Panic as Floyd protesters are hit with tear gas to clear path for Trump’s photo-op

After nearly four years covering the extremes of Donald Trump’s presidency, this felt like the symbolic culmination of just how unpredictable and unprecedented his tenure has been.

In the middle of a national crisis, with protesters demanding an end to racial injustice and police brutality, he finally decided to address the nation.

As he was preparing, we were outside in the middle of a peaceful demonstration, filming as people from all over the nation shouted: “I can’t breathe” – the final words of George Floyd.

Cordelia Lynch after being hit by tear gas in Washington DC
Image:Sky’s Cordelia Lynch suffered the effects of the tear gas

But as he prepared for the speech, out of nowhere, federal authorities lunged towards the crowd and started forcibly removing them.

One reporter was hit live on air. Flash bangs, tear gas, rubber bullets and total chaos.

We couldn’t see a pocket of provocation – but what ensued was immediate panic and fearful screams as people tried to run away.

Minutes later, President Trump claimed he was an ally of peaceful protesters but what we witnessed was the kind of muscular force he has spent days calling for.

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Riot police rushed demonstrators as they cleared Lafayette Park and the area around it for Donald Trump
Image:Riot police rushed demonstrators as they cleared Lafayette Park and the area around it for Donald Trump

Some speculated this was a cynical attempt to cast a portrait of a baying mob, as he spoke of the need for law and order.

But it would become apparent later they were clearing a path for him to cross the street for a photo-op – clutching a Bible in front of the historic St John’s Episcopal Church, visited by every president since James Madison.

But never like this – flanked by National Guard, metres away from those who had lost all faith in his leadership.

The early evening felt very different to the previous nights we had witnessed.

Every corner of the city was covered, was blocked off by riot police and National Guard. Flashing lights everywhere you looked.

US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC
Image:The president’s photo op outside St John’s Episcopal Church

It seemed there was finally stability 24 hours after the spectre of the White House engulfed in smoke. There was very little space for the protesters to move.

Like Minneapolis, they appeared to have a handle on things.

But then out of nowhere, just a few blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue, an erratic moment of eruption.

Police officers back demonstrators shooting tear gas next to St John's Church
Image:Police officers shot tear gas rounds next to the church

We could see people running into CVS – it wasn’t clear if they’d taken anything, but quickly a string of armed officers, military vehicles, motorbikes and police cars were chasing them down there street.

There were screams filling the air and about 200 protesters running in every direction.

A whole line of officers started firing rounds of tear gas.

We were right by them as they hurriedly tried to catch up with the crowd. Most looked young, many sounded terrified.

lynch gas mask
Image:Parts of Washington resembled a ‘war zone’

Then the incongruous site of an Apple store surrounded by riot police, guns and batons, and roads all engulfed in smoke.

We tried to keep our distance, but I was quickly consumed by the gas, my eyes burning intensely as I struggled to see the road in front.

The street I drive to work every day, where I pass the White House and often think how lucky I am to cover such a fascinating time in American politics, now looked like a war zone.

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What this war in American society will achieve it’s impossible to know. But the outrage, the anger, the violence is far from resolved.

It may well end up helping – not hurting – Donald Trump’s presidency as he casts this movement as the work of anarchists and the radical left.

They are certainly a section of those taking part, so too are opportunistic criminals.

At the core of this is what I’ve seen in the wake of so many deaths at the hands of police – deep frustration at the inequities of this country that can’t seem to shirk its racist past or pockets of police brutality.

This was not the 2020 I thought I’d be covering. But then, I should have known, discord and division is exactly what we’ve come to expect.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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