WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As protesters chanted near the White House, Michael Piatschak leaned from his one-wheeled electric skateboard, extended a trash-grabbing claw and, like a raptor swooping on prey, snagged a plastic bag off the street and stuffed it into a shoulder sack.
“I figured this is how I could help,” said the white 29-year-old Maryland native, his long hair topped by a helmet, a surgical mask hiding his face. “I feel like a super hero when I’m doing it.”
Piatschak quit his job as a business analyst and joined the countless numbers of Americans volunteering time and money to support nationwide marches against racism and police brutality ignited by the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an African American who died after a white former police officer knelt on his neck.
Across the country, citizens, charities and companies large and small are donating time and money to help clean up and rebuild riot-hit neighborhoods or bail protesters from jails despite the new coronavirus pandemic.
They are buying carloads of food, water, hand sanitizers and masks to distribute, staffing first aid stations and leaving milk jugs on street corners to douse burning teargas and pepper spray from eyes and skin.
“There’s just a lot of trash and people like me are really angered by the trash,” Piatschak said on Wednesday before scooting off on another garbage-hunting foray.
Volunteers have not been immune from police. Videos from Asheville, North Carolina, show officers on Tuesday charging a first aid station and destroying water bottles and medical supplies. The police chief later said his officers were eliminating potential projectiles.
Several nights of arson and looting in the heart of Washington, D.C. brought broom-wielding residents and business owners out to sweep up debris.
There has been no serious vandalism since last weekend.
As crowds swell in the afternoons near the White House, walled off by a chain-link fence, Secret Service officers and National Guard members, volunteers are everywhere and the gatherings have at times taken on an almost festive air.
On Thursday, a brass band, the broiling sun glinting off trumpets and trombones, entertained demonstrators with “Lean on Me,” the 1972 hit written by the late Bill Withers that has become a protest anthem.
At the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House, clerics and congregants stand shifts, doling out water and snacks paid for with donations raised via social media.
The Reverend Valerie Hayes, who traveled to Washington from Front Royal, Virginia, said donations have swelled since officers firing tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets on Monday drove protesters away so a Bible-clutching President Donald Trump could pose for photographs before the church.
“Since this happened, I have talked to people who want to come here or are supportive of our clergy coming out,” said Hayes, who is white, her face shielded by a wide-brimmed straw hat.
Allie Hall, a 20-year-old African American college student from Virginia, and two friends carried $115 worth of pizza to distribute. Using their own cash and soliciting more from friends, they have raised $500 to feed protesters.
“The first few days we were out here, we were like, ‘We are hungry and we need to leave.’ We wanted to give people food so they could stay,” recounted Hall. “This is a revolution.”
Reggie Guy, a 23-year-old Washingtonian, spent $50 on hamburgers, hot dogs and buns that he tended on a sidewalk barbecue.
“This is my city,” he said as he bantered with protesters. “If you see a police officer, tell them to come get a hot dog. This is about peace.”
(This story corrects spelling of surname in penultimate paragraph.)
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Tom Brown)