WASHINGTON – As a scuffle erupted near the White House on Election night, Cedric Diakabana took the hand of his friend and began waltzing, graceful steps out of sync with the surroundings.
The pair were among hundreds who had gathered in downtown Washington, anxiously awaiting the results of a bitter and unprecedented election that had left the nation divided and on edge.
“It was just a way to relax,” Diakabana, a supporter Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, explained a moment later. “It’s a historic moment but I’m also anxious.”
A carnival-like atmosphere pervaded the streets around the White House early Tuesday night as hundreds turned out, but the scene gradually grew more tense and gave way to moments of friction as the outcome of the election remained in flux as of 12:15 a.m. Wednesday. Just a handful of supporters of President Donald Trump were among the crowd.
At one point, there was a tussle between police and a man who was at Black Lives Matter Plaza, though it was not immediately clear what prompted it.
In a separate incident, video posted to social media showed two men wrestling on the ground at the plaza. Fireworks blasted into the sky at another moment.
Still, it was a far cry from the unrest local and federal officials had been bracing for in the nation’s capital. A tall fence was erected around the White House. D.C. officials also opened an Emergency Operations Center and increased police and fire staffing to handle any issues.
Senior Master Sgt. Craig Clapper, a D.C. National Guard spokesman, said around 8 p.m. that no National Guard member in the city had been activated or put on standby to respond to any kind of unrest. Guardsmen could be activated by the Defense Department following a request from Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, or at the direction of the president, Clapper said.
Clara Sachs stood in Black Lives Matter plaza shortly before midnight, holding up an iPad to stream the scene on Facebook live.
“Ooooh, look at all the violence,” she said sarcastically as people peacefully milled about, including one juggling a soccer ball. “Look at all the looting.”
Sachs, in her 60s with a Biden mask and tote bag, said she wasn’t worried about the early returns, which showed Florida leaning towards Trump.
“This is going to take multiple days and that’s OK,” she said. “It’s worth the time to get it right.”
Sachs, an independent tour guide who lives in Montgomery County, Md., said her job had taught her patience.
Early in the evening, a drum line pounded out a steady beat, dancers waved flags while weaving to the music and Biden backers occasionally chanted “Vote him out!” at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Protesters unfurled a large black “Remove Trump” banner and a truck blared go-go music.
Some downtown businesses had boarded up shops in anticipation of problems on Election Day or the days that follow.
Roughly a half-dozen groups had applied for and received permits to demonstrate near the White House and other downtown locations on or around Election Day. They include social justice and religious organizations.
Martha Wilson, ofWashington, said she came to the protest because she went to the first Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration and “wanted to bring it full circle.”
She rode her bike to the demonstration and wore a mask that read, “All will be well.”
“I hope I’m right,” she said.
Kehinde Ogun wore a bright red shirt with MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN emblazoned on the front. Ogun, who is Black and said he is homeless, said he came to the gathering “to show support for my president.”
Ogun said he backed Trump because of the president’s push for prison reform.
Though the vast majority of the crowd supported Biden, Ogun said he had not heard any criticism or name-calling directed his way.
“Today has been very peaceful, thank God,” he said.
There were moments of tension as the night wore on.
Just after 9 p.m., a White man was chased by a group of protesters following an altercation at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Several said they heard him use a racial slur.
“I love all people,” he shouted.
A Black man stepped in, putting his arms up to guard the man and asking everyone to step back. “No one deserves to get hurt,” he said before ushering the White man behind the police line.
But people mostly were looking for a place to come together as results began to come in. Earlier in the evening, Yael Shafritz and Eliana Golding, partners who live in the city’s Petworth neighborhood, had danced along and nodded their heads at Black Lives Matter Plaza as they watched a dance troupe perform, its members wearing sweatshirts that read: “Every vote counts.”
“The main reason I’m out here tonight with these groups is the spirit of resilience and celebrating,” said Shafritz, 28.
Golding, 30, said neither of them knew what they would find when they came downtown.
“But I wanted to be with people this time,” she added, remembering that she felt very isolated in her house when Trump won in 2016.
Journalists from Italy, Germany, South Korea and other countries converged on the plaza, interviewing demonstrators and broadcasting home to viewers closely following the U.S. election.
Election returns were being projected on screens and walls around the city, including the Motion Picture Association building near the White House.
At a downtown watch party, a small crowd gathered near a giant screen showing CNN’s election night coverage. There were cheers when the anchors declared any state for Biden and little reaction when Trump was declared a winner of a state.
Tia Brown, 23, stood with a friend, her eyes fixed on the screen.
“Right now we’re really unsure,” she said, noting the possibility that Texas would go blue. “We’re not going to know for a long time . . . but by the end of the night maybe we’ll have an idea who our next president is.”
Brown, who moved to Washington from Roanoke, Va., in January, said she wanted to be downtown to witness history.
Mariah Johnson, a graduate student at Bowie State University in Maryland, came to watch the results wearing her pink Alpha Kappa Alpha sweatshirt to show support for vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, a member of the sorority.
Johnson, 25, said she felt good about the election but expected it could take a while before the contest was decided.
“I wish I had worn warmer clothes,” she said. “I’m freezing, but I’m going to stay all night.”
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The Washington Post’s Fredrick Kunkle, Dan Lamothe, Katie Mettler, Michael E. Miller, Samantha Schmidt and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.