By the time flames started bursting from the windows of the limousine, black smoke billowing into the sky above the nation's capital, only a few anarchists remained in the crowd.
"It's going to blow!" someone screamed, begging everyone to back up. And then came that low chanting from beyond the smoke, the football-huddle woofing: "Move! Move! Move!" The riot police were arriving, in force. Bystanders, journalists and demonstrators broke into a stampede, paintball pellets and stun grenades hurtling through the air at their backs.
Over 100 demonstrators stood their ground — not the anarchists, but practitioners of civil disobedience. They stepped forward and tried to de-escalate the confrontation by raising their arms in the air. "Hands up, don't shoot!" they chanted. But their advance was met by high-powered streams of pepper spray. Soon after, the protesters were routed. The last of the black bloc — the often-masked anarchists and other anti-fascists famous for smashing storefront windows and who had continued antagonizing police — slinked off into the night.
On the day of Donald Trump's inauguration, protests coursed through the streets of Washington, D.C., — the numbers not reaching the nearly half a million of the following day, but with thousands in the streets. Among them, a few dozen anti-fascists did things like set limos on fire, precipitating clashes with police. Then hundreds of other peaceful protesters would get caught in the violence, facing the police's pepper spray, paintball guns and flash-bang grenades.
The bulk of anti-Trump activists, who neither planned nor participated in any violence, were in Washington to carry out organized large-scale direct actions. Earlier in the day and elsewhere in the capital as that limo burned, thousands of demonstrators, protesters for climate justice, workers rights, indigenous struggles and the Black Lives Matter, marched in peace — without any police presence at all.
That's not the story Americans saw on cable news, if they saw it at all. Tactical and effective nonviolent protests were erased in favor of riot porn and moral scolding. For a few hours Friday night, before the Women's March had begun the next morning, a burning limousine and a few broken chain-store windows defined the resistance to Trump.
While the media trained on Trump and his anarchist foils throughout the day's ceremonies, nonviolent activists were busy setting the stage for four years of resistance — not with the sheer numbers of Saturday, but with intersectional cooperation over weeks of planning and hours of hitting the pavement on the day itself. Despite the news media's saturation of Washington, the story of these organizers, activists and grass roots protesters went largely untold.
"This checkpoint is now closed"
The rain started to fall at 8:30 a.m. in Judiciary Square. Black liberationists had chained themselves together in a blockade. Since dawn, the local Black Lives Matter chapter, in tandem with allies from nearby Baltimore — not to mention a coterie of black bloc anarchists — held their ground at one of the entrances to the official inauguration events. Trump supporters were still trying to batter their way through, with occasional cries of "All lives matter."
It wasn't long before a crowd of hundreds of anti-war protesters began cascading down some nearby steps, ready to reinforce the blockade. Their chants of "No justice, no peace" melded into cries of "Black lives matter."
"This checkpoint is now closed," a BLM organizer shouted into a bullhorn to a dancing mob.
Similar scenes played out across Washington as protesters attempted to carry out they plans to enact 12 blockades. Each inauguration entrance was assigned to a coalition representing a specific cause — climate demonstrators, feminists, the labor contingent and so on.
Along D Street, only a couple of blocks from the successful BLM protest, around 1,000 protesters with the anti-war group ANSWER Coalition shut down another checkpoint. A third blockade group, the Trade Justice coalition, joined them and surrounded the lines with banners held high in solidarity. At the Red Gate entrance to the inauguration, climate protesters shut down a checkpoint, shouting, "You want a wall, you got it."
Farther outside the inauguration perimeter, students, racial justice groups and demonstrators from other disparate causes came together in sometimes spontaneous marches. Water protectors from Standing Rock led another group for indigenous peoples' sovereignty.
When the indigenous march reached New York Avenue, they met up with a protest of hundreds, perhaps thousands, led by stilt-walkers dressed as Uncle Sam and tailed by street performers, a brass band and an elated crowd. The mood was jubilant.
Until a moment of confusion arrived. Was the route changing? A small group of protesters broke away, but it seemed to be just a few activists taking off in their own direction, to the north.
From K Street, just north of the march, where the splinter protesters had moments before gone, drums sounded — and then explosions.
A narrative of inauguration protests dominated by anarchist and antifa violence didn't appear from thin air; conservative media began establishing it in the weeks leading up to inauguration.
Breitbart prepared readers to think of black bloc anarchists as "left-wing terrorists" who need to be "treated as such." Fox News brought on Chris Cox, the leader of protester intimidation group Bikers for Trump, to brag about how the bikers planned on confronting unruly protesters. "We'll be toe to toe with anyone that is going to break through any police barriers, that is going to be assaulting women, spitting on them, throwing things at them," Cox said.
As the peaceful actions, sporadic rioting and drawn-out confrontations unfolded on inauguration Friday, major media organizations stuck to line items on live blogs and footnotes in broader news stories about the violent clashes.
On her prime-time show, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow only momentarily mentioned the peaceful protests during her show on inauguration night, said, "Because this small, but committed and violent minority did what they did today, part of what the Trump inauguration will be remembered for evermore is these scenes of violence and fire in the street created by the relatively small group of people who went to D.C. today committed to breaking stuff and hurting people instead of being heard."
