Court rulings loom over July Fourth celebrations in Washington region

Rerters / Tom Brenner
U.S President Joe Biden and his family observe during an Independence Day celebration at the White House in Washington, on Monday.

WASHINGTON – Washington, D.C., celebrated Independence Day on Monday with some hallmarks of the nation’s capital: parades, festivals and protests.

This year, the Fourth of July signifies for many a return to normalcy as virtual events have given way to in-person experiences. It also falls in the shadow of monumental Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns and the environment that have Americans concerned about the country’s future – as well as yet another mass shooting, this one in a suburb north of Chicago.

But the deadly attack at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., that killed at least six people and turned the festivities there into chaos did not deter families from coming to downtown Washington to view the floats or fireworks or join various demonstrations around town earlier in the day.

Protesters – dressed in red, white and blue – massed in front of the Supreme Court on Monday to denounce the overturning of Roe v. Wade, while other demonstrators descended on the National Mall. Later, a green-clad crowd of 100 people supporting abortion rights marched down Constitution Avenue, spreading out to span the width of the street.

“They’re counting on us to get tired, they’re counting on us to get complacent,” said Ashli Timmons, 21, of Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights. “Hopefully, everyone will see this and be inspired.”

Some demonstrators took to the highways to air their grievances. About 20 people, who police said were protesting climate change, sat in the road and blocked all lanes of Interstate 495’s inner loop at the U.S. 29/Colesville Road exit Monday afternoon.

In a separate protest, a group of truckers calling itself the 1776 Restoration Movement – formerly known as the People’s Convoy – blocked traffic on Interstate 95 during the day to denounce vaccine mandates.

And later in the evening, just as fireworks were released into the night sky, a few dozen people holding black umbrellas and wearing black masks released smoke canisters onto the street near the Supreme Court as police officers surrounded the group. Social media accounts for BiteBackDC had advertised a protest Monday night against the abortion ruling, the Supreme Court, Congress and police, declaring: “It’s all rotten!”

Transit authorities had warned that reduced service on the Metro would probably result in long lines for waiting passengers. After the fireworks ended Monday night, officials said crowding had prompted them to institute metering of riders permitted to enter the Smithsonian Metro stop, where the wait was more than an hour to use the station.

Throughout the day, people ventured out into the city for events such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and A Capitol Fourth concert – which reopened to the public after more than two years of coronavirus restrictions. The National Independence Day Parade also returned with marching bands from around the country, military units, floats and balloons.

Neha Sri drove down early from Delaware with her son Naman, 11, so they’d have time to get a good spot in front of the National Archives. They had set up folding chairs and a rainbow umbrella to beat the heat.

“It’s our first time we’ve come here,” she said. “We’ve heard a lot about this parade so we wanted to see.”

They had planned on staying for the fireworks, but Naman was most excited about the events in the National Archive. He pointed excitedly to the day’s schedule – listed on a bright red souvenir fan – that included a scavenger hunt and a chance to sign a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Trinisa Fung, 21, and Alessandra Del Rosario, 21, sat along a stone wall by the entrance to the Museum of Natural History, waving American flags. The two college students met this summer at an internship and spent their day off at their first Fourth of July parade in D.C. Fung had been to fireworks shows back home in Houston, but nothing as big as this.

“This is different,” Fung said as floats, cultural performances and marching bands streamed by on Constitution Avenue. “The diversity here is really amazing.”

They’ve got a lot to visit on their bucket list for the summer – the Capitol, the Library of Congress, “the most touristy spots” – and they had planned to watch the fireworks from the Iwo Jima Memorial with more friends.

“It feels like the city’s coming back to life,” Fung said.

Despite the shooting in Highland Park, Ill., the Mall was packed by midafternoon. Lines for museums were out the door, and thousands had set up blankets to picnic and prepare for fireworks later in the evening.

Many people said the violence earlier Monday didn’t affect their decision to come out to the mall, since they were looking for a way to relax and celebrate amid a tense political climate.

Vanderbilt University students Rachael Perrotta and Andrew Hu, both 20, were already on the Mall when they learned about the shooting. The news prompted concerns from their parents about the students’ safety downtown.

But the younger generation has been “desensitized to it,” Perrotta said.

“It’s very much so what we grew up with,” she added, walking near the Mall after a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “I don’t think it instills the same fear as it does for older generations, which is really sad.”

Kelly Silva, 38, sat in the grove of trees overlooking the Washington Monument in the late afternoon, watching over a picnic blanket and a box of chicken wings. Silva, who lives in D.C. and normally brings her family to watch the July Fourth fireworks every year, said she’s “happy because everything’s coming back to normal.”

“It looked like everyone was scared two years ago, but now everybody’s back,” Silva said.

“Hopefully it won’t happen [here] this year,” she said. “I see a lot of officers around.”

Still, around 7:30 p.m., two loud noises near the intersection of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue prompted families sitting and standing nearby to rush away from the sounds and toward the National Mall. Authorities on the scene confirmed the sounds were fireworks, but the noises incited panic in crowds of people who couldn’t initially make out their source.

Takoma Park, Md., which has held Fourth of July festivities for 133 years, welcomed residents back for its first in-person parade since 2019.

“It’s a wonderful feeling being back,” said Tara Marie Egan, a 37-year-old Takoma Park native. “People have missed it and we have a lot of new groups joining.”

Egan herself once marched in the parade as a Girl Scout and is now the vice president of the Takoma Park Independence Day Committee. She had been planning for this since January. The 1.3-mile parade, dubbed “Takoma Park Together Again” this year, included marching bands, drill teams, floats, art cars, costumed characters and veterans groups.

In a city known for its political activism, the recent Supreme Court rulings were top of mind for some at the Takoma Park parade.

“It’s great to celebrate our independence today, but it’s a bittersweet feeling with women’s rights being eroded,” Laurie-Ann Sayles, a Democrat who is running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council, said of Roe v. Wade being overturned. “I’m concerned about the direction of our country and I want to make sure we safeguard a woman’s right to choose.”

In a nod to the nation’s ideal as a beacon of hope, George Washington’s Mount Vernon hosted its annual naturalization ceremony Monday. A crowd of 50 immigrants – from places including Cameroon and Ukraine – cheered and waved American flags as they became citizens. When they rose to sing the national anthem this time, it resonated with them differently.

With her right hand over her heart, Keisha Alfred, 41, sang the anthem for the first time. “I’m no longer an immigrant or as they say a visitor,” said Alfred, who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago.

After 20 years of living in the country as a student and a green cardholder, Alfred said she can finally leave the immigration paperwork behind every time a company tries to hire her. Becoming a citizen in this political time feels bittersweet, especially now that abortion rights are threatened, she said.

“I’m very proud to become an American citizen, but I feel an added responsibility to make sure that we are represented.”

With her citizenship certificate in her hand, Alfred and a dozen other new citizens registered to vote on the spot. “I have to make sure that my voice is heard,” said Alfred.