A year later, DC church leader looks back on the clearing of Lafayette Square

May 31, 2021

Exactly a year after racial justice protesters were forcibly cleared out of a downtown D.C. intersection near the White House, a religious leader who will forever be associated with the historic event is reflecting on the moment.

“It still feels surreal to me,” recalled Rev. Robert Fisher, church rector at St. John’s Episcopal on H Street Northwest, where the scene played out on the evening of June 1, 2020, just days after the death of George Floyd. “I could not believe what was taking place.”

Fisher said he was at the church until around an hour before the clearing of 16th and H, at the northern end of Lafayette Square, and just feet away from their house of worship.

He had to step away to do a televised interview about a fire that damaged St. John’s the night before, and was waiting for the host when the news broke.

Protesters are cleared from Lafayette Square June 1, 2020. (WTOP/Ken Duffy)

“I found out as it was happening but only with sound and no visuals,” Fisher remembered. “That’s why it was so surreal.”

Shortly after local and federal law enforcement cleared the area with the use of chemical irritants, smoke canisters and flash bangs, President Donald Trump appeared in front of St. John’s Parish House, posing for cameras with a Bible. The church billboard as part of the backdrop.

Fisher’s name was among those on the church billboard, which is now part of historic images and video from that day.

“We happened to be behind him but there was no connection,” Fisher said. “There was no reaching out to us and no conversation before, during or after.”

Fisher now views the moment as an “inflection point” for the summer of racial justice protesting that was to come — “probably part of what gave the energy toward a national reckoning that continues to take place about race in this country.”

Lessons

Fisher said there’s still a lot of damage left to repair to the church’s nursery room and the building on a whole, totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“That room still needs to be repaired, and [there’s] other damage, including to our air conditioning system,” said Fisher. “We have a make-do system until we can get all the wiring fully repaired, even a year later. Of course, the pandemic and other things have slowed down the process.”

But after all that transpired during a summer of protesting, Fisher said, St. John’s has become a “pilgrimage site,” which moves him.

“The only thing that we could do is what we’ve done since, and realize that, with the spotlight shining in this way, it gives us a privilege and a voice,” Fisher said. “We have then sought to take that and turn it toward where, really, our attention needs to be, which is the work for racial justice.”

He also thinks there was a broader lesson to be learned.

“Rather than clear people out, … listen to people and … be open to what is being expressed, what is being cried out,” Fisher said. “That would’ve been the appropriate response at a time like that.”

Just days before the anniversary of the clearing of the protesters, a federal judge heard arguments on May 28 about dismissing lawsuits filed against former President Donald Trump and his administration.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues the former administration violated the constitutional rights of protesters.

But lawyers for the former administration said their clients have immunity from litigation because they were performing their duties to create a secure space for Trump.

Ken Duffy

Ken Duffy is a reporter and anchor at WTOP with more than 20 years of experience. He has reported from major events like the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, 2016 Election Night at Trump Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.

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