At just before 11 p.m. Thursday, a crowd of protesters arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, where they were met by a cluster of U.S. Park Police officers, who stood on the steps behind a metal barricade.
“No one deserves to be killed because of the color of their skin!” someone shouted at one officer, a man in a white shirt who gazed at the crowd, expressionless. “We just want to know you recognize it!” a woman yelled.
“Everybody is just pleading with you to say something — to say, ‘I understand,’” another woman shouted.
Someone else told the officer that his silence meant “you want me dead, my family dead, everyone around me dead. So if you’re not speaking, you are a problem!”
“We don’t want anybody dead tonight,” the officer replied.
“Tonight?!!” a few in the audience shouted in disbelief.
The officer tried again. “We don’t want anybody dead,” he said. “We are out here so you all can peacefully exercise your First Amendment rights.”
“How do you feel?” someone asked and now, for a moment, their encounter began to feel like group therapy, with Abraham Lincoln looming up the stairs.
“How do you feel about George Floyd?” someone else asked. “Shut up and let him talk!”
The officer began repeating what he said about the importance of free speech.
“YOU’RE A BROKEN RECORD!” a protester shouted. “YOU’RE A ROBOT!” another yelled.
“How about we shut up and give the man an opportunity to speak?” a woman said.
Ashley Knight Williams, 21, a protester, cut through the clatter of voices. “This is not productive,” she said, addressing the officer. “With all due respect — because I believe in respect — what is your name?”
“Captain Jeffrey Schneider,” he replied. She encouraged him to talk to his children “about the racial injustices in this country. This is a f—ing revolution!”
“Where are your masks?” a protester shouted. “What’s your badge number?”
“After the protesters were tear-gassed in Lafayette for a photo op — did that make you proud to be a Park police officer?” Silence.
“You can text me the answer!” someone yelled and then laughed. The captain maintained his steady gaze.
Bryce Cromartie, 32, who lives in Northwest, asked about park police officers harassing poor African Americans.
“You lock us up for marijuana,” he said. “You target our communities.”
“I cannot speak to specific cases you’re talking about,” Schneider said.
A group of protesters approached four officers a few yards away.
“All your buddies over here called us a bunch of names,” a cop said. “You think that makes us want to talk to you?”
“I apologize,” a woman said.
“Too late,” the officer said.
“Why are you smirking?” a woman asked Capt. Schneider.
“Give my captain a break,” said Lt. Simeon Klebaner, now at Schneider’s side.
“He rolled his eyes!” she insisted.
“We’ve all been on duty for an extended period of time,” the lieutenant said. “Twelve hours a day, 14 hours day, 16 hours a day. Perhaps he’s just exhausted.”
“Do you feel good about what you’re doing?” a man asked Klebaner. “I’m not allowed to talk about my personal feelings,” he said. “But I enjoy having a dialogue with people.”
Cromartie told Capt. Schneider about two police officers who arrested him a dozen years ago for assault. He said he was later cleared but that the incident shaped his negative view of the police.
“Not every police officer is that same police officer you had that experience with,” the captain said. “I’m sorry.”
The men nodded. For that moment, at least, they appeared to understand each other.