WASHINGTON – District of Columbia 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 Donald 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 protests on 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.
Overnight, protesters had reestablished 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. But by noon Tuesday, D.C. police had once again removed the encampment.
Throughout Tuesday, police continued to remove structures in the area to keep roads open. District Police Chief Peter Newsham said in an interview that police would not let protesters set up an encampment in the area but did intend to let them protest peacefully. City officials said it was a hazard to allow tents to be pitched on open roads. They said their actions were not related to Trump’s tweets.
In a sign of increased security efforts, workers began reinstalling a seven-foot, 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. It became a much photographed easel for protesters signs and artwork.
Another move came around 3:30 p.m., when District police officers surrounded tents at 16th and K streets NW. Officers appeared to make an arrest, and city workers loaded a blue-and-green tent into an orange garbage truck.
The scene during the afternoon was calmer than on Monday, but protesters taunted officers and occasionally got nose-to-nose with them along police lines. During a standoff at 16th and I streets NW around 2 p.m., a woman wearing a football helmet and tall black boots strode through the intersection yelling into a bullhorn.
“The billy clubs are here,” she said. “They’re here to crack some skulls.”
Attempts to create an autonomous zone potentially set up a clash in the same area where federal authorities forcibly removed protesters this month before President Trump walked to stand outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged by fire during protests over the May 15 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
“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.”
In another tweet Tuesday, Trump said anyone who vandalizes or topples a statute could be charged under federal law.
Shortly before departing for events in Arizona on Tuesday, Trump thanked law enforcement for its response Monday night in saving a “great monument,” according to a White House pool report.
On Monday night, protesters looped ropes around a large, bronze statue of Andrew Jackson astride a horse in Lafayette Square and tried to pull it down, but U.S. Park Police and District police intervened to stop the action.
Jackson, the seventh president, is known for signing the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forcible relocations of thousands of Native Americans and the deaths of thousands more. Jackson also opposed the abolition of slavery and owned enslaved people.
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.
District police arrived on the scene Tuesday morning. Shouts began to carry down H Street NW just after 10 a.m., stirring demonstrators who had spent the night nearby.
“Riot gear!” demonstrators called. “Riot gear! Get up! Get up!”
A handful of bleary-eyed volunteers who had been operating street medic tents outside St. John’s Church scrambled to their feet. They grabbed what they could carry as police approached, marching toward them, batons and bicycles extended.
“Move,” the District police officers shouted in unison.
Eric Otani, 30, who said he had been helping pull injured demonstrators out of crowds and over to medic stations almost daily since the protests began in the past month, was among about 10 people pushed back from the church as police moved in.
He said they tried to tell the officers that they had permission to be on church grounds “for humanitarian purposes,” but the officers didn’t respond.
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.
Shortly before noon, the entire encampment had been removed, and city workers were powerwashing paint that read “Defund the Police.” Street-sweeper trucks also worked the area.
Trump’s ultimatums to protesters angered some and concerned members of the District government.
Elizabeth Tsehai, an immigrant from Ethiopia, gained attention three weeks ago when she was hauled out of her BMW by federal officers during protests in front of the White House. She returned Tuesday after protesters put out calls for reinforcements on social media.
She said she saw Trump’s desire to crack down on protesters as a dangerous step closer to authoritarianism.
“I grew up during a time of turmoil in Ethiopia,” she said. “But this is supposed to be a democracy. Lafayette Square is hallowed ground. People have been protesting there since the beginning of this country. For them to be forcibly clearing the square for no other reason than to placate Trump is ridiculous.”
District Council member David Grosso, an Independent, one of the furthest-left members of the council, called on the city and District police to shield the demonstrators trying to form an autonomous zone rather than clearing them out.
“The District of Columbia should protect those demonstrators and give them the space to have a voice, and MPD [Metropolitan Police Department] needs to protect them from federal intrusion onto our soil,” Grosso said.
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. District police, who also were involved, confirmed that two arrests were made Monday afternoon, but it was unclear whether those were the same two arrests Park Police reported.
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The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer, Dana Hedgpeth, John Wagner, Ann E. Marimow, Fenit Nirappil, Paul Duggan, Perry Stein, Fredrick Kunkle and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.