[Episcopal News Service] On June 1, Julia Joyce Domenick and the Rev. Gini Gerbasi went to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, expecting to give snacks, water and pastoral support to the nonviolent protesters who had gathered there.
Within a matter of hours, Domenick would be washing tear gas out of her eyes and Gerbasi’s story of their experience – being forced out of the square so President Donald Trump could pose for a photo at the church – would be making its way around the world.
The church itself has become the flashpoint in the physical and cultural conflict over racism and police brutality in America sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All four officers involved have now been charged in connection with Floyd’s death, which is part of a pattern of similar incidents nationwide. There were at least 336 documented cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by police between 2013 and 2019, according to Mapping Police Violence.
Both women told Episcopal News Service that, as disturbing as their experience was, they don’t want to lose sight of the bigger issue at hand: the systemic racism that devalues black lives to the point of violence.
“I want people to remember that it’s not about what I perceive to be the clearing of people for a photo op,” Domenick told ENS. “It needs to get back to the fight for justice and systemic change in our nation and addressing the injustice – all the injustices that have occurred for persons of color.”
Domenick, a biracial woman of African American and European descent, is a 48-year-old postulant for the priesthood who just finished her first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, across the Potomac River in Alexandria. Although originally from South Carolina, she is being sponsored by the Diocese of Minnesota, having lived in Minneapolis for several years. Her son is an EMT who works in an emergency room several blocks from the Minneapolis police station that was burned during riots on May 28.
Domenick herself has worked as an emergency room nurse for 18 years. She stopped before going to seminary, but went back to it as the COVID-19 pandemic started ramping up and is now working part time at an emergency room in Northern Virginia while attending VTS.
“I felt like having those skills and not using it was an abuse of privilege,” she said. “And so I have been doing both.”
She and Gerbasi, 56 – who is the rector of a different St. John’s, in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood – went to the historic “church of presidents” in Lafayette Square on June 1 after the Diocese of Washington invited clergy and laypeople to accompany the protesters. They handed out granola bars and water and listened to protesters who just wanted someone to talk to – about what brought them there, about their experiences of injustice. A Black Lives Matter group had set up a first-aid station on St. John’s patio, and Domenick offered to help if needed.
By all accounts, it was a relatively quiet afternoon, unlike the previous day when peaceful protests gave way to riots and someone set a fire in the basement of the parish hall.
Gerbasi said what sticks out most in her memory of the day – “that’s just written on my heart” – is how quickly the police moved in, with the curfew still about a half-hour away.
Although some reports have stated that the protesters in the square were warned to leave before the police approached, Gerbasi and Domenick both told ENS they heard no such warning. Both were taken off guard because there appeared to be no reason for the police to move in; protesters were still peacefully chanting slogans.
“Nothing precipitated it. There was no violence; there was no throwing things,” Gerbasi said.
Domenick was at the other end of the block, having been summoned to help a protester with an eye injury.
“Something happened to his eyes – I didn’t witness what happened. I don’t know what it was, but I was tending to him,” she said.
She saw police standing in a line at the corner but wasn’t concerned because she saw nothing violent going on.
“We were kneeling on the corner when, all of a sudden, the police line pushed forward. And there was screaming, and then there was a flash grenade. There were loud, echoing reverberations off the building. And then what I witnessed was a yellow-gray fog cloud in the air as people were going back towards the patio of St John’s, and immediately, pain in my eyes, burning. Immediate pain in my nose. Immediate coughing and throat pain.” The painful inflammation in Domenick’s eyes was only relieved later when she was given milk of magnesia to wash out her eyes.
Meanwhile, Gerbasi was on the church’s patio, tending to another protester.
“I was rinsing someone’s eyes, and the man in front of me said that he thought he had been hit by rubber bullets. And when I looked up at him, I saw all these marks on his shirt. And then I looked up over his shoulder, and I saw the row of police coming onto St. John’s Lafayette Square patio. I was incredulous.”
