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Demonstrators protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 7, 2020.

BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

As tens of thousands of people packed the streets of the U.S. capital Saturday and Sunday to demand an end to police brutality and racism, the mood was half political protest and half summer block party.

Activists painted “defund the police” on a street leading to the White House. A band on a flatbed truck played go-go music, a local funk subgenre. Demonstrators staged a “die-in” at the Lincoln Memorial, lying in commemoration of people killed by police. Despite the difficulty maintaining COVID-19 physical distancing amid the crowds, the vast majority wore face masks.

It was a sharp contrast from the previous weekend, when squads of riot police opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets, while some demonstrators smashed store fronts and torched vehicles and dumpsters.

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Throughout the intervening week, the uprising that began after the death of George Floyd grew on every successive day in Washington, even after President Donald Trump promised a crackdown and called in the military.

“The world is waking up,” said Ian Wanjau, a 26-year-old engineering student, as he stood near the main protest at Lafayette Square Saturday. “People are seeing that this country is unjust.”

But as the demonstrations revealed pent-up national fury strong enough to ignite the most widespread protests since the Civil Rights movement, they also showed a city vacillating between supporting the protests and tamping them down.

Washington is overwhelmingly liberal, with Democrats typically attracting about 90 per cent of the vote and a city council that recently implemented a package of police accountability measures. But on the first days of protest, City Hall joined the White House in clamping down on the demonstrations. Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a curfew and local police enforced it with mass arrests.

In one incident last Monday, officers from the Metropolitan Police Department kettled protesters on residential Swann Street. They fired pepper spray into the crowd and moved in to round people up. When Rahul Dubey allowed 70 protestors into his house to escape the onslaught, he said, police even shot pepper spray through his windows.

During an eight-hour standoff, officers surrounded the house, waiting for protesters to emerge. Police tried to trick Mr. Dubey into inviting them inside, he said, including by claiming that someone in the home had called 911.

“You’re going to jail and fine a 20-year-old?” Mr. Dubey, a 44-year-old entrepreneur, said incredulously of the police tactics. “You ignited this.”

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The neighbourhood pulled together. People on the block provided milk so protesters could wash pepper spray out of their eyes. Others delivered pizza. Shortly after sunrise, volunteers with cars drove up to the back entrance of the house and spirited demonstrators through the police lines in groups of twos and threes.

Federal forces used similar tactics as the local police did that night. The Secret Service and U.S. Parks Police wielded teargas and batons to drive peaceful protesters away from St. John’s Church near the White House so Mr. Trump could use it for a photo-op. And the National Guard flew helicopters low over groups of protesters, snapping trees in the process, to frighten them into dispersing.

By the middle of the week, the city pulled an about-face. Ms. Bowser renamed the square outside St. John’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, and had the phrase painted in huge yellow letters on the street. Local police no longer blocked protest marches from moving through the city.

Federal police seemed to follow their lead. By Saturday, the lines of riot police around the White House had vanished. A few groups of National Guard troops with armoured military vehicles were stationed around downtown, but they made no effort to interfere with the protests.

The demonstrations, meanwhile, expanded. And they brought with them an increasing feeling of community on the streets. On Saturday, several groups donated bottles of water, hand sanitizer and sandwiches to the crowd. Some businesses, including the Union Drinkery bar and the 9:30 Club music venue, opened their doors for protesters to get water and escape the blazingly sunny 32C heat.

“Sitting at home, I didn’t like the feeling of not being able to contribute,” said Constance Aboagyewaa, a 20-year-old university student protesting for the first time, as she handed out water near the Washington Monument. “I just wanted to do anything I could to help.”

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Near Lafayette, a group of health care workers, wearing white coats and carrying signs reading “racism is a public-health issue,” took a knee in silent protest.

It was a reminder of the unique context of the demonstrations, coming amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept most of the country at home for the past three months and disproportionately affected people of colour. Black Americans are more likely than white people to die of COVID-19, and to have lost work during the shutdown.

For Alia Johnson, a 24-year-old nurse, this helped explain the scale of the demonstrations, which spread much farther and faster than previous protests against police brutality.

“People are out of work. People have family members who died of COVID. And they see this racism,” she said. “All that combined is what sparked this.”

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