This weekend, I went to five different protests, got pepper sprayed in the face, nearly arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, cried like a baby when my mother called me, played a show, slept for four hours, marched with hundreds of thousands on the Mall, played another show, got heckled by Trump supporters, drank, played skee ball, and went to bed.
Thursday Night: Pinball, Pancakes, and Predictions
We were at IHOP, mostly drunk, discussing 90’s music videos, when the pancakes arrived. The discussion suddenly took a turn for more pressing events: what was going to happen over the next two days. We all had a few ideas, but none of us were willing to bet one way or another. Jared guessed there would be clashes between protesters and Trump supporters. Stover guessed there would be more clashes between protesters and police. Maryjo guessed the Women’s March would dwarf the Inauguration protests. Sim’s mouth was too full to adequately express his predictions.
The trip to IHOP was well-earned; after a two-hour gig in Crystal City, I met with my friends at Lyman’s to play pinball, to be around people I love, and to steel myself for whatever was going to happen next. Absolutely all of my friends were right, in one way or another. I was unprepared for how right everyone would be.
We left IHOP in the dark, wee hours of the morning. I fell asleep at 3:30am.
9am: Shutting Down the Checkpoints
After getting dressed, cramming my camera into the bag, running for the train at Columbia Heights, I arrived downtown. The scene is already tense. The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department are joined by not just ATF, Homeland Security, FBI, and Uniformed Secret Service; Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, and even Anne Arundel County police sent officers to quell whatever unruly sentiments will get out of hand. There are a lot of cops. There are a lot of uniforms. There’s a lot of guns. This isn’t the most fitting picture for a presidential inauguration.
By 9am, #DisruptJ20 had managed to shut down six of the twelve checkpoints for ceremony attendees. Individual blocs that met earlier in the day were assigned individual causes; One group is holding a line at 10th and E NW, actively preventing Trump supporters from entering the holding pens ahead of the checkpoint. 6th and Indiana’s line was broken and re-formed several times over the course of the past hour. At 2nd and D NW, there are homeless men and women holding protest signs, joining in the fight.
The lines are slowly getting broken up, their leaders dispersing to other action spots. Trump supporters are finding one way or another to get past the checkpoints, and into the ceremony. This is likely due more to the dwindling numbers of Trump supporters than a lack of effort from the protesters. There are so few inauguration attendees here, it’s easy for them see a checkpoint is blocked, then find an open gate to slip through, and see Trump’s inauguration.
After spotting a flash of red hair at 10th and E, I called out to my friend Laura from the shrinking line of protesters. Laura is an old friend from Mount Pleasant, and works with the United Mine Workers of America. When the chants and shouts of the protest line got quiet, she yelled louder. This kind of scene is old hat to her. We’re walking through the crowds to Union Station, saying “hello” to the alpacas along the way.
11:30am: The Festival of Resistance at Columbus Circle
Nope, not New York. Did you know that the District has its own Columbus Circle? It’s the giant traffic circle with the never-turned-on fountain outside Union Station, with a stern-looking Christopher Columbus carved out of marble.
While the American flags draped over the porticos and entry arches to Union Station makes the backdrop look like something out of Mussolini’s mid-1930’s Rome, the scene at Columbus Circle could not have clashed harder if it tried. I’m seeing Uncle Sam on stilts, accordions, tubas, BYT’s Cale dressed as a slice from Pizzagate, another guy in a full-sized polar bear costume, and a man with the most convincing Donald Trump costume I’ve ever seen. The man’s spray tan is glorious. Someone is handing out posters; new works by Shepard Fairey.
The march was supposed to kick off at noon sharp, but has been delayed for nearly half an hour. I first thought it was something to do with counter-resistance from police, until I could see the maroon hats. They’re coming in fast, and by the dozens. This isn’t a loosely-formed group of rabble-rousers; this is It Takes Roots, a confederation of groups formed out of the 2014 Climate March. These protesters are organized, ready, nonviolent, and fully mobilized. They had a permit, and they meant business. We’re marching as of 12:35pm.
