Editor’s Note : Amid nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., President Donald Trump on June 1 threatened in a Rose Garden speech that he would deploy military personnel to cities that refused to call out the National Guard. Following his announcement, police dispersed a peaceful protest outside the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets so the president could cross the park and pose in front of the historic St. John’s Church. Rev. Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown, about two miles west, had been at St. John’s Lafayette Square organizing aid for protesters that afternoon. This is her account of the events.
On June 1, I was at St. John's Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., for most of the afternoon — along with fellow clergy and laypeople from my own Episcopal tradition and from other denominations — passing out water and snacks so that St. John's could be a place of respite and peace for those on the streets protesting police brutality.
The Black Lives Matter medic team, headed by an EMT, had been on the patio of the church all day, and thankfully had not needed to much of the eyewash they had prepared to treat victims of tear gas.
Everything was mostly calm until about 6:15 p.m. — 45 minutes before Washington, D.C.’s 7 p.m. curfew. That’s when police started pushing protesters off of H Street, which separates the church from Lafayette Park, and ultimately, the White House. They started using tear gas as protesters — who had assembled peacefully in the park — ran at us for eyewashes, water, and wet paper towels.
Julia — one of our seminarians for next year, who is a trauma nurse — and I looked at each other in disbelief. I was coughing, her eyes were watering, and we were trying to help people as the police, in full riot gear, drove people toward us. Julia and her classmates left and I stayed with the Black Lives Matter team trying to help people.
Suddenly, at about 6:30 p.m., protesters were assaulted with more tear gas, more concussion grenades, and I believe a man was hit by a rubber bullet — he was grasping his stomach, and there was a mark on his shirt. The police in their riot gear walked onto the St. John's Lafayette Square patio with metal shields, pushing people off the patio and driving them back. People were running at us as the police advanced.
I was so stunned I only got a few water bottles and my spray bottle of eyewash. We were literally driven off the St. John's Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear. We were pushed back 20 feet, and then eventually — with even more concussion grenades — back to K street.
By the time I got back to my car, around 7 p.m., I saw the news that Donald Trump was outside of St. John's Lafayette Square. And it hit me: We were driven off of the patio at St. John’s — a place of peace and respite and medical care — so that man could have a photo opportunity. People were hurt so that he could pose in front of the church with a Bible. He would have had to step over the medical supplies we left behind while being tear gassed.
I am shaken, not so much by the taste of tear gas and the bit of a cough I still have, but by the fact that the show of force was so one of our churches could be used for a photo opportunity. The patio of St. John's Lafayette Square had been holy ground today — place of rest and laughter and water and granola bars and fruit snacks. But that man turned it into a battle ground, first, and a cheap political stunt, second.
I am deeply offended on behalf of every protester, every Christian, the people of St. John's Lafayette Square, every decent person there, and the Black Lives Matter medics who stayed with just a single box of supplies and a backpack, even after I left. I am okay. But I am now a force to be reckoned with.