Dark skies appropriately dressed the morning in a city preparing to usher in the era of Donald Trump on January 20. Despite the best-laid post-election plans of the recounts and the Hamilton Electors, the day had come and gone smoothly inside the military fortress that coddled the future president and his enablers. But on the streets, an entirely different narrative presented itself.
The exercise in radical democracy that is occupying public spaces began at the crack of dawn. The details of the location were, of course, not posted online beforehand. Participants in the labour contingent of #DisruptJ20 group staged physical blockade of an inauguration route point at 7am. Black Lives Matter activists similarly blocked a portion of the route early on, and organized protests in the city. There were elderly people, students, and people in wheelchairs at all of the marches. There were people of all races and genders.
One of the early congregations on the day was that of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), DisruptJ20, Jewish Voices for Peace, and Socialist Alternative (SA) in McPherson Square Park. At this point the park had perhaps 200 people floating around, with plenty of space and no march had yet arrived.
Despite this, the military as well as the police surrounded the park in force, numbering roughly 100 in total. The soldiers were all decked head to toe in desert camouflage and combat boots. Many of them chatted in large groups while armored Humvees patrolled. These were all national guard squads.
Extremists who have found their champion in Trump have tarred this large, diverse coalition of peaceful racial and economic justice activists as “terrorists.” Instead of supporting Black Lives Matter at this fork in history, the state has doubled down in their physical suppression of the movement.
In the enclosed safety of thousands of banners and flags at McPherson Square park, I interviewed Danni, an experienced organizer with Black Lives Matter. She sought refuge in the park, as only three blocks away, the police had attacked the march she was part of. “There were police in riot gear,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes as we spoke. The rain poncho was coated in tear gas and she could not touch her person for fear of re-contaminating her eyes. “They threw five flash grenades, tear gas at us, and maced us,” she went on. “I saw the ball at my feet and someone yelled ‘run!’ It went off right under me.” Her voice was filled not with fear but rather determined, controlled anger. The scene was typical of the day. During one of the many marches which involved thousands of people, I heard the sound of explosions a block away from us. With each blast, the energetic chants would die down for a few moments.
I approached a group of a dozen soldiers for an interview on an otherwise empty sidewalk. Most backstepped closer to the Humvee, looking downwards or away shyly. “Oh no, no, you’d have to talk to him for that, I guess,” one of the younger ones said pointing to his superior. I turned to his superior and asked about the road blocks and Trump’s firing of the DC National Guard. He said he did not have information on either. When asked about the atmosphere in this inauguration versus previous ones, he said their security concerns had partially changed. “In these times you have people using vehicles as weapons, so we have to be on the lookout for that.”
He also asserted that the National Guard and military in general have no air support for the inauguration, and street security is the responsibility of the DC Metro Police. Roadblocks, which included everything from police cars to dump trucks to buses, were up to the DCMP. “The military’s responsibility here is to assist the police if there’s something they can’t handle,” he said “as well as traffic control points. “We have mobilized National Guard from 44 states and 3 territories,” the younger one chimed in.
I later picked up a red quilted flower from one of the DSA organizers inside their tent. Later on I ran into Ryan Harvey, musician and co-founder of Firebrand Records (with Tom Morello), a label dedicated to radical music. He was impressed by the rose and taught me a bit of revolutionary history. “It’s a symbol of the Portuguese (Carnation) Revolution. People think that the demonstrators put them in soldiers’ rifles, but actually there were soldiers who put them in themselves. They did this to let the people know they would not shoot on them.” Harvey left me with this bit of knowledge, saying upon departing that members of the political punk band Anti-Flag were just around the corner protesting.
At a large demonstration later that day an officer Braithwaite of the DCMP on the other side of the barricade approached the divider and asked me about the flower. I recounted the same story back to him, and his enthusiasm faded. The two DCMP officers beside him stood stone faced as I explained the symbolism of the flower. None, of course, volunteered to follow this as inspiration, or even appreciated the story.
Internal security flexed their muscles several times through the day in DC. In late afternoon, a limousine was engulfed in massive flames that could be seen from blocks away. The limo was parked directly in front of the Washington Post building, the public park in front filled with thousands of demonstrators. Poetic symbolism aside, the scene was not pleasant. Police fired several concussion grenades at people close to the limousine and Post building, with new squads of police with riot gear emerging from the surrounding blocks. The majority of the streets near the building were cordoned off.
Trump supporters were all over the city as well, albeit in far smaller numbers outdoors and never in mass groups. Some wore the now-obnoxious red hats, and I witnessed one getting pummeled in the street before two military officers rescued him and broke up the fight. I later saw half a dozen older couples wearing Trump scarves while riding around DC in rickshaws. It can seem benign, tacky, or inconvenient; only in retrospect does one truly understand the repercussions of supporting a regime of hate-peddling charlatans.
The “Anti-Inauguration” event that evening acted as a counterweight to the suited criminal class that now eats at the Trump trough. The Lincoln Theatre hosted the event, organized by Verso Books, Haymarket Books, and Jacobin Magazine. The distinguished speakers included Keanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, Owen Jones, and Anand Gopal. The event was free, and so seats “sold” very quickly online, and there was a line stretching around the building hours in advance.
I had the good fortune of meeting an analyst from the Department of Labor during my hour in line. He chose to be identified here as “John” to avoid putting his job at risk. He described the mood inside the Department was one of anxiety and “tough times.” “Senior civil servants tend to not be, ideologically, Republicans,” he said. Because many of the mid-level vacancies in the Department may never be filled, the lower level employees, and hence the entire agency, may still be susceptible to the extreme-right whims of a Trump-appointed Labor Secretary. “We’re anticipating budgets to be cut 5 per cent across the board,” and where employees cannot be officially fired, their salaries may be lowered to $1 a year, effectively accomplishing the same, according to John. “The Davis-Bacon act, which came in during the New Deal, is also vulnerable,” he added, as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Still, being radically anti-labour may hurt Trump’s administration. “Prevailing Wages”, under the Davis-Bacon act, is part of John’s area of expertise. Under this policy, workers on federal infrastructure projects get a wage comparable to the market median (with many complex caveats). Trump’s Labor Secretary will likely repeal this, despite the fact that the tradespeople in these unions largely voted for Trump and benefit from the program. John finds no solace in the Democrats and their allies either. “The current AFGE-12 president has been in since 1998 under (Bill) Clinton. They are structurally, and fundamentally, and ideologically unprepared for an assault on workers in America.” They are a largely dormant non-organizing union. “There was a 3000-member meeting called in December to discuss what had happened. Fifty people showed up. There is no organizing. They depended entirely on institutional connections.”
Hope lies in the unions, still. “Yeah they have 7 per cent private sector penetration, but if they are activated…” John trailed off and nodded, intonating their influence could be big. The feeling of betrayal from Trump supporters who are the tradespeople, those who will be working on these projects, could be massive. “The federalist system in America is just 50 chances to get it wrong,” John said. Thankfully, the states and cities have most of the say in what goes on infrastructure projects, and unions can exert a lot of power here. “Trump is more susceptible than most other Republicans, especially in Congress…Activating the building trade unions could have a lot of clout.” This requires organization at the ground level and membership involvement, but it is easily within the realm of possibility.