1. Exactly What Trump Wants
Torch, as he calls himself, is wearing a bandanna over his face, secured just below his eyes. The fabric matches the skinny black jeans, black T-shirt, and hoodie he's wearing during what he characterizes as the "deinauguration of America's Hitler." And when the twenty-four-year-old pulls a hammer out of his backpack and starts chipping away at a stretch of curb near the intersection of Thirteenth and K streets, when he grabs a chunk of pavement and hurls it at a line of riot-gear-clad members of Washington, D.C.'s police department, he gets the chaos he'd traveled from Colorado to incite.
Several officers lob concussion grenades toward the thousands who, moments earlier, had been peacefully protesting the swearing-in of Donald Trump. (Interim D.C. police chief Peter Newsham would later tell the press that it was the protesters, not the cops, who threw the grenades. This was inaccurate.) Others spray chemicals and fire rubber bullets into the crowd. Some protesters murmur that tear gas is moving downwind toward us.
They're right. Moments later, I can barely breathe, my eyes and chest on fire. I fall to my knees. People are fleeing, but one man helps me to my feet.
Torch, meanwhile, stands his ground. "Is that it?" he screams, holding a middle finger into the air while his other hand lets fly another piece of street. "Come on. Let's see what you got, you fuckin' pigs."
I hear two pings and another explosion—one that sends hard plastic shrapnel in all directions, hitting twenty-two-year-old D.C. resident Katie McMillan in the thigh. She turns toward Torch, her leg bleeding, and begins to plead with him.
"Why are you doing this?" she asks. "We need to stay peaceful. This is exactly what [Trump] wants. You're giving this piece of shit exactly what he wants."
Torch isn't swayed. "Fuck you. If you can't handle it, you should go back home," he says. "Guys like Trump only respond to force." Several people cheer him on. Dejected, McMillan leaves.
The next hour-plus sees more destruction on this block. The windows of a limousine parked outside a Washington Post building are smashed, the car tagged with spray paint and ultimately set ablaze. Newspaper racks and trash cans are tossed into the middle of the street and set on fire. Self-described anarchists throw everything from construction cones to glass bottles at the cops.
The sounds of chaos—glass breaking, metal meeting pavement, grenades exploding, screams, chants, shouted expletives—bounce off the buildings. Every few minutes, the cops beat their batons against riot shields and insist, in one voice, that the crowd "get back." Then they charge, pepper spray streaming from small gaps in their human wall.
Protester after protester goes down—one with a gash above his eye, another screaming, "I can't fucking see. I can't fucking see."
A black Suburban with red and blue lights flashing on its dashboard drives through the crowd and doesn't stop when several protesters try to block its path. One hurls a piece of concrete through the SUV's back windshield.
It's a melee, far removed from the "peaceful transfer of power" that reverent television pundits would hail throughout the day. And it's not at all what I expected when I first took to the D.C. streets Friday morning.
So let's rewind.
2. A Real Man
It's seven a.m., and I'm having a smoke on the front porch of the house on Decatur Street where I crashed the night before. My friend (it's her house) had told me to be mindful of where I parked Thursday because the Russian diplomats who live across the street would have me towed. I thought she was kidding. There's no way I'm covering the inauguration of Donald Trump—a man whose election owes in part to Vladimir Putin's meddling, and whose associates are reportedly under FBI investigation for their ties to the Kremlin—and just happen to be staying across the street from Russians.
I'm not that lucky.
But when I look across the road, I notice a Russian flag hanging outside a house guarded by chicken wire fencing. Christmas lights are still hanging in the front yard. Two men are smoking cigarettes out front, speaking into cell phones in a foreign tongue. I take a picture to prove serendipity exists.
I hail a cab. My driver, a middle-aged African American who's lived in D.C. since 1969, is fired up. I assume—ignoring my tendency to not judge books by their covers—that he's agitated because Barack Obama is hours away from boarding Marine One and leaving Washington. I'm wrong.
"You're not from around here are you?" he asks.
"No, sir. North Carolina."
"Welcome to my city. Welcome to our city. Today's the day. Yes, sir. It's gonna be a good day."
In the fifteen minutes it takes us to get to within earshot of my destination, the corner of Sixteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Al Moore tells me that he's attended every inauguration since he moved to the capital, and that he's upset he has to work today. "A real man," he says, is about to take the oath.
"He tells it like it is," Moore says. "People in my family, they got all angry that I was votin' for him, but I told them, what've the Clintons done for you? Then they talk about, 'He's arrogant.' You tryin' to tell me that Barack Obama isn't arrogant? That's absurd."
Every few blocks, we see groups of protesters walking down the street carrying homemade signs.
"Look at that. This kid's got a drawing of our president kissing Putin," Moore says. "Two men kissing. That ain't right. These kids got no respect for the office or the man. But trust me, they will. He'll make sure of that real quick."
"So you don't have a problem with the way this guy talks about immigrants or the fact that he's appointing people to his Cabinet who've said some pretty questionable things about minorities?" I ask.
Moore laughs. "You see. I don't buy into all that crap the media is selling," he says. "Somebody owns them. You know what I'm sayin'? Follow the money and the truth will set you free. Don't buy into all that propaganda. All I need to know is that a strong man who doesn't take any nonsense is about to face the world and remind people what America's all about."
- Photo by Carlos Andres Varela
- Protesters march.
3. This Road Is Closed
I'm walking through a square near the intersection of Fifteenth and I streets. Hundreds of soon-to-be protesters are mobilizing, discussing how they intend to disrupt the pending inauguration as Secret Service agents dressed in street clothes look on, white earpieces visible under the black beanies they're wearing.
A thirty-two-year-old who claims to be an organizer of DisruptJ20, an amalgamation of activist groups, invites me to join a blockade and assures me that if I get arrested, it's OK to declare my right to remain silent. "Don't talk to them. They'll use it against you."
Within fifteen minutes, we're marching en masse toward an inauguration entry point located near the intersection of Tenth and E streets. Some protesters are already blocking Trump supporters from their desired destination.
A middle-aged white guy wearing a red "Make America Great Again" cap tries to reach the checkpoint. He's spent the last five minutes wading through a sea of jeers and chants of "shame" and "stupid fucking hat." But a chain of bodies linked together at the arms is holding the line.
So when he comes upon sixty-six-year-old Californian Xan Joi, a short, soft-spoken woman in a mustard-yellow homemade anti-Trump sweatshirt, he sees it as his best chance to push through. He makes his move.
- Photo by Carlos Andres Varela
- Xan Joi confronts a Trump supporter.
"I'm sorry, sir. This road is closed," Joi says, her sweet-as-sugar voice prompting even the loudest protesters to flash smiles. "I can't let you pass."
The man throws his arms into the air. "What's that, dear? This road is closed? Where's your permit?" he asks, taking a few steps forward before his torso meets Joi's outstretched hands.
"My permit is the Constitution," she replies. "Please, sir. Help us keep this peaceful."
The man again lunges forward—this time, aggressively—but two bystanders shove him back. Joi stays the course.
"Can't you just go another way? Washington is a big city," she pleads.
Moments later, his elbow meets her face. Joi holds her mouth and mutters, eyes wide open as her cheeks turn bright red. The man's friends quickly pull him away from the scene.
"Read the Constitution," Joi shouts, following him up the street.
"I've read the Constitution, you old bat," he replies.
"Well, then, you should understand," Joi screams, the veins in her neck bulging as she angrily waves her arms. "You should understand that we have a responsibility to shut this government down."