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'The Most Appealing Target in the World': My Trip to D.C. on Inauguration Day
By Jesse Adcock
Capital News Service
It is 6:30 a.m. and the coat-folk are gathered on the open-air platform of the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. They wear the red hat with white text:
“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”
It could come in the reverse permutation of red text on white canvas. This is far less common.
Donald J. Trump dresses like a business penguin, and many of his supporters emulate his style. They wear long black coats over suits with red or blue ties. It’s required that the coat come down to their knees, or even past it.
The coat-folk. Or the business penguin. Either one.
Patriarchs in business coats lead red-faced children and their lumbering, corn-fed mothers to Metro system maps. They take turns leaning over each other and squinting at the color-coordinated subway lines, tracing with calloused fingers the way into downtown Washington, D.C.
Chris, my roommate, who left with me from Richmond at 4 a.m., stands over a grate that blows out hot air. It is something like 30 degrees out right now, but warming rapidly.
“Be careful there, you don’t want to be too warm,” says a woman dressed all in white. “You ever hear about how hot water freezes faster?”
Her cherry-red lips pout under ash-blonde hair. She carries no baggage with her, only a Dunkin’ Donuts thermos. In terms of kit, this makes her different from everyone else on this platform. I carry a daypack full of the essentials – as do sane humans when entering into a possible riot scenario.
It is Jan. 20. Trump’s inauguration day.
I don’t think anyone looked at their mates on the way here and said: “Eh, we’ll just be right in and right out – hand on the Bible, everyone sings a song and we go home.”
Coolers, camo military surplus backpacks and waist pouches. A couple of families tote cabinet-sized hard case luggage.
“Do you boys know how to get into the city from here?” asks the woman in white. I know what she said, but her voice is so Southern all I heard was “Would you like a glass of sweet tea and to spend an evening on my porch listening to the crickets?”
“L’Enfant Plaza is probably your best bet,” I say. “Depending on where you’re trying to go.”
“As close as I can get.”
The yellow rush-hour train hurtles toward us, brakes screeching. It overshoots the bulk of us waiting – in one solid mass everyone fast-walks down the platform toward the open Metro doors.
The windows make the cars look vanilla-orange on the inside, like everything is coated in a fresh coat of Creamsicle. The inside is illuminated in cold and sanitary buzzing white light, like you find in public schools, emergency rooms and DMV offices.
The cherry-lipped cotton ball sits across the aisle from Chris and me, bragging to the woman seated next to her about the two “locals” she’s going to follow into the city.
Cla-Clack! Cla-Clack! The suburban shopping centers and high-rise apartment buildings give way to the inky blue of the Potomac. Most of the city isn’t lit up yet, but there are thousands of cars pushing across the bridges and their headlights throw starlight across the river’s surface.
“This is the first time I’ve been in the city, you know, since I was in the service,” she says. Chris smiles and nods at her. I pretend my shoes need a good looking-over.
“Of course, it was different back then. When I joined, only 10 percent of the force was allowed to be women at all. It was great. Stopped the men from seeing us a threat to their jobs. I don’t know how all those men and women can work together today without worrying about something like that. Without the men getting jealous.”
There are some babies on this train, and the screeching of the wheels and the rocking of the carriage on the tracks do not agree with their sensibilities. Their wails are the only thing to focus on besides this woman’s life history.
“He doesn’t feel safe,” one father says. “This is how babies learn. You have to make them cry a bit.”
“I went all over the world,” Cherry-lips continues. “And everywhere I went I felt like I was doing something important. That’s why I voted for Trump, I’m hoping he can bring that back for me.”
Emerging from the L’Enfant Plaza was surreal. Red hats waited in line until they faded out of sight. Yet more walked beside each queue, anxious to find its end and begin their marathon wait.
It was getting close to 7:30, and these people were prepared to sit motionless with their friends and family for the next five hours until the next guy to touch Abraham Lincoln’s Bible showed up. Respect.
This was the general admission line to the Inauguration, and it stretched on for close to a mile, snaking through the cordoned-off streets of the nation’s capital.
Everything was under triple layers of protection – concrete barriers, then chain-link fences, and another layer of chain-link fences behind that. Some 3,000 police had been called in from surrounding states, and the FBI, the Secret Service, the National Guard and Homeland Security were out in force.
Many large color-coordinated groups stood in line together – students, out-of towners and foreigners visiting like it was some kind of holiday. Which was baffling. Like slugs in line awaiting the second coming of the salt.
Clumps of red USA hats gathered here and there, standing off to the side of the “Make America Great Again” gimme caps.
I suspect these were Ted Cruz supporters. May he rest in peace.
As we walked farther and farther out into the frontier, I found that people standing this far out had no idea of what a line was and wasn’t – they couldn’t see where anything ended. Nearly a thousand people curled around two blocks stood in line behind a group ordering at a hot dog stand, thinking they might soon see Trump.