All of the protests — the black bloc, the blockades, the Queer Dance Party outside Mike Pence's house — had their origins in a church sanctuary, where "spokescouncils" gathered under a crucifix.
In front of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood, the soon-to-be disruptors smoked cigarettes and prepared signs and banners. Gentrification has meant that St. Stephen is one of the few places local activists can convene long term. This was the home of DisruptJ20, a left-wing coalition that brought us the Inauguration Day protests.
"We're creating infrastructure to create a space to plug in," Maddy Hale, one of the original DisruptJ20 organizers, said in an interview. "We're here to facilitate and teach, how to pull off an action, how to have a mass meeting."
The initial disruption plans began in June — DisruptJ20 intended to plan actions no matter who was elected — with fewer than a dozen local activists who knew each other from their time as students during anti-war protests of the George W. Bush years.
Trump's election injected a righteous energy into the fledgling movement. DisruptJ20 saw an influx of able bodies and allies across a broad spectrum of causes. They set out to create a coalition that could effectively resist Trump and his administrative agenda the likes of which haven't been seen in Washington in a decade.
Every day of the week leading up to the inauguration, activists gathered for direct action training camps and sessions on how to de-escalate clashes, including a workshop on how to peacefully talk down Nazis and fascists. Many of them slept on the floor of the church. A contingent of activists from Standing Rock's Sacred Stone protest camp, for example, brought an enormous wealth of recent front-line experience in direct action against violent suppression.
"It's heartening that so many people's knee-jerk response was that I need to reach out, start organizing and politicizing their friends, rather than to start screaming at everyone and isolating themselves," Hale said. "This is a time when people need to support each other, now more than ever."
"Alerta, alerta, anti-fascista!"
When a photographer whipped his head around to look over my shoulder, the look in his eyes said "grenade." The way he grabbed me by my jacket to yank me off my feet said it was close. There was a bang, and we were enveloped in a plume of smoke. Unharmed, just barely.
An M84 stun grenade, also known as a flash-bang, is a projectile with growing popularity in the U.S. police force. The incendiary powder inside burns hotter than lava, and the concussive force is enough to maim adults and kill small children, if it explodes close enough.
The antifascists planned weeks in advance for a black bloc, a type of march where anti-fascists and anarchists wear black and mask their faces to be anonymous in the face of riot and arrest. Numbering a few hundred, the bloc headed south from Logan Circle, breaking windows at Starbucks and Bank of America.
The first big clashes took place in the early afternoon at an intersection on K Street, the historic hub of the lobbying industry. The smashed windows the black bloc left in its wake had attracted local police in riot gear, who sent many of the anarchists fleeing.
As a crowd gathered — photographers' and bystanders' messages on social media had attracted some nonviolent demonstrators wanting to check out the action — two dozen masked anarchists faced down a line of riot police to the north, pulling up bricks from the street to smash and hurl at police. The air was sharp with chemicals, stringing the nose and lungs.
As anti-fascists threw rocks at the police over the heads of the swelling crowd, the security forces would just retaliate on whoever was closest to them. Pepper spray was shot in long arcs to disperse everyone, with onlookers documenting the action on their phones.
One young woman held up her arms and shouted to the antifascists: "Stop throwing rocks!" She was hit with paintballs. A grenade burst against an elderly man's leg, shredding his pants as he fled from over 25 yards away. Later in the day, riot police doused an elderly woman with pepper spray as a man on crutches tried to protect her.
Forced back, the anti-fascists dragged garbage cans and mailboxes into the street, pounding on them with fists in tandem with the drums. In the tradition of European anti-fascists, they chanted, "Alerta, alerta, anti-fascista!"
As dusk fell, remnants of earlier protests broke off into small splinter groups that protested the inaugural balls, shouting "Nazis!" as the attendees in gowns and tuxedos snickered. As before, most were nonviolent, but others set street fires throughout the evening.
Meanwhile, on CNN, correspondents asked the important questions: Which fashion icon had designed Melania Trump's dress?
"Only the beginning"
Two nights later, at a meeting space in the Lanier Heights neighborhood, the DisruptJ20 coalition reconvened to plan their future. Spirits were high as members of the movement brought boxes and supplies into the community center. Lacy MacAuley, an organizer and spokesperson for the coalition who'd spent 24 hours getting legal support for the protesters, said the day was a resounding success.
"We have so much solidarity, there's so many people from across ideologies across this city who wants to capture and build upon this energy," MacAuley said. "In terms of our internal movement goals, we're in a very good place."
The disruptors already have their eyes on the Conservative Political Action Conference in February — sure to be a hotbed of the ascendant right wing. As for the violence, MacAuley simply said that the coalition was displaying a "diversity of tactics" — that they're "keeping the band together" and have more planned.
"This is only the beginning," she said.
And then she disappeared behind closed doors to plan the next moves.
Aaron Morrison and Tom McKay contributed reporting to this story from Washington, D.C.