We’re marching to McPherson Square, heading west along Massachusetts. I met up with Nicholas Karlin, my fellow BYT photographer, and started walking ahead of the main banner, snapping along the way. Karlin and I have covered events together in the past, but nothing quite like this. We’re seeing thousands, marching tightly, shouting, angry, in tears, but arm in arm, and together. I tell Lisa, one of the organizers, that I can see a line of bicycle cops coming toward us from a few blocks off. She tells me “Finally! They’re here to help us march, and re-direct traffic.”
After a few starts and stops, waiting for the tail end of the march to catch up with the main body, or watching the National Guard re-direct a humvee to the other side of Massachusetts to accommodate the protest, we’re finally moving at a consistent pace. At 12th Street, we hear shouts coming from a few blocks up: “We need more people up here. We need more, right now.” I say goodbye to Karlin, and head North.
1pm: The Battle of K Street
At 12th and L NW, my stomach is sinking. I see a line of cops in riot gear, and I immediately know what’s about to happen. The police have two groups, one facing inward at a cornered a group of a hundred black clad protesters, the second facing outward to the group of onlookers. It seems like only a matter of time before one side will snap. Where I’m standing will shortly prove to be the worst spot imaginable for this scenario, for two main reasons: I have my back to the Thomson School, and I’m right behind the shitheel who’s about to throw a water bottle at the line of riot cops. When the bottle lands, the line parts briefly, and one officer begins spraying the crowd with pepper spray, hitting the section of the crowd with the most cameras first.
I’m hit in the face immediately.
My eyes are closed.
It still burns.
The line of cops move fast on the crowd, clubs out, shields upright, pushing us onto 12th Street. I’m running hard.
The stun grenades are fired into the crowd as the line of cops moves South on 12th, down to K. A few of the protesters smash up cinderblocks from a nearby construction site, and begin lobbing them toward the police. For every three or four rocks thrown, the police return fire with a flash-bang stun grenade. The cops form a wedge down the middle of 12th and K, splitting the protesters into two groups, one on the West, one on the East, both sides facing inwards at the line of riot cops. Tear gas canisters come spinning under our feet, pellets are fired at our legs.
I’m on the East side of 12th, watching the scene, coughing madly, and swallowing milk to chase the pepper spray I swallowed. My skin is on fire, and no one in sight looks like they knew what’s going on. Another flash bang comes hurtling toward the protesters, accompanied by more shouts and yells. I turn my back to the protest, and walk North.
3pm: Decompression and a Call from Mom at Lost & Found
Brian Leonard is from Maryland. Really, really from Maryland. Whenever he addresses customers from behind his bar, it always comes with a “hon.” I’ve known him since his bartending days at Nanny O’Briens, when I first started playing that bar. Brian and his wife, Hilary, opened Lost & Found, their first bar together, a couple years ago. I headed there for a beer after the ringing in my ears died down.
Brian and I are talking about the state of the District over a mostly empty bar. He grabs me a clean, wet rag to wipe off my face, and tells me about his buddy getting shot by a riot cop’s beanbag a few years ago.
My mother hears about where I was earlier, and asks me to call her. When I sneak out to the alley, and tell her what happened that afternoon, she tells me she’s proud of me. She tells me there’s no way we can all be pushed down, if we all put our feet on the ground, and get to work every day. With the police helicopter overhead, and the sounds of explosions only a few blocks away, I openly weep for a good three minutes into the phone. My mother then tells me to go finish my beer, get a shower, and go play a gig.
While I sought out Lost & Found purely for a beer, and to get off the street, I’m immeasurably glad for Brian’s company, and for the phone call. I walk to Shaw, catch a train North, go home, and head out again for Black Cat.
