Messages of unity and defiance at White House protest site

In the US capital, a fence meant to divide has brought people together.

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    People gather to look at the protest signs now affixed to the fence around Lafayette Square, near the White House in Washington, DC [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
    People gather to look at the protest signs now affixed to the fence around Lafayette Square, near the White House in Washington, DC [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

    Washington, DC - The massive black fence that encircles the White House, erected after US security violently cleared peaceful protesters last week, has become a gallery of protest art and a symbol of defiance.

    The metal barrier around Lafayette Square is almost entirely covered with messages, signs and drawings denouncing excessive use of police force and racial inequality - nearly obscuring the view to the presidential residence.

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    More than two weeks after angry and sometimes violent protests erupted across Washington, DC over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in police custody, a new mood is taking hold in the city, one of defiance and hope.

    "It's a fence that is meant to block people and defend this president (Trump)," said Julia, who did not want to share her last name.

    "But it has become a fence of positive emotion and unity," she told Al Jazeera, while holding her own sign, scrawled on a cardboard box which read, "stop state sanctioned murder."

    "I really like reading the messages, they are very powerful," she said

    Floyd died on May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparking nationwide protests demanding justice over police killings of unarmed Black people, and for policing reforms.

    The signs hung with duct tape on the fence, reflect the calls for change in the wake of Floyd's death.

    "Silence is violence," one message on the fence read, "defund the police," read another in bright red writing and "racism is a pandemic."

    A pencil drawing echoed some of Floyd's last words, "I can't breathe."

    Fence Jihan story
    Signs and message line the fence that was put up on the perimeter of Lafayette Park, near the White House in Washington, US [Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo] 

    The towering chain-link fence was erected last week, after baton-swinging US Park police and other officers used smoke bombs and pepper pellets on June 1 to disperse hundreds of peaceful protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Square.

    Soon after, President Donald Trump walked through the newly cleared area to allow photographs of him in front of the nearby St John's church, while holding up a Bible.

    The previous evening, demonstrations in the area had turned violent, with looting and fires nearby including one in the church.

    A festive atmosphere

    After blocking off one of the capital's most popular places to protest, nearby 16th Street, that leads to the White House, has also changed.

    Washington, DC's mayor commissioned a large "Black Lives Matter" mural to be painted on the street, in bright yellow capital letters, stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk. It covers two blocks. 

    On Saturday, activists added their own message an equal sign and "Defund the Police," reflecting a growing call to redirect budgets from police forces and give them to local communities.

    The city's mayor renamed the nearby area, Black Lives Matter Plaza, with a gleaming new road sign.

    The violence has subsided in recent days and a new, more festive atmosphere outside of the White House has emerged. Police cars have blocked a section of 16th Street to traffic and every evening, hundreds of people, many with young children in tow, converge here.

    Fence story Jihan
    A woman reads protest signs affixed to the fence around Lafayette Square, near the White House in Washington, US [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

    In the newly named plaza, T-shirts bearing Floyd's picture are on sale from makeshift stands and there is music blaring from loudspeakers. Young people dance, while others snap pictures. Volunteers advertise free water and snacks to fend off the sweltering heat, and there is a medical station offering hand-sanitiser and face masks.

    "Rise up for Black lives," read another large message painted on a white sheet and near it, "fund the Black community."

    A group of dozens of young people that had marched together earlier down 16th Street, form a circle and begin taking turns going in the centre and speaking out.

    "We have to keep showing up and standing up for what's right," a young man said loudly, while pumping his fist in the air. The crowd surrounding him cheered.

    "Enough racism, it has to stop now," he said to more cheers from the crowd.

    Nearby Emma, who only wanted to be referred to by her first name, had come with her cousin. They brought camping chairs which they unfolded on the sidewalk right in front of the fence.

    "Originally, I didn't know if I wanted to come here because of COVID and I want to keep my family safe," said the 17-year old, who was wearing a blue mask and surgical gloves.

    "But I really felt the need to come here and contribute my voice," she told Al Jazeera.

    She said seeing the thousands of people across the US, of different ages, races and walks of life taking to the streets, united over the same cause has given her tremendous hope for meaningful change in the country.

    "I finally feel like people are listening."

    'Our presence is needed'

    The Trump administration's response to the protests set off a tense confrontation with his critics.

    "It's a sad commentary that the house and its inhabitants have to be walled off," Washington, DC's mayor, Muriel Bowser, said last week during a news conference. "We should want the White House opened up for people to be able to access it from all sides."

    protesters Black Lives Matter Washington DC
    Thousands of protesters lie in the middle of the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd while in police custody [Samuel Corum/Getty Images] 

    On Monday, congressional Democrats demanded the Trump administration to reopen the public square, saying it currently resembles a "militarised zone".

    "We call on you to immediately reopen Lafayette Square to the public, a place which has long been a venue where Americans can gather to freely exercise their constitutional rights in close proximity to the White House," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a joint open letter to Trump.

    The National Park Service said on Monday that the fence is temporary, and most of it will be removed on Wednesday.

    But protesters say they have no plans of leaving the area any time soon.

    "This fence is a clear message of the fear behind it and of the change that peaceful protesters can make in the world," said Vanessa, who did not want to give her last name.

    "Until things change, we shouldn't stop coming here. I think our presence is needed," she said. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News