It’s 7 p.m. on Friday, January 20, as I write this, and a confrontation between riot police and protesters is continuing along K Street in Washington, D.C. Pepper-spray, tear gas and flash bang grenades have been deployed off and on by police officers against demonstrators. The enduring image, so far, has been a limousine that was set on fire around 4 p.m. this afternoon.
Someone set the limo on fire. pic.twitter.com/y4AFr5HNjk— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 20, 2017
But this standoff, which began around 1 p.m. and is being broadcast on every television network in the country, has only a quarter of the intensity of the initial riot that precipitated it at 10:30 this morning.
As one of the few reporters who was on hand for that earlier action, I’m still surprised by how quickly things escalated. I had no indication when I showed up at Logan Circle to meet with Denver attorney Jason Flores-Williams that I was about to witness a full-scale anarchist and anti-capitalist assault on our nation’s capital.
“AK-47, SEND THE COPS TO PIGGY HEAVEN, AK-47, SEND THE COPS TO PIGGY HEAVEN!” chanted a handful of the 200 or so demonstrators, all of them clad in black with their faces covered.
“Here’s what we think of Blue Lives Matter!” shouted another man, who set fire to a blue- and black-striped American flag.
Having only been provided with a location for the gathering, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into.
“Who are you with?” I'd asked a woman wearing a black bandanna over her mouth when I arrived. She glared at me and turned her back.
It was unclear how many of the participants were associated with DisruptJ20, the large, disruptive movement that’s been stirring trouble in D.C. throughout Inauguration weekend. But it’s definitely safe to say that they were all anti-Trump. And some of the 200 people there did identify as anarchists: Their flags and banners featured the anarchist cross. The group would engage in what is known as "black bloc" tactics, in which protesters come prepared with facial and eye protection to face off against law enforcement while inflicting maximum chaos.
“Oh! It looks like we’re setting off!” quipped another member of the media. In retrospect, his cheery demeanor was out of sync with the situation; he also had no idea what we were about to witness.
The entire swarm of 200 demonstrators set off down 13th Street toward the National Mall at a quick pace, almost a jog. Unlike at other demonstrations I’d covered, there wasn’t much chanting. But the energy was palpable, and it built rapidly.
I glanced across the street and saw that someone had thrown a newspaper distribution box into the street.
Two other people on my side of the street did the same.
Then someone next to me produced a hammer from a backpack and smashed the glass partition at a bus stop.
Holy shit, I thought. These aren’t poser anarchists. This is the real fucking deal.
The first building I saw attacked was a bank. In a raining shower of glass, one of its front windows disappeared.
At this point, people were swarming, running and pushing past me to spray-paint anarchist crosses on buildings and buses; I realized I'd better get out of their way. It would probably only be a matter of minutes before the cops showed up, and I wanted to get a good vantage point to see what would go down.
I sprinted past the march and approached a Humvee with five unarmed national guardsmen in front of it.
As I crossed diagonally in front of them, one of the soldiers, looking genuinely frightened, yelled, “Incoming!”
A heavy, solid object whizzed just past my head and clanged into the metal armor of the Humvee.
My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour. I hadn’t been involved in anything this heavy since I spent two years doing foreign reporting.
Things only intensified when the individuals in the mob began attacking the Starbucks on the corner of I and 13th streets. The coffee shop was packed with patrons and, to their abject horror, the demonstrators began smashing windows and throwing objects through them, including pool balls. I heard screaming. But there was no time to linger.
Many of the rioters were now running, en masse, toward the National Mall.
By now, cops were flooding in from every direction, but not in great enough numbers or concentration to stop the chaos.
“TURN AROUND! TURN THE FUCK AROUND NOW, OR YOU’RE GOING TO GET HURT!” yelled another journalist to a taxicab driver who stared, with white knuckles on his steering wheel, at the oncoming black-bloc assault.
I continued to sprint ahead of the riot as it approached to within four blocks of the inauguration parade route. A McDonald's on a corner of New York Avenue was the next target. Its windows were being smashed in as I rounded the next corner and saw them: a phalanx of police officers and soldiers in heavy tactical gear.
BOOM! BOOM BOOM BOOM!
Deep, reverberating explosions echoed through the corridors of downtown.
I’m still not sure if these were the same types of crowd-dispersal grenades later deployed by the police at K Street, or if – as I heard by rumor – they were low-powered explosives used by the demonstrators to blow out the insides of a number of cars.
(That burning limousine on K Street was not the first stretched car to be destroyed on Friday; the demonstrators also blew out all the windows of a limo at the 10:30 a.m. riot).
For a few moments, as both demonstrators and law enforcement officers ran full speed toward each other, I thought that they were going to collide and engage in a hand-to-hand brawl.
But then pepper spray shot out in long, continuous streams.
The demonstrators immediately spun around and ran the other direction.
As did I.
And as I ducked south toward the parade route, I noticed a familiar figure crouched in an alcove.
Flores-Williams had been sprayed directly by police in the face and was being treated by two women who helped flush the burning chemicals out of his eyes.
Suggesting how intentional the black-bloc demonstration was, the women helping Flores-Williams were actually "medics" who wore red crosses on their black clothing and came prepared with medical supplies to assist demonstrators who were injured by the police.
“I’ve been sprayed by pepper spray and tear gas before,” Flores-Williams later told me, “and this was something else they were using. It was disorienting.”
A block later, I encountered an older man who was bleeding from a cut on his head. Obviously concussed, he was not able to tell me whether he had been attacked, had been pushed over, or fell.
The time between the black bloc leaving Logan Circle and its dispersal near the inauguration parade route was only twenty minutes. But it was unexpected – to say the least – and to have inflicted such an intense campaign of chaos gave rise to the K Street confrontations that happened later in the day, what most of the media has been covering without reference to the earlier action.
Here's what had happened in the interim: After the black bloc was dispersed, the police cordoned off five square blocks that had seen the most destruction during the riot. At the time, I assumed this was because law enforcement was conducting an investigation and was treating the area as a crime scene. (I asked an officer, but he wouldn’t confirm or deny this.)
Now, it appears that police had corralled many of the fleeing demonstrators into an area where they were all swept up and arrested. This included six journalists, one who was held in jail for 36 hours. Because I had ceased following the fleeing rioters when I encountered Flores-Williams, he and I both avoided the police trap.
But in shutting down the area, the city lined the entire perimeter with riot police.
This naturally got the attention of many demonstrators, and by 1 p.m., huge crowds had formed opposite those police lines. Then some of the anarchists returned, and the K Street stand-off began.
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Over 230 of those arrested on Friday, including the six journalists, would later be charged with felonies under the riot act, a charge that's difficult to prove but can result in a maximum ten year prison sentence.
After the action was over, I was left grappling with what it meant. There's no question that the destructive tactics of the black bloc are highly contentious and will be reviled by many.
But I was also struck by the nerve it took for them to carry out such a blatant, revolutionary act in the nation's capital. These young rioters meant business.
For this to happen on inauguration day — the very start of the Trump era — it became clear to me that this type of opposition is only an appetizer. Wait until the real shit starts.