From Election Day to Inauguration Day, DC Peace Team used unarmed accompaniment and nonviolent force to de-escalate unhealthy conflict.
DC Peace Team, or DCPT, has had a presence in Washington, D.C. since 2011, mobilizing volunteers at different events with the potential to turn violent. So, when local organizations expressed a need for a coalition of experienced volunteers to step forward to be a part of the safety and security collective actions in the city, DCPT team was prepared.
From Election Day to Inauguration Day, DCPT had a presence. It was in the streets providing accompaniment to local activists and individuals at risk during the pro-Make America Great Again rallies on Nov. 14, Dec. 12, and Jan. 6, and during inauguration week on Jan. 17 and Jan. 20. From dozens of skirmishes, up to the infamous Capitol insurrection, there were plenty of pockets of destructive conflict to which DCPT was responding.
“We know that conflict is inevitable, but violence is not; not all conflict is harmful or destructive. But if we can see that someone is in a position of vulnerability, is being harassed, and there is potential for violence, we often have the skills and character to intervene,” DCPT member Eli McCarthy explained.
When out at community actions, DCPT employs Unarmed Civilian Protection, a methodology comprising nonviolent methods of accompaniment, proactive presence, monitoring, distraction and physical interpositioning. During these election events, DCPT’s primary goal was to accompany and protect the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and local organizers from D.C., through preventing violence and — when possible — interrupting dehumanization. A secondary goal was cultivating empathy, as circumstances permitted.
Pressing pause and creating life-saving moments
When a white, pro-MAGA man in camouflage gear pulled a knife out at a Black man during a heated verbal exchange on the street near Black Lives Matter plaza, a DCPT member instinctively switched from walking alongside the group to deescalating. The two men involved were just three to four feet from each other, yelling about wanting to fight. The DCPT member walked closer and said short, calming phrases to the armed man, such as “Let’s slow down, you don’t need that weapon,” “You can put that away” and “This is not going to help anything.” Were these groundbreaking messages? Perhaps not — yet, what the DCPT member succeeded in doing was to create a powerful moment of pause and distraction. That moment shifted the energy and interrupted the trajectory toward escalation. The armed man looked towards the DCPT member, took a step or two back, and then his friends came out and pulled him back to the sidewalk. Everyone walked away without physical harm.
“These crowds are large in D.C., so some parts of the crowd in one area at one time might be more prone to escalation than others,” said Margi V.H., who joined DCPT last year when she became interested in using Unarmed Civilian Protection to keep people safe at community actions. “What we have seen over time is that the crowd’s energy — depending on the tone of the demonstration leaders that day, of the events the night before, the amount of different voices on the ground that day, and so many other reasons — can vary from either a group that wants to deescalate unhealthy conflict to a group that wants to escalate unhealthy conflict. We are also there to reinforce messages from demonstration leaders that center around safety. We aren’t there to tone-police anyone, but we are there to be that intentional presence in the street — to shift that energy and de-escalate unhealthy conflict before there is violence to prevent harm.”
Fellow DCPT member, Merwyn D.M., offered an example of how the group deescalates unhealthy conflict without tone policing, saying, “One afternoon while volunteering at an action, I was drawn to a conversation that was loud and agitated. A rather large-built, militaristically dressed white man (who I later learned was a Trump supporter) was speaking in loud tones with a young man and woman of color. The white man stated that he was ‘a war veteran, a patriot and willing to die for his country and for Trump, and the election was stolen.’ At times he made threatening gestures, including shaking his fist and pointing his finger at the faces of those to whom he was speaking.”
The young man and woman of color were trying to stay calm and engaged, though Merwyn could see the fear in their eyes.
“As a person of color, I instinctively felt like I wanted to support the two young people of color,” Merwyn explained. “The situation also presented a unique opportunity to listen to the ‘other’ side. While these thoughts were fleeting through my mind, I also knew that I was not there to resolve or mediate the conflict, but to intervene if it escalated to the threat of violence. So, when two agitated outsiders abruptly entered the conversation, the tension palpably escalated, and the white man’s body language shifted. I could see he was on the verge of a violent response. When I see that shift, I step in.”
Merwyn chose to start with distraction as his first tactic. “We train on so many ways to de-escalate, and I usually bank on my first choice not being successful. You have to be prepared to cycle through different options,” he shared.
“In this instance, I started by introducing myself and asking the others what their names were. That strategy did not work. Next, I spoke about exercising restraint and respect — but the group was only briefly distracted. Since the white man was the one clenching his fists and visibly shaking, I simply asked him for the time. With that question, he checked his watch, and told me the time. This small movement, a momentary distraction, changed his entire composure, and gave that moment of pause that led to the de-escalation of what almost certainly would have been a violent incident.”
Meanwhile, just a few steps away, stood a line of police officers. When one of them noticed the white man’s body gestures were verging on a violent eruption, he stepped briskly toward the group.