6pm: No Thanks, and Solidarity at Black Cat
After two solid months of emails, an unrelenting back-and-forth with the venue and its management, and a few surprise guests added to the bill, Black Cat opens its doors on Friday night for “NO THANKS: A Night of Anti-Fascist Sound Resistance in the Capital of the USA.” I was the second performer on the bill, on at 7:20pm.
The audience’s response to my set is tepid at best. It’s still early. The next act up, Evan Greer, lights the crowd up like Christmas. From there, it’s a non-stop barrage of anti-Trump sentiments, calls to action, solidarity with a number of issues, all from what is possibly the most eclectic (read: diverse) bill Black Cat has ever put together.
This is a sold-out show, which sometimes presents problems for the venue. Black Cat’s capacity, depending on the show, is between 700 and 800. That many people in one place, surrounded by beer, liquor, loud music, and bright lights will sometimes result in unruly behavior, or even a fight. Friday night’s show has none. Black Cat’s crowd is energetic, responsive, and peaceful. This is the closest thing to real, tangible unity I’ve felt all weekend.
Free Children of Earth’s frontman, Jason Yawn, stands tall above the crowd, pounding out an open A chord on his P90-packed, gold-sparkle LTD. He speaks clearly, with determination, and without hysterics, “Today was a good day of action. Today was full of protests, and resistance, and not backing down to Trump. And tomorrow, our sisters are going to show us how it’s done.”
After a spliff across the street with some old friends, and watching Katie Alice Greer demolish the stage with a blistering set in Priests, I turn toward home, and pass out.
8am: Crowded Streets, Crowded Trains
Maryjo, my much smarter, prettier, and better half for the past three years, woke me up with our dog on Saturday morning. Every part of my body ached from Friday’s protests, but my girlfriend is relentless. From the moment my feet hit the floor, Maryjo is now unstoppable in getting us out the door, onto the street, and into the Metro. Already, the feeling on the street is palpably different than Friday’s.
Smiles, strangely enough, make all the difference at a politically-charged event. While Friday’s streets were full of anger, frustration, and a will to fight, Saturday’s streets are nothing but smiles, laughs, and excited conversations. Every confused passenger is given helpful directions. Every train conductor and station manager is thanked. Every overstuffed train car is full of “There’s plenty more room! Hop on! Everyone suck in!” We cram ourselves onto the nearest train headed south, going in starts and stops toward Chinatown.
Climbing the stairs out of the mouth of Gallery Place, onto 7th, looking South, I can see pink hats for a solid mile. Maryjo and I are part of a crowd moving toward the Mall, passing Penn Quarter on the way. We meet with our friends, assign buddies, figure out the route, and make a move for the Mall. I wish them all luck, say farewell, and run into the crowd with my camera. I still have work to do.
10am: The Women’s March on Washington
I have never once seen so many people in one place. This has got to be bigger than the Million Man March. This might even be bigger than Obama’s 2009 inauguration. This is big.
There are signs everywhere, some humorous, some hitting close to home. Some of the signs address Trump directly, some address the American people. “Keep Your Filthy Laws Off My Silky Drawers” stands out as a favorite.
What’s most remarkable about the crowd is how it seems to manage itself. There are some here who wanted to hear the speakers, and actually march on the Mall. There are even more who wanted to walk through the crowds, and admire the signs. If someone hates being in the middle of a huge crowd, they head for the abandoned stands from yesterday’s ceremony. Even the palettes and skids are being used as temporary photo op spots for shooters who want a better view. I can see fathers helping their daughters onto raised stacks of construction materials to look over the crowds. I can see a boy, clearly lost, with two older women, phones out, calling the boy’s mother. This is an unbelievable scene.
The event organizers asked earlier in the week for marchers to bring only transparent backpacks. I’m tempted to get a picture of a group of women, sitting high on a stack of wood palettes, eating food out of their plastic backpacks and purses. In the spirit of the safe space the march created, I ask the ladies for a picture. They respond with “Of course! And are you hungry? We have sunflower seeds and dried apricots, if you’d like some. Peaches, too!”
