As Sen. Angus King of Maine joined thousands of protesters against racism and police brutality outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, he drew connections between the current uprisings and his experience at the 1963 March on Washington.
Thousands gathered on Capitol Hill Saturday to join a protest organized by Freedom Fighters D.C., one of an array of demonstrations across the city that drew some of the largest crowds since protests began last month.
King said the people in the streets, in Washington and across the country, are asking for the same things marchers asked for in 1963. He was a 19-year-old student at Dartmouth College and was on hand for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the march on Aug. 28, 1963.
“Nobody’s asking for anything special. They’re only asking for what America has promised,” the senator said. “Freedom and justice for all, brotherhood from sea to shining sea, our basic creed. That’s all people are asking for.”
He said he thought it was important to be out in the streets this weekend in support of the protests and called it a “full circle moment” for him dating back almost 60 years.
“This is what America is all about. First Amendment rights of people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for the redress of grievances. This is a 400-year-old grievance,” King said, referring to the 1619 arrival of the first enslaved Africans to what was then the British colony at Jamestown, Va.
Protests that began shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 have spread into all 50 states and even to some other countries.
King noted that the crowd Saturday was, by his estimation, about 80 percent white and young people made up a significant portion of the demonstrators, which he called “significant” when drawing comparisons to the 1963 March on Washington.
Among changes to policing he would like to see is a national database of police violence, particularly against blacks.
“One of the complicated things about this is everybody wants it to be fixed here,” said King, an independent, gesturing to the Capitol and Senate office buildings. “But in reality, it’s got to be fixed in every town and city in America.”
The senator was not the center of anyone’s attention at the gathering, dressed in unassuming clothes with a baseball cap on his head. He did not actively make his position as a lawmaker known to fellow demonstrators. King's lobster-print face mask would only be a giveaway to obsessive Senate-watchers.
“Congress, Where You At?” read a nearby sign held by a protester, who was pleased to hear that at least one elected official was in the crowd.
King wasn’t the only lawmaker in the streets Saturday. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden was on the Capitol grounds, handing out water and snacks to protesters.
Temperatures approached 90 degrees and groups with coolers of water, Gatorade and snacks passed them out.
Repeated shouts of “free water here,” gave the brief impression of vendors at a baseball game. But cries of “to fight for justice, you need to hydrate,” reminded the crowd of the task at hand.
Protesters passed around sunscreen as people sought shade to slather themselves before a long march, where shade from anything but signs held high were hard to come by.
Among the protesters on Capitol Hill were a few women with clipboards, pens, hand sanitizer and voter registration forms. In their first 30 minutes on the scene, they had registered about 5 new D.C. voters, and directed many non-D.C. residents how to register in their locality.
Johnna Percell was one of the women leading the voter registration effort, which was not affiliated with a larger organization.
Each new registrant was met with praise and an exclamation of “yay” or “great, thank you,” along with a squirt or spray of hand sanitizer.
The registration effort hoped to be mobile and move with the crowd as the protest transitioned to a march, according to Percell, who had makeshift clipboards using binder clips and book covers, in addition to traditional clipboards.
There were a handful of Capitol Police near the crowd at Dirksen, primarily directing traffic. The larger deployment of USCP officers was around the Capitol itself, where a barricade encircled the East Front and officers lined up inside the perimeter.
The huge crowd outside Dirksen chanted “this is what democracy looks like” and “black lives matter,” and took a knee before marching.
The march was led by about a dozen organizers from Freedom Fighters D.C., all in black shirts with the organization’s name. They made sure to slow the march to keep the thousands of protesters together.
At one point the organizers urged the crowd to pause and turn around to look back, where thousands of sign-wielding marchers filled the slope of Constitution Avenue from Dirksen to the bottom of the Hill west of the Capitol.
Three Capitol Police officers on motorcycles drove about 50 meters ahead of the marchers as they began down Constitution, past the Capitol and toward the National Mall.
The police escort, of sorts, was juxtaposed by chants about racist cops. Capitol Police vehicles moved ahead of the marchers, even past the typical USCP jurisdiction.
The protest organizers were flanked by hard hat and reflective vest-wearing teams stocked with water, snacks, ice packs and first aid supplies. They ensured that the organizers had water, but also continually scanned the crowd for demonstrators in need of help or hydration.
Supporters of the march dotted the sidewalks along Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues and other parts of the route.
Other marches moved from Arlington, Va., into D.C. and protests continued at Freedom Plaza and on 16th Street across from the heavily barricaded White House. At the same time the march from the Capitol was on the move, another throng marched toward the Capitol, before continuing back to the White House.
The Freedom Fighters D.C. march paused on Constitution outside the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum. The crowd undulated as thousands knelt and listened to poetry and comments from the protest organizers.
The crowd continued on to the Lincoln Memorial and City Hall, where the focus of the protest was action from Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. government on policing.
Activists made their mark on the massive mural that the D.C. government painted on 16th Street, reading Black Lives Matter, blacking out the stars of the D.C. flag and adding the phrase “Defund the Police,” so the fresh iteration read Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police.
Black Lives Matter DMV organizers have been vocal about the mural, calling it performative, saying it “distracted from real policy change." They demanded substantive action on policing issues in the city.
The posture of Saturday's protests, including the Freedom Fighters D.C. march and others across the city, was a shift from earlier protests in which federal law enforcement used tear gas and physical force to disperse peaceful protesters and corralled and arrested dozens who sought shelter. Protesters and police kept each other at a distance and largely avoided skirmishes.