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“It’s a Party Right Here”: How the Nation’s Capital Celebrated Joe Biden’s Victory

News broke Saturday that Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Thousands of people took to the streets in Washington, D.C., to rejoice—both the moment itself and the work that comes next.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The fireworks started at 8:08 p.m., but by then the party had already been raging for hours. Sparklers came first, set off in random clusters, followed by a series of bigger, booming rockets that spread out like luminescent cobwebs across the night sky. In front of a fence that kept people from nearing the White House, tucked in the shadow of St. John’s Episcopal Church, life was, for at least a moment, exuberant. Crowds clogged the intersection. Cardi B’s “WAP” blared from speakers. Kids sat smiling on their parents’ shoulders.

Five months earlier, on these same grounds, a different smoke filled the air. After the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, protestors had assembled to fight back against a system of policing—and a vast number of institutions in this country—that for generations has refused to value Black life. They were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot boots, all deployed to make way for a presidential photo op.

This was not that. This was a celebration. On Saturday, a man named Jesse wearing two medical masks triumphantly waved a blue “Biden-Harris: 2020” flag in the autumn air. He decided to join the festivities after his family called and told him to turn on the TV. “[They] said that Black Lives Matter Plaza looks like the happiest place on Earth.”

After more than four days of prolonged ballot counting in the 2020 United States presidential election, the networks announced Saturday morning that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump. From the moment the race was called—when it finally set in that Trump’s regime of kleptocracy and hate would last only a single term—the very look and sound of the nation’s capital shifted. People paced around the District of Columbia’s sidewalks in bunches, as if beckoned by some unnamable force. In front of the IMF’s headquarters in Northwest D.C., a line of cars grouped together, their horns blaring in unison like vuvuzelas in a soccer stadium. Passengers waved miniature American flags out of cracked windows, while onlookers recorded videos from every direction. Above nearby K and 16th streets, the volume swelled. The path leading to Black Lives Matter Plaza across the street was cut off by dirty cement roadblocks. Some were spray-painted, in deep green, with the words “Fuck Trump.”

Half a block from St. John’s Episcopal, site of the infamous photo op, Stephan, a Miami transplant who recently moved to D.C., watched the jubilant passers-by. He said that when the election returns began to trickle in on Tuesday, he was saddened to see that Trump still has so much support. But as Biden took a commanding lead in both the popular vote and the electoral college, his faith was renewed. “It feels better than when Obama was elected, honestly,” he says, his thick black beard poking out from beneath his camouflage mask.

Years of American tragedy fueled this flare, and the scars of discontent marked the crowd. A woman named Abby, wearing a black T-shirt with bright-red letters that spelled “Omaha pride,” walked down the right-hand side of H Street while onlookers popped bottles of champagne. She said that she was celebrating the ousting of a president with a history of using racist slurs against Native Americans. “Native Americans came out in droves. We changed the vote in Arizona. We changed the vote in New Mexico,” she says. “Who’s your Pocahontas now?”

Brittany, a young accountant from the Petworth neighborhood of D.C. who was wearing a T-shirt featuring a monochrome print of civil rights icons John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, danced to Drake’s “God’s Plan” at the top of Black Lives Matter Plaza. She said this day meant so much to her because of the efforts of Black protestors and organizers. “It’s relief, honesty, just knowing that it’s not another four years of bullshit and trauma.”

She was surrounded by revelers on all sides: Women and men, unbridled Blackness and white fraternities, pride and Puerto Rican flags, mothers and fathers and grandparents all circling, moving, weaving in and around each other. In the midst of this joy, Brittany couldn’t help but think back to where the world was four years ago and how she felt when Trump was voted into office. “I just remember having to go to work the next day and how fucked up I was. I couldn’t do anything,” she says. “And that’s all people talked about for like a week and it was really just traumatic honestly, for our fears to have been realized in that way. Everything we thought would happen kind of happened and then some, so it was a mess. I was a mess.”

And now?

“There’s a parade. Everyone’s honking, everyone’s outside. It’s a party right here.”

Armed police officers stood watch over everything on Saturday night. They tucked behind fences, rested against marble storefronts, and occasionally cut through the crowd. At one point somebody shot a sparkler over the Lafayette Square fence at a group of Secret Service members in riot gear. “Keep it peaceful,” an elderly white man urged, less a command than a plea. The towering fences were blanketed in posters, mementos to the fallen. One, in the middle, honored John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Another, a few feet away, read “Remember Heather Heyer.”

Near a row of stone benches in the shadow of St. John’s sat Chastity and Melo, a couple who’d driven in from northern Virginia. They spoke beneath browning leaves about how differently they felt than at any other point in the past four years. “We finally did the right thing. We finally made it right,” Chastity says. “I can see hope again,” Melo adds. “I can see balance. I can see love.”

But what of the coronavirus pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans? What of Trump’s baseless claims of large-scale voter fraud and his refusal to concede the election? What of the armed agents of American power, standing mere feet away?

“I know COVID’s still rampant. I know hatred’s still rampant,” Chastity says, before pausing. “But right now I’m choosing to celebrate because that’s where I want my energy to go.”

In front of a black metal fence that surrounds the courtyard of St. John’s, Sharlie, a teacher and Atlanta native who moved to D.C. for graduate school, navigated in and out of the crowd. By that point the mass had grown so large that the only way she could carry on a conversation was by ducking onto the sidewalk. She said that even with Biden’s victory she knows that the fight to defang America’s hierarchies isn’t over. “I think we still have a lot to do knowing that 30 to 50 percent of people still voted for Trump,” she says. “I worry that people will be okay with other people who support systemic forms of racism and sexism and homophobia and classism.”

For her, though, these crowds—this night—wasn’t about the work that’s left to be finished. It was an outlet of joyous rebellion.

“I think for any marginalized group,” she says, “just being happy is a form of dismantling white supremacy.”

As Sharlie spoke the celebration peaked. At the intersection of Black Lives Matter Plaza and H Street, there are four traffic lights; young men stood atop three of them, while a college student attempted to climb the last one. He pushed his stained white Adidas trainers against the metallic side of the light for leverage. “Fuck Donald Trump,” he screamed to the crowd as he reached his summit.

The asphalt had grown sticky with alcohol. Michelob cans lined the gutters. A percussive chorus of drums, cowbells, and cymbals pulsed through the crowd. A Black man wearing a Malcolm X hoodie and a white man draped in an American flag both bobbed their heads to the beat of Y.G’s “FDT.” In the middle of the street, someone pushed a shopping cart with a cooler full of bottled water.

People kept filing into the plaza. Some may have come because they believe that the fight is over, others because it helped them forget that it isn’t. And then there are those who celebrated because they recognized all too well that this moment was just that—a moment. They celebrated anyway, not in spite of that brutal reality, but because of it.

Word began to spread that Biden’s victory speech would soon start. People played the proceedings through speakers scattered around the area. At the far end of the Lafayette Square fence, a group of 24 people watched the news together on the same phone. A woman held her arm out and they all lined up, a bubble of bodies transfixed on the same glowing object. As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s speech wound to a close, her voice boomed: “And it is now my great honor … ” she said, pausing for just long enough to let the moment fill the air, “to introduce the President-elect of the United States of America: Joe Biden!” The people in front of the White House cheered. The sky above them crackled with fireworks.