Farther down the Mall, I can see the crowd start to move along Jefferson and Madison. They’re singing songs now, and laughing.
I notice the backdrop of the march, and laugh quietly to myself: the weather is alternating between a grey mist, and a white fog. The clouds are so low, that for just a moment, they swallowed up the top of the Old Post Office, the current site of the Trump Hotel. The tower is invisible through the fog. The march, the clusters of bright pink moving on the city, is the only thing that matters.
I get to make a nine-year-old girl feel ten feet tall: She’s walking with a Fisher-Price megaphone, yelling in the littlest voice, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” Everyone around her is smiling, taking pictures, admiring the girl for her bravery and courage… but no one’s responding. She yells it again, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and I snap into yesterday’s protests, yelling as loud as I can “Stand up, fight back!” She jumps, then smiles, and yells it again, “WHEN WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE UNDER ATTACK, WHAT DO WE DO?” This time, it’s the whole crowd, “STAND UP FIGHT BACK!”
I walk back toward Chinatown, passing the hundreds of thousands on the way. In the history of the United States, there has never been a coordinated march like this. I doubt it’s the last.
8pm: Trump Hecklers at Hill Country Barbecue
Despite a million people moving on the District, my band somehow finds a way to load into Hill Country without a hitch. We get lucky sometimes.
Shows at Hill Country are unpredictable at best. It’s one of the reasons we keep playing there, actually. It’s in the middle of a high-foot-traffic area, rife with tourists. It’s a well-recognized name for out-of-towners, particularly those from New York. It’s also a spot for local fans to enjoy barbecue, and a wide variety of music. I’ve seen Billy Joe Shaver (Outlaw Country), C.J. Chenier (Zydeco), and the Highballers (DC Rockabilly on speed) play at Hill Country. This place is unique.
It’s also a politically neutral territory, for the most part. It’s Texas by name, but New York-owned. The DC location in particular tends to get people from both sides of the aisle, people in between, and folks who couldn’t be bothered in the slightest by politics. Saturday’s crowd was just as unpredictable as any.
We begin the night with a mostly empty room, except for the four tables of well-heeled older folks, who in no way look as though they were part of the march. Later, we watch as a gathering of pussy hat-wearing marchers make their way into the bar. Even later, we see a group of construction workers, boots covered in mud, returning from a gear tear-down on the Mall. To say this crowd is incongruous is putting it mildly. In the true spirit of Hill Country, though, the whole room starts dancing.
We hit our second set at 10:30, and played a full 90 minutes. The crowd jumps onto the floor for our last song, being told “it’s your last chance to dance for the night.” We finish, I take a bow, the crowd applauds, and a woman at the bar starts chanting to no one in particular “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” The construction workers join in.
I leave my guitar on the stage, still plugged in, and walk out into the rain, smoking furiously.
12am: Skee Ball and Commiseration at Iron Horse
The gear is packed, the cables are wrapped, the doors are locked behind us, and we head to Iron Horse. Unbeknownst to us earlier, there’s a private event at the DC chapter of the AIA. When a private event lets out downtown, the surrounding bars are usually graced with the already-drunk crowd spilling into their doors. Iron Horse is just up the block from AIA, and gets swarmed with post-event drinkers.
Meanwhile, my band and I are downstairs, eating beef jerky and potato chips, drinking beer, and playing skee ball. We all have our little rituals, and Iron Horse after Hill Country is ours. I manage to sink a 100-point ball, only to be shortly outdone by Jeff’s assault of back-to-back 50’s.
Looking around, and seeing a few “Make America Great Again” hats, I mention to Rev that I’m worried the current political state will have an effect on our favorite bars. I mention that the climate of bars like Hill Country might change. I mention I’m worried we’ll lose our favorite spots. Rev tells me “Yeah, that’s going to suck if it happens, but will it really keep us from playing music there?”
I feel better almost immediately, order another beer, and get two more quarters for skee ball.