In June 2020, a two-block section of 16th Street where it meets H Street (NW) at the north end of the park in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., was named Black Lives Matter Plaza, the words themselves painted in brilliant yellow on the pavement, at the initiative of the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, who said in response to demonstrations assailing police departments in many cities:
“There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized. We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city.”
Under Mrs. Bowser’s administration, the budget for the Metropolitan Police Department has increased. Many MPD personnel serve in the D.C. National Guard, units of which have deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan since the beginning of the war on terror.
The city remains among the more dangerous among large U.S. cities, with six murders per 100,000 by recent counts, compared to three in New York and 57 in Baltimore.
The BLM organization mocked the renaming of the plaza, made permanent shortly afterward by the city council, as “cosmetics,” and led demonstrations at the BLM plaza hostile to the police as late as election night this year.
The following story is not a report on events witnessed, but rather on attitudes and thoughts heard listening to individual officers, whose names, ranks, and conduct must, the reader will appreciate, remain confidential.
“You are sure about those surveillance cams,” the sergeant asked. “Those things, we know who’s running them?”
“I told you, Sarge,” the young cop again said without a hint of irritation at hearing the same question again. “We’re good there. No wires.”
“Thought all those things are digital,” the sergeant argued, you could tell it was for form.
“Just a manner of speaking,” the young cop said. “You know what I mean. You just stay in the car. You absolutely just stay in the car. Complete deniability. Me an’ Kev only. No body cams, name tags. If we’re caught, we’re rogues, we take the fall. Come on, Sarge.”
“They all have cameras on their phones.”
“Won’t matter. Scarves, black paint.”
“And they got reporters with ’em.”
“We see one, we smash the equipment, simple as that.”
“We’re the law, Herbie.”
“My point, Sarge. Did you see their signs? They don’t want no law. If we’re the law, it’s because we know the law is needed.”
The other young cop, who had heard the same exchange several times over the past 48 hours, spoke up, deep reverence in his voice — affection, even love. “Sarge, ain’t no risk to nobody but us. We wouldn’t. At the very mostest, you get a reprimand for lax supervision. Won’t do you no harm.”
The sergeant took his time.
“You men do not move, that’s an order, do-not-move, unless there is clear physical provocation or an officer is in danger. Got that?”
“Got it, boss.”
“You leave fast. Strike and run. Am I clear?”
“10-4,” Herbie said, in a flat, matter-of-course tone. “We strike, we cut right through them, Mike shows up in his car accidentally on purpose just as we hit K Street, we jump in, he rides off, circle, jump out, show up, surprise, “We got some Dunkin’s, Sarge! Be a long night!” Mike’s parked his car, removed the cover on his plates, shows up right after, innocent-like, “Hey, I heard somebody got Dunkin’s, whyn’cha tell me?” Any EMS make it to the scene, I guarantee y’, Sarge, won’t be nobody standin’ saw nothin’.”
The sergeant sat still. He was on the passenger side of his car, his driver on a coffee run.
“And nobody knowed nothin’,” he said after a long pause.
“Nobody, Sarge. You alone here.”
The sergeant waited, bent over to see out the side window if his driver was back.
“And you two never was here, neither.”
“Never, Sarge. We cool.”
In an office on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks away from the White House, a staffer requested a word with the mayor of the nation’s capital. Addressing her by her given name, the slender middle-aged man, whose suit pants seemed glued to his legs and both of whose ears were decorated by tiny gems, asked if he should call the Chief.
“They have, ah, aggressive banners on the square, boss,” he added. “Very hostile to the cops.”
“Why aren’t they happy? We won, didn’t we?”
“Yes, ma’am; they, ah, don’t partake of the joy, from what I’m hearing.”
“Who’s in charge of the line at the square?”
“Ah, a Sergeant Thomas. You’ve met him.”
“John Thomas, I know him, good family. Big man, you wouldn’t know how strong he is he’s so gentle. Very dark complexion, straight arrow, excuse me, you know what I mean.”
“No offense. Ahem, call him?”
“Get him on the line. Ask him how he reads it. If he sounds upset, put me on. Not that I can imagine John Thomas letting on he’s upset.”
“See them.” Kevin was not asking a question. Herbie and he, black hoodies over their uniform shirts and training pants the same color over their trousers, stood half a block away from what appeared to be a mass of rabid evolutionary mistakes.
“Looka those f–kers,” Herbie answered in an undertone. “Hey look, Gomez.”
A young policewoman was nearly face to face with a tall, lithe demonstrator whose gender was difficult to determine until Kevin noticed the blond ponytail riding behind the motorcycle helmet covering her head, if it really was a her — Kevin was not sure about these white folks, so many of them looked alike whether they had balls or what passed for tits among the women.
“It’s her, bro’. No way you’d miss Maria. The hell she doin’ there.”
“She insisted. She told Sarge she’d sue him.”
“He believe her?”
“’Course not. But you know Maria.”
“The woman’s spittin’ at her, Herb! Can you believe this s–t?”
“Man. You ready?”
“Hold on a minute. Sarge say Maria handles it, we don’t have cause. We got to respect that. What a babe. You ever — ”
“She’s got a steady. I think they were in Iraq together, medivac.”
Maria Gomez was standing her ground. She could not believe the rudeness of these people. How could they call her such names? The one in front of her, who had spit twice and was like a madwoman — Maria knew she must be a woman because of the voice, but you would not know from anything else about her. She steadied herself by laughing inwardly at the trouble her boyfriend must have when he tried to find something round and soft on her body, then it occurred to her she might not be a woman at all. These days, you never knew until you strip-searched them and even then. Her guy, who was deployed overseas again, lot of good that transfer to the Guard had done them, did not have that problem with her.
