Last week, the U.S. went through many dramatic events as the president tested some repressive apparatuses of the state that could be used during the insurgency. A week later, we are back enjoying high summer, with the coronavirus once again becoming the main adversary. The protests and the Black Lives Matter movements are still marching in the hopes of bringing about more change. Let’s hope they can keep this country alert till November, as the vote for a new president will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the trajectory of this vulnerable country.
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Now that the protective fence around the White House has been built, one might ask what the intent to build one in the first place was. The most obvious interpretation is that the President cannot stop himself from building walls. Then there are easier conclusions: as the fence around the White House has pushed people away from what was once the heart of the nation, the impression is that the whole perimeter has been transformed into a construction site. Does this mean that the President will build another of his towers, or change the lawns around the residence into a mini-golf course? All these scenarios could be a part of the chatter, the talk of the town, or even the President’s wet dream. But these are not normal times, and there is no time for jokes anymore.
There was an immediate radical change the second the fence went up around the White House. The nation stopped burning and bleeding. It was as if everyone was pleased that Donald Trump was now behind a fence. People began to celebrate. They became more creative in their forms of activism.
June first should be remembered as the day that America was on the precipice of dramatic change. It was the day before the situation in Washington became pretty nasty. One day prior, there had been some burning and looting in the late evening caused by people with different interests from those of the peaceful protesters.
In response, the mayor of the city ordered a 7.p.m. curfew. As I wrote in my previous post, Siege Of The White House, I got very close to the epicenter of the clashes at the time the worst was happening. But I could not see exactly what was going on since a strong triple cordon of the military police (alias the National Guard), metropolitan police, and police cavalry sealed off all access in the direction of the White House. I did not know then that the police forces and the Secret Service, backed by the National Guard, were attacking the protestors, forcing them out of Lafayette Park.
As the attack was happening and the government forces were pushing protesters up 16th and Vernon Street, the 45th President of the United States made a short statement. Trump spoke at the Rose Garden, where the smoke could not be seen, and the shots of sting-ball grenades, gas canisters, paper balls, chemical grenades, and tear gas wielded against screaming protesters could not be heard. Amidst racial unrest across the nation, the President declared himself “the president of law and order” and threatened to deploy the U.S. military into American cities to quell the rise of violent protests. This Monday, the Washington Post published an amazing video and sound reconstruction of the dramatic minutes of fireworks and violence organized by the President, who, amid chaos, threatened to send the regular army units into the streets, invoking the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act. As soon as he finished speaking, the President walked through Lafayette park surrounded by his most loyal collaborators–the Attorney General, the Secretary of Defence, and his Joint Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, who was dressed in military fatigues. He walked out of the White House and across the street that just minutes before had been full of protesters. It was a transparent show of power. The photo of the President with a Bible in his hand in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church was a sign, according to Trump, of God’s will. The show enraged the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who condemned the president’s actions, saying:
“Let me be clear: The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for,” Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde told CNN.
“And to do so… he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the churchyard. I am outraged,” Budde said.
The bishop called blasphemy and tried to protect her herd. But other voices were concerned that the President and his loyal few might further abuse their power and stage a coup. What would follow if, in those short moments when the President was standing in front of the church trying to figure out whether he was holding the Bible upside down or not, something was to happen to him? A religious fanatic, a provoked gesture, a setup incident? What if the peaceful protestors were hoodlums and terrorists for real, as Trump kept calling them? Would that trigger the command to call in the soldiers that were already on the outskirts of the Capital? How far were we from the American Tiananmen?
Robert Kagan has perhaps the most dramatic description of what could have happened:
The president’s call for military deployments against protesters was not some random Trumpian effusion. He and his advisers and supporters are building a legal justification for deploying troops on American streets. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper advised the nation’s governors to “dominate the battlespace,” by which he meant American cities. Prominent Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), a close Trump ally and presidential aspirant, called for deploying “the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes,” against the “insurrectionists,” a deliberate reference to the Insurrection Act of 1807, which gives the president broad powers to deploy federal troops. Trump tweeted that Cotton’s suggestions were “100% Correct.” (Esper and Vice President Pence reportedly advised the president on Monday to invoke the Insurrection Act, though Esper has since said that he does not favor invoking it.) This is the context in which Milley appeared with the president in his battle fatigues. It is the context in which a U.S. Army helicopter descended to rooftop level in Washington’s Chinatown hours later, frightening and scattering protesters in a “show of force” that snapped trees and nearly injured the fleeing civilians.
Luckily nothing happened to the President as the country’s democracy was getting pushed, ruined, and abused. But the image of general Milley in military fatigues walking next to the President alarmed some retired but very influential top army officials. In the hours after the battle for Lafayette Square, Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, and Admiral James George Stavridis started to make appeals to the entire armed forces, reminding them to respect the Constitution. In the end, they prevailed over the hotheads, including Secretary of Defense Esper and Chief of Staff Milley, who soon changed their stance. We do not have all the details on how reasoning prevailed, how in the end the National Guard was disarmed and, together with the regular army units, sent home. But it must have been dramatic. Immediately following the president’s photo-op, the police in anti-terrorist gear, police cavalry, and military police sealed off 16th Street, and the tall fence protecting the White House from the north of Lafayette Park was erected. In the end, Trump was quite literally trapped in the White House, while almost all the police and army disappeared from the streets.
Today only small units are kept on intersections to block regular traffic on streets still flooded with protestors. At first, the protestors were confused. They had grown accustomed to stand-offs with police, begging them not to shoot and trying to convince them to be on the right side of history. Once the police disappeared from the grounds of the White House, leaving only the Secret Service, the streets turned into a kind of festival that continues to protest but now with the soundtrack of street performers and improvised speakers. The mayor, Muriel Bowser, was the only politician who joined the movement, writing a letter to the President asking him to move his troops and liberate Washington DC. Last weekend, she ordered that Lafayette Square be renamed Black Life Matters Plaza. A day later, people began to use the fence around the White House to post their “dazibaos,” their written protest notices, like in 1979, when the Chinese created the Wall of Democracy in Beijing, just before the regime started the reforms.
The protests in Washington bring about something new every day. Besides more and more dazibaos, people have started writing longer messages on the pavement leading towards the White House in chalk. I saw a long convoy of cars driving across the Potomac from Virginia, honking and chanting the slogans as they drove down the streets surrounding the White House. But what moved me were the families standing along R Street NW in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue. They were not in a group. They were standing there silently, planted like the trees small and big, asking not to be killed.
Was all that happened on June first just a bad dream? What will happen if Trump orders military involvement after a contested election that he declares has been “rigged” due to alleged foreign meddling or some alleged domestic fraud? When protesters gather in the streets and the “law and order” president orders the military to move against that “insurrection” and “domestic terror,” will the military refuse to obey?
If you believe that Trump would never do such a thing, or that the others would never let him, then you can go back to sleep. Maybe the image of Milley in battle fatigues outside the White House was just a passing moment, or perhaps it will turn out to be the first in a series of pictures in some future history text about the undermining of American democracy. But if you’re not sure which, perhaps it’s not too early to start sounding the alarm.