She had previously seen the police in distant glimpses. Now they were about 15 feet from her, and the crowd was running away.
“I couldn’t figure out how they got there or why they were there, and I just kept thinking, ‘It’s not even the curfew! It’s not even the curfew! What’s happening?’”
Gerbasi, who was wearing glasses, did not experience inflammation in her eyes but felt burning in her throat and developed a cough that did not subside for several hours.
“People were running at us with tears running down their faces and their eyes sort of red and inflamed,” she said.
“What happened was violent,” Domenick said. “I’m still processing disbelief and anger and heartbreak because it was before curfew.”
Gerbasi is still amazed at “the irony – I mean, it’s not irony, it’s a pattern of people protesting government brutality against them, and the government responds by brutalizing them.”
But she’s also inspired by how quickly the protests spread around the world, with protesters chanting for justice in different languages – an image that seemed to align perfectly with the celebration of Pentecost.
A public Facebook post that Gerbasi wrote that night to let her friends know what happened quickly went viral. It has been shared 200,000 times as of June 4, with thousands of comments that appear to be evenly divided between supportive messages and insults, many saying they do not believe her and other witnesses’ accounts of what happened and accusing her of lying to make Trump look bad.
“My presence there on Monday was not political,” she told ENS. “It’s about religion. It’s about who we are marching [with] and caring for and wiping the tears from their eyes.”
There has been confusion and misinformation about the nature of the gas that was reported by witnesses and documented by journalists. While the White House has said “no tear gas was used” in the Lafayette Square incident, that claim has been effectively debunked by multiple news outlets. Police – who were wearing gas masks – used projectiles and canisters containing pepper-based substances designed to irritate the eyes, nose and lungs. By definition, these substances fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s category of “riot control agents” or “tear gas.”
“The White House is saying, ‘Oh, it was just smoke bombs, and it was a pepper gas or something,’” Gerbasi said. “Here’s what is also just completely sickening and haunting to me: One – As if that’s OK! Like, is it OK to spray smoke bombs and pepper spray onto innocent people? Two – It is the same tactic of deflecting the issue. Deflect and distract and challenge the credibility of the victim.”
Gerbasi and her associate rector have received threatening, obscene emails. One said that “my criticism of President Trump is akin to the crucifixion of Jesus,” she said.
The Episcopal Church will hold a virtual Justice Assembly on June 10 at 6 p.m. Eastern to learn about the fight for racial justice, share experiences and reflect on Episcopalians’ communal call to faithful action. Register here to attend via Zoom.
But her message was also shared by public figures like John Legend and Rachel Maddow, and she was interviewed on CNN by Jake Tapper. A phrase Gerbasi used in her original post, “I am now a force to be reckoned with,” has since become a social media hashtag.
As upset as Domenick is about what happened to her and the protesters, she said the primary focus should be on what they were protesting in the first place.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about George Floyd. It’s about Breonna [Taylor]. It’s about Ahmaud [Arbery]. It’s about Emmett [Till]. It’s about the lynching of persons of color and nothing being done.”
When the diocese asked for people to serve as a presence at St. John’s, “There was no doubt that that’s where I wanted to be, and to be there, if nothing else, in solidarity with the people who are protesting, but it’s my heart, too. We need to say their names,” Domenick said.
“Our baptismal covenant says we will respect the dignity of every human being. And before that, we vow to love neighbor. And I so clearly hear the call to action. Because the Gospel says, ‘Go out into the world.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Stand by the keyboard and argue with people.’”
Protests have continued at Lafayette Square, and a prayer vigil organized by the Diocese of Washington on June 3 was disrupted by protesters who did not want Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde to have the spotlight. But the day after she was forced out of the square, Domenick went back and treated the wounds of protesters who were injured the day before.
“And then, all of a sudden, as far as you could see, everybody took a knee. And it was silent,” she said. “It was a beautiful and holy experience of lament and hope combined.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.