But the mob was advancing, inch by inch, pushing the obscene banner in front of their shrill screams, and the sergeant had said, no violence, that’s strict and final. Plastic shields and cordons, no sticks, no airsofts. Airsofts! She felt like drawing her Glock on this rabble, then scolded herself. Don’t be so silly. A slap in the face and a spanking is what they want.
Stepping back, her heel hit the curb on the south side of H Street and she stumbled backwards.
“I’m not aware they are in the park, y’honor,” Sergeant Thomas was saying, as calmly as he could, through his car phone. “So there’s no cause.”
“That is good, John, that is good,” the mayor said. “It’s just that I heard the protesters are, you know, a little excited, you know. The sentiment is understandable, you know.”
I do know, Sergeant Thomas thought to himself, which is why they are telling my uniforms they are dirt and worse.
“Yes, ma’m, orders are to allow some, er, exuberance.”
What John Thomas remembered when he said that, and afterward he never could explain adequately, though he understood it very well, why the memory and the words he used when speaking to the mayor coincided, was the time in Baghdad, he was on his first-ever deployment, and some crazy ragheads were screaming and advancing on the perimeter’s first fence and the captain’s order were clear, you let them past the first fence but you stop them at the second, neither Thomas, who was a corporal then, nor any of his fellow squad leaders understood how that was supposed to make any sense, but hey, orders.
The platoon took seven casualties including one KIA who happened to be a personal friend of Thomas and they had to shoot into the crazies and kill at least a dozen of them and they got a reprimand from the brass, who said Gen. Odierno himself was furious and very nearly relieved their colonel, and nobody had a word for John Thomas’ buddy, not until they brought the body home.
“You don’t give the other guy the benefit of the doubt, boy,” Thomas’s father, Master Sergeant John Thomas, Sr. (USA, Ret.), told him when they talked about it. “The other guy wants to kill you, ain’t no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.”
“Funny thing, Daddy,” John Thomas remembered the conversation. “That’s more or less what they tell you, y’ know, in training. When you deploy. When you go out. And then when you’re out, really out, some white half-assed staff guy calls and says, “Hey cool it, men, let them blow off some steam, steady now and hold your fire.”
“Ain’t always a white staff guy, boy,” one of the Vietnam war’s most decorated master sergeants said, three hearts in that many campaigns and proud of his son, the fourth Thomas in a row to wear his country’s uniform. “You know better’n say that.”
No it ain’t, Sergeant Thomas now thought, now it’s a black lady. His chuckle was interrupted by a voice on the car phone, “Officer down at the north side of the park, come in, Sergeant.”
“Herb, she’s down.” Kev was moving forward already, assault crouch, focused on the objective, which was the blond ponytail that now was raising an arm with what looked very much like a baseball bat.
Herbie was half a step behind and then he was half a step ahead running interference, holding his baton with two hands as they frayed their way between their own line and the mass that was now on the sidewalk, their long banner held like a horizontal battering ram above what Kevin realized were Maria’s legs as the blues behind her pulled on her arms.
“I’m goin’ for the blonde, Herbie,” Kev shouted, “cover my left.” He grabbed the ponytail, yanked violently, was surprised at how little resistance he felt. He bent the body backwards while he kicked a calf to speed the fall. In the split of a second his eyes caught Maria scrambling behind her own line and Herbie swinging his baton in the other direction. “It’s butter,” he shouted over his shoulder, “we’ll cut right through ’em.”
Like a crew pulling their oars, field hands swinging their scythes, they sliced a line from the edge of the park to 13th Street, where it thinned out and they could see people scattering out of their way. Kev had pulled a blackjack from his pocket and was smashing it on bone whenever he caught up with a fleeing rioter, while his partner swung with an accuracy disguised as wild flaying, and they found themselves in the middle of a block alone but for two forms scrambling in opposite directions like —
“ — rabbits,” Kevin said, panting. “They won’t even stand an’ fight.”
“Come on, bud, we’re outta here,” Herbie said quietly, “we get caught it’s Sarge’s ass, hurry.”
Sergeant John Thomas was on the sidewalk at the north end of the park, the car phone in one hand on a long extension, Maria Gomez hanging on to his other one, which was big enough for both of hers to hold onto. He spoke into the cap, “It’s under control, ma’m, I repeat. They’re on the other side of H now, the park is secure.”
The mayor’s voice was sharp, with, he thought, just a tremor of panic, and he only caught some of it because Maria stumbled and pulled on his other hand. “peaceful protesters … ambulance on the scene… who ordered … what are you doing, John Thomas?”
Sergeant Thomas got the drift, but what he said, holding the cap to his chest so the voice would not be transmitted, was, “Officer, are you okay? Maria?”
And she said, “No problemo, Sarge, did you see that banner? Did you see what it said?”
“It’s all right, honey, are you hurt?”
“Hurt my ass is all. Give me a stick, Sarge, I’m goin’ — ”
“Stand down, Officer,” Sergeant Thomas said, and he could not help laughing at the five-five girl, smaller than his eldest, a third Maria’s age, and her angry, furious, indignant, and, he thought, pretty, very pretty brown face with the shiny white teeth and the mussed-up black hair framed by the blues forming a phalanx around their chief and their favorite partner, and then he saw she was laughing too.