“I instinctively felt that the intervention of an armed police officer could escalate the situation,” Merwyn said. “I made eye-contact with the officer conveying that things were okay. All of these interactions happened very quickly. The two agitated outsiders stepped away, the conversation between the two young people of color and the white man resumed in calmer, more constructive tones.”
Physical protection and nonviolent force
DCPT trains on what to say and when to say it, but the group does more than talk the talk. How they use their bodies for protection — physical presence, accompaniment and interpositioning — are critical components of Unarmed Civilian Protection.
“One night, I was out at a Black Lives Matter event and there was a Black man sharing the message that ‘all lives matter’ — which was not well-received by the crowd. Nobody from the crowd physically touched him, but they did corral him out of the event,” reflected Claire G., another volunteer.
In another instance, a conflict arose between a couple pro-MAGA persons and BLM supporters. According to DCPT volunteer Michele D., “A man and woman wearing MAGA gear and carrying a Trump sign emerged from the McPherson Metro stop, right into the small Black Lives Matter crowd. Some Black Lives Matter protesters began engaging them verbally” as the groups went back and forth. One protestor “took off the woman’s MAGA hat. The older MAGA couple were probably in their 70s. It became quickly apparent that they had likely taken a wrong turn, were perhaps in over their heads and weren’t up for the trouble. Margi V.H. and I walked alongside to help defuse the situation and with other BLM supporters guided them out of the Black Lives Matter plaza.”“In that moment, I saw a Black man alone on the street corner, shaken up, with white men walking by, hurling racist comments. My team and I had been monitoring the situation, and we were able to stay with him, providing a protective presence, until he could reconnect with his friends and return to his car safely. I went out that night with the intention of keeping people safe, and when I saw a potential escalation point, my training kicked in to do just that. As soon as I walked up to the man, my presence (and wearing the DCPT logo) was a factor in the remaining agitators leaving him alone.”
The very act of being present is often enough to de-escalate and defuse destructive conflict, but when that is not enough, the group does interposition by stepping physically between people. As Merwyn D.M. noted, “putting yourself physically into a conflict isn’t to act as a martyr or human shield, it is just another tactic that is used for deescalation.”
Margi V.H. described another incident that occurred at a demonstration with a group of veterans: “We were moving with a small group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators marching through the streets. Although we were headed in the direction away from a pro-MAGA demonstration that was happening at the same time, the group was attracting attention from some of the pro-MAGA demonstrators. We began to continuously monitor the edges of the event for any situations that could quickly escalate to violence.”
Video confirmed an incident that day where one pro-MAGA person was talking and walking alongside a Black Lives Matter supporter, and a second pro-MAGA supporter came in between them and shoved the Black Lives Matter supporter, who then shoved him back.
“What I saw started right after this, when the group stopped and the two men faced each other,” Margi said. “This escalation in body language was what I witnessed during the event and my cue that things were escalating quickly. As a white woman, I need to be extremely mindful in these spaces, and make sure I let people know what I am there to help with. I was aware that this particular Black Lives Matter supporter knew my role was to de-escalate.”
Meanwhile, the second, more aggressive pro-MAGA supporter was about a foot taller than both Margi and the Black Lives Matter supporter. “I saw the Black Lives Matter supporter as most vulnerable in this situation,” Margi explained. “So, I quickly, but calmly, made my way to the pair and put my hand on the elbow of the Black Lives Matter supporter. I was initially hoping to escort him and his bike from the interaction, however, both men remained focused and intense, and the pair didn’t budge. As my initial distraction had failed, I moved around the bike and put myself between the Black Lives Matter supporter and the pro-MAGA supporter. I was facing the pro-MAGA supporter with my hands up, asking him to ‘walk away’ and to ‘take a deep breath,’ at which point he started walking backwards. I monitored this group of pro-MAGA demonstrators until they parted ways.”
Later on, the Black Lives Matter supporter saw Margi and checked in to make sure Margi was okay and hadn’t been harmed during the interaction. This is just one example of how communities really do keep each other safe and a testament to the fact that community protection is a collective effort.
DCPT is grateful to work with local community leaders and the broader safety collective in D.C., as well as the support of Election Incident Reporting and the TRUST Network with Mediators Beyond Borders for enhancing their remote assistance and incident tracking.
“We thank our many volunteers who were involved in de-escalating more than forty-five destructive incidents and building empathy with more than fifty individuals during the events from election night to inauguration day,” Eli McCarthy said. “We are excited to imagine what could be accomplished if this practice was scaled up in our community and beyond. Let us dream and build together. Now is the time.”
Interested in gaining these valuable skills? You can either train and join the DCPT as a nonviolent accompanier, or use these same skills to keep your community safe in other ways. Find out more at dcpeaceteam.com.