“Flags, hats, shirts,” men yelled from behind carts loaded with MAGA hats and loaded with garish T-shirts. “$10 for flags, hats, shirts. $15 for two.”
“I’ll take one,” a man said, dragging his daughter along behind him. He picked up T-shirts, looked at the tag and tossed it back into the face of the vendor. “‘Made in the Dominican Republic’? We’re not making America great again like that.”
The would-be customer strutted away with his nose pointed toward the heavens and his daughter laughing and struggling to keep up behind.
I met John.
John was once a photojournalist and until recently homeless in Massachusetts. He was being cared for by his friends Keenan and Wayne. Keenan rents out an artspace in the same old factory where John had been squatting for the last few years.
They had driven down from New York to help John get his photojournalism career above ground again. As we walked, he told me he had been sick a very long time and was just now starting to get better again.
“The easiest way to say it is, I photograph people, man,” John said. “My biggest regret was this guy in the Bahamas I saw, fishing in the ocean with a piece of string. He had ribbons all tied in his hair, and a cut-off dress shirt on his shoulders. All very cool. I was too nervous to take his picture. I’ve always regretted that. Of course, I was trying to live there at the time. That didn’t work out.”
He said he regretted that, too.
John led us to Dupont Circle, where DCMJ, a group that lobbies for marijuana rights, was handing out an estimated six pounds of weed in the form of 4,200 joints.
The fountain in the center of the park was draped in ribbons declaring, “Resist!” A woman posed for her friend in front of it.
“I want to take a picture here, but should I look mad? Or should I try and be sad or should I smile?” she asked.
DCMJ requested that participants keep their joints, and at exactly four minutes and 20 seconds into Trump’s Inauguration, everyone light up.
This was to celebrate Initiative Measure #71, which made it legal to grow and use, but not sell, marijuana for recreational use.
“I’m trying to turn up all day goddammit, to smoke that weed and drink that Hennessy,” a man said, peddling past on his bike.
The park reeked of weed, and more than a few would-be protesters had their signs between their legs and sat idle on the park benches, enjoying the overcast skies.
It was boring. Chris and I had come to see hundreds of thousands of people express years of frustration and document its course, not relax and smoke mids.
The Green Party guys came by with their flags.
“Is Jill Stein coming?”
“Let’s pray. She’s the only one who can save us now.”
Her website said she’d be at Malcolm X Park. It was 15 blocks away, and at this point, we were desperate for a lead, for anything that had the juice and the humanity.
I interviewed a biker on the out to ask why he and his buddies were motoring through the city with Trump and confederate flags.
“He’s the best thing for America,” the biker said. “Facebook and the internet and stuff – no one cares about anyone anymore. Why’s everyone texting each other? Why can’t they call? I hope Trump brings us back to that. Face to face.”
Each protest group spread out through the city like the fingers of a hand, each blocks away from each other, trying to gather bodies specific to their cause.
No one yet had enough bodies to make a run for the center of downtown or closer to the Mall.
A man staggered down the street with his tie loose around his neck. His alcohol-reeking breath clung to my face like bacon grease. His MAGA hat sat near sideways on his head.
“The EU is trying to replace the dollar with the AmeriEuro,” he said. “They’re trying to join Mexico, America and Canada into the North American Union and take away all of our freedoms. Trump is the only one who can get us out from under the crushing hand of globalism and the banking cartels.”
We made it about halfway before I had to pee, but we needed more information, because plans were changing. Word had been that Union Station was the spot, but police had cracked down hard there before anything got going. Where did protesters go when migrating between protests?
Starbucks was packed, and I made a beeline for the bathroom queue.
“McPherson is where you need to go. Definitely. Basically all the groups will be going through there,” said a woman with a grande frappuccino.
“Where will you be going?”
“I’m taking a Lyft to wherever is the most lit.” Lyft had people out at many of the hot spots handing out free first-ride coupons. Whether they meant to or not, their marketing decision played a major role in connecting the people who wished to protest.
As we walked back to McPherson, we passed the Freemason’s building – huge imposing and enigmatic. The sphinxes were preening and proud on the front steps, almost knowing. Arrogant. They knew.
“See, the protesters are at the wrong spot,” Chris said. “If they knew anything, then they’d be here. These are the guys in control.”
As we passed through an intersection, an SUV slowed to a halt behind us, and out popped Vermin Supreme and his entourage. He wore a patterned suit with a thick blue fringe. He tugged his trademark rubber boot over his head. One of his hangers-on seemed to be dressed in trash bags and the other in fluorescent yellow biker apparel, skin tight.
“I’ve come to be inaugurated as President today,” he shouted through his megaphone. “Suck my dick.”
