For over five hours on Wednesday, Sept. 16, starting about 3 p.m., the CVS at 2226 Wisconsin Ave. NW was closed while some 20 young people blocked the street in front of the store. Dozens of customers coming to get prescriptions and medications were turned away.
Police closed Wisconsin Avenue to all cars from Calvert Street south to Whitehaven Parkway. Traffic was jammed for hours on 37th Street, the only street parallel to Wisconsin Avenue that offered a way in and out of Georgetown.
Most of the demonstrators lounged in chairs in the middle of the street, ordered Domino’s pizza, skateboarded and popped wheelies on bicycles. A few walked around with signs and bullhorns, protesting what they referred to as the racially profiled detention for shoplifting of two Black customers at the CVS store the day before. The “f-bomb” word was dropped profusely. When The Georgetowner interviewed demonstrators at 7:30 p.m., there were no plans to march or to move away from the area.
“When I went to enter the store about 4 p.m., a protester with a megaphone harassed me,” a resident who did not want to be identified told The Georgetowner. “I was taunted. ‘You can’t come in, you can’t come in, ha ha ha,’ they said. A woman with a megaphone, an African American, mocked me for having white privilege. When I told the police standing near their cars up the block that I had been harassed, they said there was nothing they could do. They said they had been ordered to stand down, to not take any action if demonstrators were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech.”
“I happened to be in the store at about 3 p.m. yesterday, probably the last customer,” Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kishan Putta told The Georgetowner. “Loud, vocal protesters had entered the store and that may be why they decided to close it. When I left, in the elevator, the pharmacist, an African American woman, seemed frustrated. She was worried about customers who were scheduled to pick up medications and get flu and other shots.”
Police officers who were interviewed also expressed frustration. “We don’t want to be here just sitting in our cars blocking people here from going to their homes and stores,” said one. “The D.C. police force is the best in the country for peacefully handling protest marches and demonstrations,” said another, a 25-year veteran of the force who grew up as a neighbor of Mayor Muriel Bowser.
But both told The Georgetowner that the police’s proven ability to allow protests without widespread community disruption had been taken away by the Council, which banned any interventions in protests. The officers said that, even though they are called names and have bricks thrown at them, they are not allowed to wear helmets.
“I’ve had it with these protesters,” said Vincent Natale, a software sales rep who lives near Trader Joe’s on Wisconsin Avenue. “We get the message. But the police should be able to move protesters to where they won’t block traffic or business. I’m going to complain to my ANC commissioners and the city Council.”
“I totally support protesting inequity, even making people feel uncomfortable to send a message,” Putta said in a phone interview on Sept. 17. “But it’s not right to harass people who are inculpable and just trying to do essential business — picking up their kids from school, shopping, getting essential drugs and medications, just getting back to their homes. Blocking a main thoroughfare for a short while for a moving march would be better than impeding people from doing essential business for hours.”
“The point is to make people uncomfortable, so they will pay attention to our message exposing racial profiling and inequity,” one of the protesters told The Georgetowner. Wearing a pink and yellow Black Lives Matter T-shirt (“to represent trans and queers,” he explained), the protester, who was white, said he had been a former manager of a CVS in Virginia. “If we suspected a customer of shoplifting, we had to have firsthand or video proof before calling the police. That didn’t happen here.”
Protesters repeatedly reminded this reporter that they were exercising their First Amendment right of free speech. But one approached alone and said, “I have to ask you respectfully to stop taking photos of us. It makes us uncomfortable. Would you erase them from your phone, please.” He backed away when shown the press credentials, but he seemed to be confused about who gets free speech and who doesn’t.
BREAKING: It appears there was a misunderstanding about the “shoplifting” incident. According to an email received at press time from Putta and Brian Turmail, chair of the Glover Park ANC, “We checked with Commander Duncan Bedlion of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 2nd District to ask about the facts behind the incident at the CVS given that there appears to be some confusion about what occurred. This is what he reported: ‘The manager of the CVS flagged down officers to report a theft. Two subjects were stopped, the property was returned to CVS and the subjects were barred at the request of the establishment.’ Hope that helps inform the conversation.”