offices hit by nighttime vandalism and looting, prompting the city’s mayor to impose curfews. The curfews were lifted on Thursday.
The White House has been fortified with new fencing and extra security precautions. Most businesses in the downtown area have their windows boarded shut.
The protest comes amid a standoff between Washington, DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, and President Donald Trump.
Before the rally, Bowser on Friday, ordered an enormous “Black Lives Matter” mural painted in large block yellow letters on the street leading to the White House, spanning two blocks.
She renamed the section of the street directly in front of the presidential residence “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
Trump has advocated for a militarized response to the civil unrest and summoned a contingent of active-duty troops from other states to the city. As the rally was on going the president tweeted a phrase he has been repeating, “Law and Order”.
“This is a rallying point to get his base going,” said Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, at the demonstration.
The Black Lives Matter Organization has objected to the militarization of the police, driven by military equipment sent to police forces by the US Department of Defense, he said.
“If you stop spending billions of dollars on militarising the police, maybe you’ll get a different attitude, but also you can put all that money into communities,” Rattansi said.
Last week, when Trump threatened protesters who come near the White House with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons”, Mayor Bowser responded forcefully.
“There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid / alone. … I call upon our city and our nation to exercise great restraint even while this president continues to try to divide us,” Bowser wrote on Twitter.
My police department will always protect DC and all who are in it whether I agree with them (such as those exercising their First Amendment Right) or those I don’t (namely, @realdonaldtrump) …
– Muriel Bowser (@MurielBowser) May 30, 2020
On Monday, Trump came under fire after baton-swinging federal police fired smoke canisters, flashbang grenades and rubber bullets at a crowd of peaceful protesters to clear the area near the White House so he could pose for a photo-op in front of a church while holding a Bible.
Bowser called the scene “shameful”.
Trump, for his part, has denounced Bowser as “incompetent”.
“The incompetent Mayor of Washington, D.C., @MayorBowser, who’s budget is totally out of control and is constantly coming back to us for ‘handouts,’ is now fighting with the National Guard,” Trump wrote.
Breonna Taylor, on your birthday, let us stand with determination.
Determination to make America the land it ought to be. pic.twitter.com/XOfu6CGEGY
– Mayor Muriel Bowser (@MayorBowser) June 5, 2020
On the newly named plaza, protesters took selfies in front of the large metal fence that keeps them far from the White House.
A man standing behind a table handed out water, snacks and paper towels to demonstrators. The few police and security officers in sight wore patrol uniforms rather than body armor and helmets, and had a more relaxed posture than in days prior.
The mood across the capital seemed upbeat. The White House said the president had no public events scheduled for Saturday. It was unclear if, behind the new fence, he could hear the crowds filling the city and at one point chanting: “This is what democracy looks like.”