Michael Moore was in McPherson Park, and the serious media were crowded around him in a halo of dangling microphones and cameras. I couldn’t get close enough to hear what he was saying clearly – journalists and cameramen were three ranks deep at their shallowest point trying to get a piece of him.
On the other side of the park, a Black Bloc anarchist was meeting with another group of protesters, drawing on a map.
Using the Black Bloc is a tactic older than laptop computers, where a particular ideological or protest group dresses in black, concealing their face with black scarves, masks, hoods and glasses and engages in physically disruptive practices.
Typically here in the U.S., it’s one of the big three: anarchist, anti-capitalist or anti-fascist (not that someone can’t be an edgy combination of the three.)
“There’s a bunch of us caught at 12th and L, and there’s no presence there,” he said. He has long sandy blond hair and wears glasses. His cheeks are red with exertion from running here.
“Where is that? Can you point me in the correct direction?” I asked.
“The streets are lettered and numbered,” he said, as if I possessed the directional senses of a migratory bird.
At 12th and L, a group of near 60 Black Bloc anarchists and protesters who had probably been peaceably assembling had been backed into a corner by police with riot shields. Every now and again, the cops grabbed a protester, slapped zip ties on them and tossed them into a waiting paddy wagon.
Police had 11 of the vans parked around the block. Three lines of police separated the trapped protesters from the growing group coming to lobby for their release. Dozens of officers pedaled around on bikes. Four mounted police sat on horses on the sidelines, I guess in case anyone showed up with their six-shooters and tried to rob a metro train.
From what people told me and what video evidence I could find, some of the Black Bloc anarchists had been taking claw hammers to bank windows further up the street, and police had managed to surround them before they could get away.
“We’re anarchist, we’re queer, we’re here,” a group of Black Bloc yelled.
“Your moms are ashamed of all of you!” a man in green howled. “I’d fucking castrate myself if I ever spit a seed like you. Faggots!”
Rocks, water bottles and other debris showered the guy who implied he had seed in his mouth, and a Black Bloc woman grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. The man turned and ran.
The police wouldn’t answer any of my questions about the maximum number of people they could legally detain at once. It was a cold day to stand still and let the wind have its way with me. Vermin Supreme showed up with his band in tow.
“I am a hostage negotiator,” he shouted through his megaphone. “Please send your superior out to negotiate.”
He then led the crowd in a chant of “Let my people go.”
It seemed obvious this was going nowhere. Even with hundreds of protesters pouring in to press up against the lines of police, I didn’t think it was going to be enough.
News sites had video up of the Black Bloc now. In the video, only five or six people were shattering windows, but police still had close to 60 protesters pinned against the wall of the building on L Street with their riot shields.
It was 12:30 p.m., and 10th Street was a throbbing powder keg.
A gateway ran through the middle of the street, where inauguration attendees filed through to get checked before heading onto the National Mall.
On the far side, pro-Trump protesters waved flags and chanted the national anthem and other really patriot things like “Fuck you, queers!”
Protesters packed the side Chris and I were on. They hissed, spit on and shouted at the people making their way through security checks headed to the Mall.
The gateway did not stretch the length of the street.
Chants became insults and pointed fingers, which soon became threats. Every few minutes, protesters and counter-protesters would meet where there was no barrier between them and begin to scrap before police could file in and drag everyone away.
Not everything was so aggressive: A group of women had opened yellow umbrellas that said “Stop the reign” across them. They assembled on one side of the street at least intent on protest without physical contact.
A roar went up through the protesters as other groups hundreds deep began marching by a few blocks away.
Chris and I ran to catch up with it. This was surely the main event.
The All The Saints Theater Company and a brass band made up the center of the march. Huge puppets were hoisted into the air. More than 20 people carried a banner in an outline of a ship. Caricatures of Wall Street bankers would rush the boat, and everyone would fall down until bystanders stepped in to help them up.
This was meant to symbolize that we are all in the same boat.
“This is what democracy looks like,” protesters chanted. Three performers on stilts came by, as well as flag twirlers, whistleblowers and bell ringers.
“This isn’t what democracy looks like,” said a guy in a coat and a MAGA hat taking pictures next to me. “Democracy looked like us beating you in November.”
I’d never heard a stun grenade go off, so when the first twin detonations sounded on a side street, I assumed it was a bomb.
At K and 12th streets, a line of protesters headed by Black Bloc anarchists faced a line of more than 30 riot police armed paint guns, tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades.
The Block Bloc had pulled claw hammers from their backpacks. They started mining the curbs and street for concrete and asphalt shards and raiding trash cans for other things to throw. They hurled the stones and debris at the line of police, who threw stun grenades in retaliation.
The police launched stun grenades across the intersection and chased into the disoriented crowd. The crowd dashed back, bowling over some members of the assembly, near trampling them.
