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Blocks away from the White House, crowds in Black Lives Matter Plaza continue to raise their voices in a unique blend of protest, celebration and commemoration

Protesters demonstrate in front of Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington on June 20, 2020.Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Every time U.S. President Donald Trump looks out his front window, he’s greeted by the sight of a protest.

Over the past three weeks, demonstrators against police brutality and racism have set up an occupation of several city blocks near the White House. The makeshift village has tents for overnight camping. Tables offer donated food, clothing and hand sanitizer. The space is a jumping-off point for frequent marches that snake their way through the city.

On Monday evening, protesters erected signs branding it the Black House Autonomous Zone and built barricades around the area out of 2x4s and dumpsters. Then, they wrapped chains around a statue of Andrew Jackson, the president best known for his policy of Indigenous genocide, in Lafayette Square and tried to pull it down. Baton-wielding riot police pushed them back.

The perpetual protest began after a previous scene of violence on the same spot, when officers pepper-sprayed a peaceful crowd earlier this month to beat a path for Mr. Trump to hold a photo op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Since that day, this place has become the epicentre of the national movement for racial justice.

The hope is to keep alive the momentum started by demonstrations against the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed by Minneapolis police in late May. The protesters vow to stay as long as it takes to get concrete police accountability and criminal justice reforms passed.

“Until there’s justice, until there’s peace, we’re not going to allow them to reopen the street,” said Antonio Shivers, 22, as he ran one of the food tables, dubbed Earl’s First Amendment Grill after the constitutional provision protecting freedom of speech and assembly.

Mr. Shivers said the table started with a single small grill and US$50 donation. Now, it’s grown to include three donated barbecues and a steady supply of food. Hammocks tied to nearby trees offer shaded resting spots for the volunteer cooks.

The encampment is semi-sanctioned by the city. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser had “Black Lives Matter” painted in large yellow letters on 16th Street and ordered a square outside St. John’s named Black Lives Matter Plaza. But protesters say local authorities tentatively tried to get them to move even before the clash on Monday.

River Rubalcava said police removed temporary barriers one morning last week and started letting traffic through. He said he sat down in front of a city bus and another protester lay in the street to block vehicles. Eventually the bus backed up and police allowed the area to remain closed to traffic.

“I’m hopeful things will change,” said Mr. Rubalcava, a 37-year-old minister who drove from San Antonio, Tex., with his dog, a mountain cur named Love, to take part in the protests. “There’s a lot of support from people of all different backgrounds.”

The demonstrations have already prompted politicians at all levels to unveil policy changes. These include two competing legislative packages in Congress, an executive order by Mr. Trump and bills in state legislatures and city councils across the country.

But Leigh McAlpin, 36, a mainstay at the encampment, warned substantive reforms will go nowhere unless demonstrators commit to the painstaking activism necessary to see them through.

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“Everyone is content marching, but no one is really talking about what happens after the marches,” she said Friday, as the crowd in Black Lives Matter Plaza swelled into the thousands for Juneteenth, the day marking the abolition of slavery. “We need actionable advocacy items. It’s more than just voting out the President.”

Ms. McAlpin has a few ideas on what those items could be: cutting police budgets to better fund social programs, reforming the criminal justice system to stop the disproportionately high incarceration of Black people, improving schools in low-income neighbourhoods. To make these changes, she said, more people must join civil rights groups, get involved in local politics and use townhalls and other forums to keep the pressure on politicians.

“I’m marching so my future nephew doesn’t have to. I’m marching so the next time a Black person is killed by police, because that will happen, justice is swift,” she said.

The scene on the street often mixes protest, commemoration and celebration, drawing a wide range of the capital’s residents. On Sunday afternoon, young men danced to reggae music, activists ran voter registration booths and families on Father’s Day outings strolled in the humid air. Even Washington’s ubiquitous street vendors, hurting economically from the pandemic-induced collapse in tourism, set up shop at the encampment, selling everything from T-shirts bearing the faces of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, to dashikis and homemade pies.

Thousands of homemade signs adorned crowd-control barriers meant to keep protesters away from the White House. “All dads can’t matter until Black dads matter,” read one message. “Colour is not a crime,” said another. Others memorialized Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and other Black people killed by police.

Lennox Jones, a 70-year-old retired university administrator, stood in Lafayette with his grown children and young grandchildren.

“It’s a family visit to remember what has happened and teach our grandchildren about what is going on in the country,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s important they know how they fit in, so they don’t become a statistic.”

Civil servant Marvin Jerome, 50, came down for the first time to see the Black Lives Matter lettering on the street. And he expressed hope that the message would reach the man inside the mansion behind the barricades.

“The government,” he said, gesturing towards the White House, “needs a constant reminder.”

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