By mid afternoon on Thursday, January 19, the mood in Washington, D.C., had shifted....and not in a good way. People were on edge.
The radical left was getting paranoid.
The alt-right was acting emboldened.
And the vast majority of reasonable and empathetic people in between are totally at the mercy of how today's drama plays out.
Three days ago, it was difficult to tell Trump supporters from opponents — but not anymore. Over the past 48 hours, people have flooded into this city, and their outside energy is going to drive the main action on Inauguration Day.
Let’s start with the anti-Trump crowd.
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to visit the final training session hosted by DisruptJ20, the umbrella movement for anti-Trump protesters in D.C. (and around the country) that promises active resistance and civil disobedience during the transition of power. DisruptJ20’s home base has been a church, St. Stephens, where organizers were holding a strategy session for those who had recently arrived in D.C.
When I reached the front door, I saw the sign: “CLOSED TO MEDIA.”
I pulled out my camera and took a picture of the sign, and a bearded man behind me freaked out. “Who are you?!” he demanded.
“I’m actually a member of the media, so if I can’t come in….” I gestured to the sign “I'm at least going to grab a picture since I traveled all the way out here.”
“Oh,” the man responded, looking slightly relieved. “Yeah, you can’t go in, but I’ll find you someone to talk to.”
He went in and emerged shortly after with a short, blonde woman. “Look, you have to understand that we’re trying to protect our people after the whole O’Keefe thing,” the woman said.
She was referring to conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, who infamously targeted the nonprofit organization ACORN in 2009 by pretending to be a pimp asking for ACORN’s advice on how to run a sex-trade business. He was later sued and had to pay a $100,000 settlement.
Earlier this week, O’Keefe was back to his undercover shenanigans, releasing videos under his brand Project Veritas that allegedly captured DisruptJ20 participants planning to use stink bombs and set off fire sprinklers at a ball.
In response, a counter-sting was conducted by activists at the Undercurrent, with a video purportedly showing O’Keefe’s associate offering large sums of money to anti-Trump protesters to shut down a bridge.
“We’re being really careful,” the woman continued. “Which reminds me, who are you with?”
I told her I was with Westword, at which point she frowned and asked to see my press credentials. “Credentials issued by whom?” I asked. “I don’t have any because I’m not covering any official ceremonies or Trump events.”
I could tell she was getting more nervous by the second. I handed her a business card. “You can look me up. And can I ask your name for my article?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said sharply. “I need you to leave. Now.”
Whoa, I thought. That was weird.
I started to get a sinking feeling as I walked back to the metro station, passing by groups that were obviously headed to the training meeting. Some were the most clichéd types of lefty activists – the kinds that are almost trying too hard with their Army surplus jackets and boots and Che Guevara beards. I’d been hanging around a few of them at Jason Flores-Williams’ law office, and I already knew about some of the daring plans of disruption for Friday. But before Thursday afternoon, there was more of an air of excitement and mischief to their activities. Suddenly that vibe had changed. And I found out why.
On Thursday, Trump supporters took over the National Mall.
I want to make this clear: 90 percent of the Trump supporters I've encountered seem like pleasant people who came into town to celebrate a man and administration that they believe in. These include a bunch of high school students I got stuck with at an intersection while a motorcade passed; they told me they’d traveled from New Orleans with an organization called Close Up and were very excited about Trump and the future of America.
But just as a small proportion of the left — the radical left — was starting to act irrational in their paranoia, so were a fraction of Trump supporters. Only it seemed like arrogance was driving the latter's actions.
I’d only noticed a few offensive T-shirts in public on Wednesday – some perpetuating an obsession with Hillary Clinton by saying things like “Trump that Bitch” and “The Witch is Dead” – but they were everywhere on Thursday, mostly sported by roving bands of white dudes.
“Hillary for prison!” yelled one man passing by a woman on Constitution Avenue who was sporting an Obama T-Shirt.
I also spotted members of Bikers for Trump. There are estimates that 5,000 of these fired-up motorcycle enthusiasts are coming into town with the stated intention of providing security for the inauguration against the likes of DisruptJ20. Bikers for Trump promised Fox News that the group would protect Trump and his supporters with a “wall of meat.”
Both DisruptJ20 and Bikers for Trump have vowed to be present at all entrance points leading into the viewing areas on the National Mall during the inauguration.
On Thursday, the groups were still separated. DisruptJ20 members were mostly in the Columbia Heights area near St. Stephens Church, and the alt-right types had congregated with other Trump supporters on the National Mall.
But that won’t be the case today.
For the first time, I started to feel scared about what might happen. Forget the typical demonstrators-versus-riot-police scenario; I'm concerned about pro- and anti-Trump groups going at each other.
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At best, the places where they come into contact are going to resemble NFL tailgate parties where the most belligerent and disrespectful types of football fans heckle each other before the big game. At worst…well, let’s hope the extra 5,000 National Guard troops and 3,000 police officers who have come into D.C. can keep a lid on anything that flares up.
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, as I watched Donald Trump stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial to thank his supporters at a “welcome celebration,” I could feel the solidarity and adoration among the thousands of fans who hung on to his every word.
But I couldn’t help but look at all the families and kids and decent people around me and wonder if it will be possible for them to avoid whatever ugliness breaks out today.