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Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the international arrivals terminal of Dulles airport last Saturday night, chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and “Refugees are welcome here” as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained passengers in response to President Trump’s executive order restricting entry to the United States. “Let them see their lawyers,” the crowd shouted, as CBP, in defiance of a federal court order, continued to block attorneys from talking to legal permanent residents of the U.S they were detaining.
Protesters returned to Dulles the next day, and thousands of people streamed into Lafayette Square to oppose Trump’s order, which refuses entry to citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, including holders of U.S. green cards. Metro trains were packed. This was only eight days after one of the largest protests in American history, the Women’s March, and nine after activists from Disrupt J20 clashed with police. Meanwhile, further large-scale rallies were announced for the months ahead: the People’s Climate March in April, a national LGBTQpride march in June, and a scientists’ march yet to be scheduled.
Welcome to the District of Protest.
Not even two weeks into the Trump presidency, it’s becoming clear that large crowds taking to the streets to oppose his administration won’t be a rare occurrence. It’s hard to predict all the consequences for the city, but here are a few to expect.
Citizens will feel a stronger sense of ownership over urban space. At the Women’s March, having the run of so much of D.C. seemed to exhilarate protesters. One chant that echoed around the crowd was “Whose streets? Our streets.” Marchers laid claim to urban space. They repurposed fences around the White House by affixing their signs to them, making DIY displays of political art. They amassed a shrine of signs outside the Trump International Hotel.
It wasn’t limited to the Women’s March, either. Greenpeace activists scaled a construction crane at 15th and L Streets NW to hang a RESIST banner and rappelled back down. Even before the inauguration, local artists projected anti-Trump language onto the facades of Trump’s hotel and the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, and a punk musician plastered “Experts Agree: Trump Is a Pig!” posters and stickers around town.
This kind of grassroots city-hacking is known as tactical urbanism. It’s the same spirit behind pop-up stores and community gardens, directed toward more subversive ends.
The machinery of D.C.’s construction boom could be further co-opted to serve political speech. Cranes abound, and temporary construction fences and plywood hoardings may tempt those who are loath to damage more valuable property. Anti-Trump graffiti is evident around the city and will probably spread. The “Bridges Not Walls” movement, which hung banners with messages of inclusion from bridges over the Thames in London, could come to the Potomac.
Depending on how Trump’s immigration proposals pan out, local airports could see regular and protracted demonstrations. With heat and A/C, bathrooms, food for sale, parking, and transit connections, an airport can support long vigils or rotating shifts of people in any weather, as we saw with volunteer attorneys last weekend at Dulles.
The scale of D.C.’s monumental core will again be a feature, not a bug. The grand scale of Washington’s civic center impresses visitors. But it sometimes frustrates local urbanists, who long for the liveliness of narrow streets threaded between mixed-use buildings. The two-mile-long Mall can be a wearying, parched expanse during the summer months.
Mass protests remind us that scale has its advantages. The Women’s March brought half a million people to the Mall area—more than twice as many as expected. They filled not just the Mall, but the planned route along Independence Avenue, and so quickly that the official march was canceled. The human tide poured onto Constitution and Pennsylvania and formed channels going north up 7th, 14th, and 15th Streets. One march became three or four. With its broad radial avenues and squares, Washington is well suited, spatially, for masses of moving bodies.
Compare the situation to New York. Although New York City certainly doesn’t lack for large public spaces, protesters there were directed to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the UN headquarters, which only has a capacity of 8,000. It soon became overwhelmed. Pushing and shoving broke out, and activists complained about the site being inadequate. “Can the city accommodate the pace and volume of the counterrevolution?” asked The New York Times. There’s no question that D.C. can. Even if the stretch of Pennsylvania where the Old Post Office (home to Trump’s hotel) stands becomes a site of continual protest, as some activists now hope, the broad sidewalk and nearby Freedom Plaza should be able to accommodate it, letting Washingtonians go about their normal routines downtown.
The National Park Service could put grass protectors on the Mall often to protect the newly restored turf from being trampled to mud. These white plastic panels already sparked a feud over the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, their empty spaces glaringly obvious in aerial photos. That visual was an accident, but perhaps artists who oppose Trump will try to harness the Mall for a large-scale project like the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
More frequent protests will underscore our dependence on Metro. Hating on Metro is a favorite local pastime, but face it: The Women’s March couldn’t have gone off as smoothly as it did without it. In the era of SafeTrack, Metro actually works better for throngs of fired-up people on a Saturday than for everyday commuters hoping to get to daycare before closing time. (At the same time, a fire or other accident on a protest day could be catastrophic, all the more reason to accept SafeTrack delays with equanimity.)
More political rallies will boost ridership, bringing some welcome revenue to the cash-poor system, although not enough to plug its deficits. Even on Jan. 21, when it logged more than 1 million trips, Metro lost money. Metro’s board chair Jack Evans has said he’s optimistic about getting more federal funding for the system, given the new administration’s emphasis on infrastructure. That’s a possibility. Another possibility is that the feds withhold capital funding from Metro because of continuing safety problems or to show fiscal prudence. Any operational cutbacks by Metro could serve to lower the attendance at protest events if people can’t get there.
“Protest is the new brunch,” read a sign outside the Trump International Hotel on Sunday. Brunch isn’t going anywhere, but some of the feel-good pursuits that have defined Washington in the Obama Age, as it swelled with young professionals with disposable income to burn, may take a backseat to civic engagement. Hotels and Airbnb landlords may do well out of this, booking visitors for big rallies. But some tourists might avoid downtown once the novelty of protest wears off and the inconveniences mount. Regular protests would be a big drain on the city budget and police department. If the District seeks to plug the hole with more federal funds, Congress might withhold these as punishment for its sanctuary-city status.
It’s debatable how long the current mood will last before fatigue sets in. In the meantime, near-daily protests are a potent reminder of how flexible and accommodating our main civic spaces really are. L’Enfant, Washington’s planner, called the Mall his “public walk” and saw it not as an unspoiled green but a bustling space akin to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He described the future city of Washington as a “system of movement”—which is exactly what it became on Jan. 21.