There’s a small island of protesters at the corner of 12th and L streets, Northwest, in Washington, DC, trapped in front of a red brick building by a ring of policemen in black riot gear. Those 20 or so officers are in turn surrounded by a long wall of fellow officers, two bodies deep, running down the block.
Outside that perimeter, another group of protesters has gathered. Some have megaphones and periodically stir up chants. A woman with rainbow hair and a purple fur coat is yelling about fascism. Vermin Supreme is there, for some reason.
No one in the outside group is quite sure why the first group has been penned in — I’m told they broke the window of a McDonald’s. Or a Starbucks. Or a Citibank. Or maybe damaged a police car.
There’s a similar kind of murkiness around why, exactly, they’re all in DC, protesting. They all dislike President Trump, but everyone’s focused on a different issue: police brutality, LGBTQA rights, the environment, health care, food stamps, education, lobbying, anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-fascism, or some combination of any or all of those options.
Issues, though, are not the greatest division in the group. They disagree on something even more basic: whether this protest is even worthwhile, and whether demonstrating can achieve anything.
For Clay, an 18-year-old socialist, the answer is definitely yes. He’s attended many protests in and around DC. And he comes prepared, dressed in all black, with a balaclava covering his face to protect his identity (which is why he wouldn’t give me his last name) and a red tape cross on his forehead to indicate that he’s a “street medic” — he’s got a bag full of food, water, basic medical gear, and a mixture he uses to treat tear gas.
“No politician is going to save us,” he says, his blue eyes narrowing, “Not Bernie Sanders. Not the liberal Democrats.”
Instead, he says, “We have to resist. We have to educate, organize.”
There are people who feel like, just maybe, they have a chance to catch the public’s attention. Marie Nunalee, who identifies as gender-nonconforming, came up from Asheville, North Carolina, to protest the inauguration and Trump’s attitudes toward the queer community. Nunalee chose to demonstrate because they felt like they wouldn’t be heard otherwise.
“Effecting policy change, it's wonderful,” Nunalee says. “I'm not going to say it isn't effective because it is, but the fact of the matter is, the government we have in power does not speak for me, does not speak for many people.”
“This is the response of the people,” they say, gesturing at their fellow protesters. “It gives me a lot of hope.”
An hour goes by, and I start to find people who are less hopeful. Their outfits are less eye-catching, and they have fewer protest buttons. Shane Kelly is one of them, standing a little bit away from the body of the protest.
He’s tall and thin, with a yellow flower tucked behind his ear, and he tells me that he does believe in coming out to support things in the physical world, instead of endlessly debating online. He thinks a better-organized protest than this one might be an effective way to drive change.
But this particular protest, he says, is “a lot of different groups, a lot of different things. You have the people who are just trying to be fools and invite cameras, the people who are actually trying to start chants and rallies.”
Without warning, concussion grenades go off. A pink, chalky cloud spreads across the street and the park, making people cough.
Some of the protesters leave, but Jade Richards, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt, stays behind to see what happens. He’s not particularly optimistic that his presence will send a message, though.
“No matter what we do, they're not going to stop detaining them,” he says, waving at the small group of protesters who are still surrounded by police.
Richards says he’s expressing himself through protest now because he’s in college and doesn’t feel like he can do much else to change things. But he doesn’t think Trump’s administration will listen. He says his best hope for real change is the ballot box.
“Obama, he wasn't perfect,” Richards says, “but he did respond to suggestions. I don't see this current administration doing that.”
He shows me a deep scar on his forehead. He got it playing basketball in the Bronx, where his family moved after they left Jamaica. His mother couldn’t take him to the hospital because back then, they didn’t have heath insurance.
“Being from a low-income family,” he says, “you grow up understanding how policies trickle down to communities.” The Affordable Care Act helped his family get health insurance, he says, and for a while they needed federally funded food stamps to survive.
More people start to filter away. A 24-year-old, Camille James, takes a rest on a wooden bench in the park. She’s decked out in an array of anti-Trump buttons, but she’s pretty cynical about what a demonstration can accomplish — and wishes people had channeled their energy into the election instead.
Earlier this morning, James watched people lining up for #Trump420. Organizers from the DC Cannabis Coalition were giving out free joints so that people could go and smoke them during Trump’s inauguration speech. The line for the free weed was long, and formed more than an hour in advance.
“What gets me, though,” she says, “you can come and you can get in line at like 6:45 for a joint that’s being handed out at like 8 o’clock. But most of these people didn't wake up that early to go to the polls.”
She can’t know that for sure, but she does think the people in power are pretty impervious to this kind of protest. “The person that they're protesting — no one's really listening. The people who can do anything, they're not here. They're up the street ... with him.”
Protests “used to work,” she says. “But I don’t necessarily think they work now.” What matters is who holds the power — who you get elected.
It’s not an either/or, of course. The oldest person I spoke to, Mike Samoya, hopes people will do a lot of marching and communicating with elected officials. He came down to DC from Seattle with his partner, so that they could attend protests and talk to their senators.
Other people in the crowd have told me that they wrote to political figures, but Samoya is the only one I spoke to who contacted one in person. He talked to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from his partner’s state, Alaska. He says she heard his points about campaign finance reform graciously.
But as a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, Samoya also remembers how he appreciated some of the protests of that war. He says he went to war not knowing much about politics. “It was very heartening,” he says, “to think that somebody was doing something about enlightening people about what was going on over there.”
Samoya still thinks that kind of political expression is just as valid as approaching an elected official. “If you could get the idea that Americans do have a voice,” he says, “an individual voice, not just at the ballot box, there'd be more done in America.”
But after three hours of individual voices chanting and jeering and reasoning, most of the protesters who were surrounded by police when I first arrived are still surrounded. The only ones who have gotten out have been accompanied by police, sometimes with their wrists in zip ties.