Six months later, D.C. photographers reflect on UnPresidented events

© 2017 Maurice A. Scott

Exactly six months after the most tumultuous presidential inauguration in U.S. history, it’s hard to believe that, well, that it has only been six months.

We got together with some of the photographers who collaborated on our book, UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response, and asked them to reflect on their experiences during the inauguration.

While the images and discussion in this post deal primarily with some of the civil unrest during inauguration day, it should be noted that that was only a slice of what happened (as well, as only a portion of the images in the book). In fact, the majority of protestors who turned out on inauguration day were involved in peaceful disobedience and marching. And as angry and confrontational as it was on inauguration day, it was an entirely different, uplifting scene during the Women’s March on Washington the next day.

But it was the rioting and the police response that made inauguration day unlike any other and strained one of the hallmarks of our democracy — the peaceful transition of power.

© 2017 Mukul Ranjan

Focus on the Story: It’s probably true to say that Washington has never experienced an inauguration like the one we just had. Was there a moment while you were covering the events, that you thought to yourself, “is this really happening?” Describe that moment.

Mukul Ranjan: I’ve lived in the area for close to three decades, photographing political events and protests, but have not seen an inauguration or protest that came close. There was a polarization and anger that was palpable in the street.  I wish could have been in more place at the same time, of course, but overall, I was glad I was able to document this event along with all the other photographers in this project.

Chris Suspect: I never questioned “is this really happening” — I was glad it was happening. The fact that so many people came together to protest Trump’s inauguration was fantastic and inspiring. I think the Women’s March on the following day exceeded everyone’s expectations. I was glad to see my fellow Americans on the streets raising their voices.

Arpita Upadhyaya: For me, that moment was when I rushed to the area near McPherson Square to try and photograph some of the protests. The moment I reached a crossing, I heard loud bangs go off, and smoke spilling through the air. People were rushing around in the chaos, the street seemed to be vibrating under my feet and I distinctly remember thinking “is this really happening? Is this DC?” The police were setting off flash bombs, people were running helter skelter, photographers and journalists were trying to get into the front lines and it seemed surreal, out of a movie. It took some effort to convince myself that the scene was real but the danger was not (or so I hoped).

© 2017 Dwight Jefferson

FOTS: More than 200 people were arrested during the inauguration day protests and riot. Some of those people are awaiting trial on serious charges. As someone who was on the front lines that day, what was your impression of how the police handled the situation?

Chantale Wong: My impression of the police behavior is mixed. There were times where the police were very restrained. I even witnessed a policeman trying calmly to reason with the protestors and to urge them to not block the roads. Then there were other moments where the police started to push the crowd back — they pushed the limits too far and were excessive in their use of tear gas and pepper spray. I saw (and captured) a scene where the police were spraying a protester with pepper spray excessively.

© 2017 Maurice A. Scott

Scott: I thought the police were very professional and held it together, for the most part. I did see a few questionable officers but they didn’t take away from a majority of the ones I saw. I’m just glad that I was not one of the ones arrested. There were other journalists and photographers who were arrested who just happened to be in the crossfire at the time.

Suspect: This is a tough one as I have much respect for the D.C. police department. The D.C. police are used to protests and know how to handle these situations. However, there were many other police from other areas of the country who are not used to protests. When I saw police shoving innocent bystanders,  using their batons on spectators and shooting rubber bullets and using pepper spray on the media, I was a bit dismayed, to say the least. It did not need to go that far, especially after they effectively cleared the area around Thomson Elementary School.

© 2017 Chris Suspect

FOTS: As a photographer covering a sometimes tense, emotional event, did you come away with any lessons learned? Any shot you missed that you wish you had gotten?

Dwight Jefferson: When I encountered the mob of protesters and police on Inauguration Eve on 11th Street at the security gate, I wish I’d had my camera ready for action shots. I was right in the middle of the action, but my shutter speed and ISO sensitivity were too low to capture all of the swinging limbs and facial expressions right in my face. There wasn’t one shot in particular I wish I’d gotten… maybe just one with a connecting kick or punch.

Suspect: I actually went in to this expecting to cover some tense situations between Trump supporters and protestors. I did not expect the overblown response by police against regular protestors, bystanders and the media. It was at this point I channeled my inner Josef Koudelka from the 1968 Prague Invasion era and decided this was important enough to shoot, even if I did get pepper sprayed or shot by rubber bullets. I was mentally prepared for this.

There is one shot I wish I got and I missed because I wasn’t there. I had been shooting for about 10 hours and desperately needed some food and a break. Because of that I missed the limousine being set on fire in front of the Washington Post building.

Scott: I’m not sure if there were any lessons that I learned more so than being reminded of certain things. You have to fight for your freedoms and rights. Freedom isn’t free. They are quick to be taken away by someone in power. You also can’t take them for granted.

Wong: The shot I wish I had gotten (better) was the one of a lone protestor being pepper sprayed heavily by multiple police officers.  I got it but there was a pole in the middle of my shot.

© 2017 Chantale Wong

FOTS: During inauguration weekend and in the weeks immediately following, there was a sense that we had reached some kind of tipping point in American politics. That the “resistance” movement might be some sort of unstoppable force. Now, six months later, what are your impressions? Are you still covering protests?

Ranjan: I had been photographing protests for many years before this inauguration, so yes, I still cover protests. Six months later, I find the “resistance” appears to be losing steam, many of the protests seem to be cookie cutter events, with many of the same people showing up. It’s not clear to me that these protests are achieving a political objective.

Upadhyaya: I think protests are a very powerful way of raising public opinion. There was a passion and fervor among people in the days and weeks immediately following the inauguration and an awareness and desire to ‘do something’ among most people I know. The average person had become an activist. It is inevitable that some of the fervor will fade, but I think and hope that the sense of resistance continues to remain strong. The challenge is to convert the activism to action, and I hope this will happen more and more. I covered many protests, often with my little son, but personally haven’t done so in a while due to work and other pressures. Being a scientist, many of the current issues have hit hard and I hope I will be able to cover more protests but also channel the energy into action.

© 2017 Arpita Upadhyaya

Jefferson: I feel the protest of that week set the tone for the Trump term. Many people were energized and decided to take action and make their presence known and voice heard. I’d heard from many people who lived through the 60s that the upheaval reminded them of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests. The resistance to the Trump presidency is the most significant (ongoing) event in my lifetime.

Suspect: I am still covering the protests although they have gotten to be less frequent in D.C. I don’t know if it’s because of summer or if people are less enthusiastic about taking to the streets. The Climate March and the Science March were fantastic and I’d like to see more of that. I am surprised there hasn’t been a healthcare march yet, but there has been some interesting smaller protests that have been effective, especially the town hall protests across the country. I know protests help to raise an issue’s visibility, but what we really need is follow up on the people’s concerns through tireless day-to-day political work that can produce real change.

Scott: I think this election has changed American politics forever. As a country, we will most likely see a lot of drastic changes in the future of politics and the people’s responses. I don’t think people want to continue down this path being pawns on a chessboard, well, at least a number of them don’t. We still have individuals that are oblivious to what is really going on or choose to turn an eye because of their pride or social beliefs on race. They will always be pawns but hopefully, that number will grow smaller and smaller over time.