Posted on June 24, 2020

D.C. Police Clear Out Fledgling Autonomous Zone Near the White House

Marissa J. Lang, et al., Washington Post, June 23, 2020

D.C. police lined streets around the White House on Tuesday, periodically clearing out tents, barricades and other structures built by protesters seeking to create an autonomous zone in the area that has been at the center of weeks of protests against police brutality.

The action came after President Trump tweeted early Tuesday that protesters would be met with “serious force” if they tried to establish an autonomous zone and that federal officials would seek long sentences against anyone who toppled statues or vandalized monuments.

The comments followed a day of chaotic demonstrations Monday during which protesters unsuccessfully tried to topple a statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square and tried to cordon off a section of a street near the White House before police removed them.

Late into Tuesday night, protesters were fanned across the city from highways to Capitol Hill to the White House.

A group of marchers led by a six-man drum line set out from Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, eventually wending its way onto the Ninth Street Expressway and Interstate 395 South. The sound of the drums echoed off a tiled tunnel at one point as police followed in cruisers with lights flashing. The group bounced and danced its way up the highway.

“We’re gonna go south, okay? Stay close, y’all,” called a protester. “No one is getting arrested today. Absolutely no one. We’re gonna link arms and spread out across the highway.”

Eventually, the drums went silent. Marchers lay down on I-395 for eight minutes and 46 seconds — symbolically marking the length of time that a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on George Floyd’s neck — casting long shadows on the hot pavement. Some people got out of their cars, stopped on a bridge, to take photos or just lean on their arms, looking down at the people on the highway.

Just before 11:30 p.m, back near the White House, a separate group of young men carried a ladder to the traffic light and covered the “Black Lives Matter” sign with black spray paint.

They hung an American flag on the pole, and set the flag on fire. The crowd cheered and cursed nearby police.

Other protesters gathered on Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, home to another controversial statue. Protesters decried the Emancipation Memorial, which depicts a freed slave kneeling at the feet of President Abraham Lincoln.


Protesters had created what they are calling the “BHAZ,” or Black House Autonomous Zone, by setting up barricades and pitching tents in an area near Black Lives Matter Plaza and H Street NW, essentially trying to create an island separate from the city around it. Police dismantled the encampment Monday, but protesters reestablished it overnight into Tuesday.

But throughout Tuesday, police continued to remove tents and structures in the area to keep roads open. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said in an interview that police would not let protesters set up an encampment in the area but would not impede peaceful protests. {snip}

But by early Wednesday morning — almost as soon as police pulled back their line — protesters appeared to try again to re-create the zone. Using electric scooters, plywood from boarded-up windows, debris and a giant coil of rubberized material used on escalator handgrips, they tried to block off their zone. At about 1:45 a.m., police on bicycles moved in. When they went to arrest a woman near 16th and K streets NW, several protesters intervened. Another was taken into custody. Police then fired flash bangs and some sort of smoke to clear the intersection.

In a sign of increased security efforts, workers earlier Tuesday began reinstalling a seven-foot-high, black metal fence along the H Street edge of Lafayette Square. The fence was initially erected in the opening days of protests to keep demonstrators away from the White House, then was taken down. Crews were also installing fencing around St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House late Tuesday night.


“There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “If they try they will be met with serious force!”

Twitter later responded, saying it had placed a public interest notice on the tweet for violating its “policy against abusive behavior.” It said the tweet would remain accessible because of its “relevance to ongoing public conversation.”


Dozens of protesters camped in the reconstituted BHAZ nearby on Monday night into Tuesday. The zone seemed to be inspired by the autonomous zone set up by protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That zone has been dubbed the CHAZ.

But the effort in the District was short-lived. D.C. police arrived on the scene Tuesday morning. {snip}


By 11:30 a.m., more than 100 police officers lined 16th Street NW, standing on the yellow Black Lives Matter sign painted on the street as demonstrators’ tents and supplies were hauled away in city garbage trucks.


A U.S. Park Police spokeswoman said Tuesday that Park Police officers had made two arrests as they cleared protesters during the effort Monday to topple the Jackson statue. {snip}