Feeling This Moment
On the eve of the 2020 presidential election, Washington D.C. readies for its climax. I detail the sights and sounds in the run-up to this historic day.
A thick fog coats my glasses. My breath battles to unfurl upwards. This is 2020.
I begin my early morning jog in a city gone quiet. I run down Vermont Avenue, then take a winding right on Rhode Island, and streak down 16th. It only takes three turns and a couple stop light breaks to reach the White House. By the time it’s in sight, I’m a little gassed and in a bit of a sweat. My feet start to slow as the president’s mansion, office, and fortress comes into focus. I lower my mask to cradle my chin. The haze on my glasses dissipates. And I stare. I see other joggers do the same.
Even though I was in the same position at the same time the morning before, it’s hard not to stand amazed. My daily running route leads to the most iconic building in the world. On days where I have more energy, or managed to not hit the snooze button three times, I might run the extra half mile down to the Mall. But on most mornings, I at least reach the White House. How can I not?
For a few minutes every morning, I find myself trying to take in this moment. I’m living through perhaps the nation’s most historic yet tumultuous period in my lifetime, which includes my faint memories from 9/11. I’m at the epicenter.
As the cool air started to warm in the late spring, these workouts were an escape. At this point, working-from-home became a way of life, and the city had been widely shut down. Restaurants, stores, and travel widely off-limits. My day would be book-ended by my run to the White House in the morning, and the President’s daily press briefings in the late afternoon. Every day widely the same.
A few weeks later, George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer changed everything. The mood evolved from anxious to angry. The viral video of this Minneapolis murder became an inflection point for the country. For many, it underscored the cries previously unheard. For many others, it was an awakening to inequities that exist.
Within days, protests spread from the Midwest to every city in America. In our nation’s capital, there were peaceful protests within blocks of every major landmark in the city, for which there are many. Even in the sleepier more residential neighborhoods where my apartment sits, crowds and chants would amass.
At the end of each work day, I would hear the clangs of pots and pans to thank the health care professionals leaving their shifts at nearby Howard University Hospital and then transition to ring for racial equality protests on the streets below.
Admittedly, I did not participate in the protests. I would often stand from afar in a private support of solidarity. Given the infectious nature of COVID-19, even while masked and outside, I chose to observe, listen, and sear these moments into my mind.
At times, it felt hypocritical. This was especially the case after the passing of civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis. He preached the importance of vigilance, action, and “good trouble”, and being a bystander felt unbecoming of that doctrine.
The asphalt underneath my feet changed colors. At the end of 16th Street on my morning runs, the words Black Lives Matter now stretched in an illuminating yellow across a newly formed plaza. This would turn to be the convergence for protests, right in front of the White House.
The surroundings on my jog had also changed. I saw broken glass, raided stores, and graffiti tattooed on businesses, apartments, and statues. The overwhelming number of peaceful and just protesters who would rally during the days, would be undermined by a relatively small but seriously aggressive set of opportunists at night. Critics gained a foil as real world violence was inaccurately enlarged and portrayed.
The destruction and vandalism could be seen throughout downtown. It deserved condemnation and full prosecution under the law. But, there were reports of well-organized Antifa militias which were later deemed flatly false by the FBI Director, Christopher Wray.
Fences and barriers had been erected around the White House now. The public barricaded from the People’s House. After a particularly tense night of unrest, I ran down to my usual locale. I could no longer enter Lafayette Park which now was inside the perimeter. I could see the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and so many others whose portraits now lined the gates as a vigil.
I stood across the street in front of Saint John’s Episcopal Church. Next to me, Mayor Muriel Bowser was being interviewed for the morning talk shows by a press gaggle. Her city bubbling from a rising temperature.
About ten hours later, the situation would turn worse. At the direction of President Trump, peaceful protestors were pepper sprayed and tear gassed in a show of strength. Close to the very spot where I had stood that morning, he held a bible and seized his photo opp. A truly remarkable and harrowing display. The Commander in Chief, who is charged with protecting the freedom of speech and assembly, silencing it with force. The city now pushed beyond its boiling point.
In the days that followed, I would see black spray stained on the World War II Memorial, military officers stationed at the Lincoln Memorial, and police officers siphoning the city into de facto checkpoints. I heard the heavy hum of choppers overhead. Aircraft meant for war were dispatched to Chinatown and Columbia Heights.
On the morning of July 4th, a hot and sunny Saturday, I ran down to the reflection pool. I could see military officers, boys really, littered through the Mall. I strikingly realized that most were younger than me and yet charged with keeping the peace. Most did not have rifles in hand. Instead, they carried water bottles to hydrate during the humid day. The scene still jarring nonetheless.
The flyovers that evening were majestic yet serene. Air Force One dominated the sky and the Blue Angels whipped in and out of formation. The fireworks pounded the darkening dusk. I sat outside in awe. The city entranced by the celebration of our nation’s birth in the air while a pseudo-military zone waited on the ground. I didn’t feel unsafe or nervous but there was a sinking feeling that all was not right.
A similar pit in my stomach would emerge over a month later. The final night of the Republican National Convention culminated at the White House. Afterwards, a concussive thunder of fireworks reverberated through my apartment. The scene out my window was beautiful yet striking. A blip of revelry for some was masking a time of pain for many.
At this point, protests had waned. They would still occur but without the same vigor as the early summer. Riots had also subdued. I no longer would see fresh messages of “ACAB” and “F*** the 12”.
As summer turned to fall, I escaped the city for a brief reprieve; a weekend spent in West Virginia. Sitting around a campfire with gooey s’mores in-hand, news broke that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had passed away. The shock waves pierced through the woods and traversed the country roads.
The following Monday, as I drove home, I stopped outside the Supreme Court Building. It sits dwarfed behind the towering Capitol yet stands strong as a coequal branch. Normally, this morning would be desolate with kids in school and legal clerks shuffling in and out. Instead, I saw countless mothers and daughters paying tribute to a woman who broke ground for them and all of us.
The confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett would follow, as would a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center for the infected President. Time stood still until it didn’t. And, life pressed on.
As the cold air sets in, I find that my morning runs have gotten sporadic. I hear the crunch of leaves from my trot, see the hue of Halloween decorations at daybreak, and notice the now unmissable Biden-Harris signs lining a very liberal city.
The summer’s tension, which had diminished, starts to percolate. Lafayette Park is once again sealed shut. The Ellipse closed off as well. I see businesses downtown boarding up their window panes bracing for an uncertain week.
We are on the cusp of a very important election during a very trying time. The autumn winds howl, but it’s unclear which way the winds will blow. I hope it is one for change and a new president. One who cools emotions and hears supporters and detractors alike. One who recognizes the gravity of these crises and reclaims that the buck stops with him. One who fights our common enemies instead of creating fissures in the American fabric.
I have to say that I miss the calm and the quiet. This probably explains why the mornings are my favorite time to run.
The bike lanes are empty. The cars only whoosh one at a time. And, the people are friendly. There are runners, walkers, and workers all tackling the day, and with each minute, more trickle out.
I appreciate this time, and I savor it. I especially enjoy when I get that first glimpse of the White House on the horizon. It will be there tomorrow. It will be there the next day. It will look magnificently pristine.
The surroundings are malleable.