I was there that day. I was at Lafayette Square in front of the White House on June 1, when the Trump administration shot tear gas at peaceful protesters. After demonstrations protesting the death of a black man due to police brutality intensified, Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States, moved its curfew from 11 p.m. 7 p.m. Would the infuriated protesters really go home peacefully when it wasn’t even dark out yet? How would the police handle this? As I was talking to a 30-year-old hospital resident waiting for 7 p.m. who said this was the first curfew the resident had ever experienced, the police suddenly began to approach firing tear gas.
They were merciless. They hit, pushed, and knocked us down with shields. Every time the projectiles flying above our heads hit the ground and exploded, they released gas, smoke and blast sounds. The fact that I could not determine how dangerous the weapons I had never seen before were made it even more frightening. In a different city, there was even a reporter who was blinded after being struck with a rubber bullet. A man fell, screaming and clutching his head, right in front of me. The image of someone helping him up and running away from the police was almost exactly that of the Korean college protests of the 1970s and 1980s.
Although the White House said they were forced to disperse the protesters because they were being violent, I cannot agree. Though their chanting was loud, their actions were restrained. Although the police say they warned the protesters to move, it was at a volume too low for the protesters, who were spread out over many miles and could not hear. After the protesters were dispersed and the road was cleared, President Donald Trump walked over to a church across the street and took a picture with a Bible. It was a 10-minute photo-op designed to show that he had control of the situation. It was him ‘dominating the streets,’ like he had demanded that the governors do.
After all this, can the United States still call itself the leader of the free world? Can it speak to China and Hong Kong about democracy and human rights? But just as this skepticism has set in, a reversal has come about. United States Defense Secretary Mark Esper voiced his disagreement with the president’s willingness to bring in federal troops to assist with crushing the riots, saying, “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”* He also expressed his regret at agreeing with Trump’s characterization of the protests as “war” and the National Guard as an “occupational force” by calling places of protest “battlefields.” Former Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized Trump for his failure to show “mature leadership.”
During demonstrations the following day, there was increased participation from middle age protesters. They said that they had watched the protests on TV from home because they were afraid of COVID-19, but the previous day’s events had convinced them that they needed to participate. Even certain Republican members of Congress expressed their discomfort with the way the government had handled the protests. As public perception worsened, Trump backed down, saying he did not think troops would be necessary. He also began ordering the withdrawal of federal troops and the National Guard. The tweets encouraging crackdowns on demonstrations and characterizing protests as riots also stopped. The looting and arson also subsided, as if protesters were trying not to give the government an excuse to crack down on them. It appears that there is a driving force at work in the United States trying to restore equilibrium.
*Editor’s note: The Insurrection Act of 1807 is a federal law that empowers the president to deploy U.S. military and federalized National Guard troops within the U.S. under certain circumstances.
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