Tensions between President Trump, law enforcement and protesters demanding justice for George Floyd reached ominous new heights Monday night when military personnel fired tear gas into a crowd of demonstrators just outside White House grounds.
At about 6:45 p.m. and without warning, law enforcement sent canisters of tear gas and smoke bombs hissing and spinning down the concrete, creating ear-rattling explosions and fireworks that caused panic in the streets and sent the crowd of hundreds stampeding for safety.
The skirmish near the White House, which started at least 15 minutes before a citywide curfew took effect, came as Trump addressed the nation from the Rose Garden, where he promised to dispatch “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting vandalism and the wanton destruction of property.”
The high-decibel explosions were audible from the Rose Garden as the president spoke.
Hundreds of protesters flooded the streets around the White House as the clock ticked toward a 7 p.m. curfew that had been announced earlier in the day by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).
The National Guard had been instructed to clear the area around the White House so that the president could walk across the street to St. John’s church, which had been set on fire by vandals the night before.
The streets around the White House were filled with with scores of police cars, armored vehicles and heavily armed military personnel squaring off with angry protesters, who were concentrated at the corner of 16th Street and H Street along Lafayette Square Park, which faces the White House.
Military personnel in riot gear carried shields and long guns as they guarded the perimeter of the park, standing face to face with jeering demonstrators, who were peaceful but verbally taunting toward law enforcement.
On H street, police on horseback and National Guardsmen held the line, pushing protesters west toward 17th Street.
The multi-racial crowd, most of them wearing face masks, buzzed with anger and chants of “black lives matter” or “these are our streets.”
Many held signs honoring Floyd, the unarmed black man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked national outrage and protests across the country.
As the curfew neared, the crowd suddenly broke into a blind panic, running westbound on H street as the sound of several loud booms echoed through the street.
The police had unexpectedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs at the demonstrators without warning.
Protesters collided as they tried to escape the smoke and gas, pleading with one another to stay orderly through the chaos to avoid a deadly stampede.
Some retreated to the side of the road to pour water over their burning eyes as the streets filled with smoke and gas, making it difficult to breathe.
The police would march for about 30 yards before stopping to create a new perimeter further down H Street. The crowd would stop too, returning to the front lines to chant at the police.
Then again, without warning, the military would go on the march, shooting tear gas and smoke bombs into the crowd and igniting another panic among the demonstrators, who frantically sought a way out from the maze of downtown street closures.
The crowd was eventually pushed back to 17th street, which was blocked by national guardsmen from the north side, forcing protesters to flee southbound toward the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.
The offensive from the police intensified, with tear gas and smoke bombs popping left and right as protesters sprinted away.
By 7 p.m., the police had cleared all of the streets surrounding the White House, creating a full perimeter that allowed the president to walk to the church across from LaFayette Park.
At his speech in the Rose Garden, as chaos broke out around the White House, Trump demanded that state and local officials turn back the violent protests that have swept the nation.
“Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled,” Trump said. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the U.S. military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
Monday’s unrest marks the fourth night of violent demonstrations across dozens of cities in the U.S.
Floyd’s death has provoked roiling anger at law enforcement, igniting one of the most intense periods of civil unrest in modern times.
Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin was arrested for murder after video emerged of him restraining Floyd by kneeling on his neck. Floyd died at the scene.
The president has demanded that state and local officials crack down on incidents of arson, looting and vandalism that have taken place.
There has been significant damage done to downtown Washington, with several landmarks defaced, including the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial and a statue of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski.
Trump briefly retreated to an underground bunker as the protests swelled around the White House on Friday night.