“This is a peaceful protest, you pigs!” a woman shouted even as Black Bloc anarchists pummeled police lines with rock shards and hard garbage. “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”
Dozens of cameras showed up, crews sprinting in through side streets and alleys. The air was thick with chemical smoke, and it burned my throat.
A determined few protesters sat down in front of the police and raised their fists. They were first shot with paintball guns, then pepper-sprayed. If they still stuck around, they got dragged away in zip ties.
“Move! Move! Move! Move!” The police charged forward. They didn’t run like humans in all that armor. They lumbered like black plastic golems, with their eyes hidden by visors and with their metal-reinforced boots striking the ground in a terrible, clattering rhythm.
The protesters beat drums: DUM dumdumdum DUM dumdumdum DUM. This was a fight song everyone knew.
Black Bloc anarchists grabbed rail barriers that police had abandoned and dragged them into the street. They tipped over trash cans and newspaper machines and pulled them in a rough line and set what they could on fire.
Protesters who were right beside stun grenades as they detonated got caked in a white dust and fell to the ground crying, scratching at their eyes.
Volunteer medics were performing emergency care on protesters who had been injured. A few people handed out gas masks and respirators. I asked a man with tear streaks through the white powder covering his face if he knew what had sparked the skirmish.
“Yeah, a couple of those Trump guys acted tough and walked into the protest,” he said.
There were more reporters on the front line of the protest than there were anarchists, and more than a few were knocked down by stun grenades exploding at their feet or knocked over by stampeding protesters.
I recognized some big-name faces among the press. Vice had a crew there, as did all of the local affiliates.
A second line of riot police deployed into the intersection from behind the bulk of the protesters. They squeezed the mass of people out of the intersection and started to back the horde of howling, drumming and missile-throwing protesters down K Street.
Reporters climbed trees and lampposts. Store employees rushed to front doors to lock and cage glass entranceways.
I attached myself to an old guy who immediately came off as a master of his craft. He wore horned-rim glasses, a safari hat and cargo vest, with three different cameras slung across his body, dressed all in earthy tones and khaki. With every detonation, I would flinch and skitter back, but he kept walking fearlessly, taking what I assumed were the best pictures anyone took that day.
A stun grenade bounced directly under him and detonated. The noise of it less than a yard from me nearly buckled my knees. To his credit, he did not fall. His right pant leg was shredded, and the flesh all the way up to his thigh was exposed and it looked angry, red and scalded. Medics came and scooped him up to treat him.
The police continued to chase the mass of protesters and anarchists down K Street with charges and grenades until they had them bottled in Franklin Square. Police spread out in a cordon along the edge of the park.
Anarchists dragged trash cans together and started a fire that belched black smoke into the air.
They began with drawing on parked cars and ripping off side mirrors, and then took hammers to state SUVs and the limousines parked along the edge of the park. They slashed tires and caved windshields, and some then rode away on bicycles.
A huge number of media had congregated in the park now. I credited this in large part to the fact that the Washington Post’s office building borders Franklin Square, and anarchists were literally lighting trash fires in the newspaper’s backyard.
Black Bloc anarchists smashed all the windows they could get at and dragged more trash into the growing fire. A man with a flagpole stepped into the circle and tried to shoo everyone back.
“Stop feeding the fire,” the man said. “Fuck out of here, y’all don’t live here. You’re making everything worse. Go home.”
Artists came to read poetry and perform music. The atmosphere had completely changed. It was like a talent show or a circus now, with a “Fuck the Man!” vibe and with cameras everywhere, microphones pushed into everyone’s face.
“Ten dollars to feed the fire,” a vendor hollered, wheeling in a cart full of MAGA hats and Trump shirts. “$10 to feed the fire.”
People came forward in ones and twos, handing him money and tossing hats and shirts into the fire.
A young kid in a Trump shirt and a messenger bag darted into the circle and tried to stomp the fire out. He began to pull hats out of the fire. A 6-foot-scary protester with his face covered lifted the kid into the air by his throat and slammed him on the ground before bystanders managed to pull him away.
The kid leapt back into the circle and grabbed a hat before running away.
The anarchists seemed to get bored without the police there to challenge them and left in cells of four and five. One of their last acts was to set a limousine on fire.
Without them to break everything they could get their hands on, the protest turned peaceful, so most of the media immediately left.
Protesters were replaced with families and tourists coming to inspect the damage. Many of them brought their kids. Many of them brought their MAGA hats, too.
It’s 4:30 p.m. and I’m sitting in The DC Thai Restaurant on Vermont Avenue off McPherson Square. CNN is on the restaurant’s TV, showing U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
“No question that on inaugural day, this would be the most appealing target in the world,” Blunt says.
When I ordered, my waiter said my fried rice came with crab. There was chicken in my rice.
Ignoring it, I stare listlessly at the crawl under CNN’s coverage of the Inauguration Parade. I forgot that was still happening today.