“I think best when I’m calm,” the two-term city leader tells PEOPLE

By Amy Eskind
June 10, 2020 09:35 PM
Advertisement
From left: Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Georgia Rep. John Lewis on Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House on Sunday.
Aurora Samperio/Getty Images

It’s been a long spring for Muriel Bowser. The two-term Washington, D.C., mayor has been simultaneously dealing with both the novel coronavirus pandemic and high unemployment from the social distancing shutdowns to slow infections.

The virus has spread close to her: She lost one of her advisers to the coronavirus disease COVID-19. Meanwhile, she’s grappled with the financial burdens in her city, rising worker by unemployed worker. She spoke out for D.C.’s fair share of stimulus money after it was unusually treated like a U.S. territory, instead of a state, in a federal relief bill passed in March. And while the weeks roll on into summer, the District seems stuck in phase one of reopening.

She’s been criticized from many sides. And yet, at least publicly, she has maintained her composure. “I think best when I’m calm,” the 47-year-old single mother, who has held elected office in the nation’s capital for 15 years, tells PEOPLE.

Then George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

In D.C. — as in many other parts of the country — protests against police misconduct and racial injustice spread in the wake of video showing Floyd, who is black, pleading for air while a white office knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The largely peaceful demonstrations sometimes seethed into violence, with looting and arson. Bowser declared an emergency, called in the D.C. National Guard and imposed a curfew — as had many other local leaders nationwide. But Bowser’s job balancing public safety with immense public outcry was made yet more complicated: Her city includes the White House, and President Donald Trump has not been shy about sharing his thoughts on the unruly demonstrations.

The morning after the first night of protests in D.C., during which the president was taken to the White House’s underground bunker reportedly following a brief intrusion on the grounds, Trump applauded the job of the Secret Service and thanked them for his safety. In a lengthy Twitter thread, however, he seemed to relish the violence that could have been unleashed on the crowds outside the gates.

“Nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and the most ominous weapons, I have ever seen,” he wrote.

Then he pilloried Bowser, who “wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved.”

From left: President Donald Trump and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser
SAUL LOEB/Getty Images; Marvin Joseph/Getty Images
Police and demonstrators during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Washington, D.C., on May 31.
Yasin Ozturk/Getty Images

Bowser said that wasn’t true and volleyed back with her own tweets. “My police department will always protect DC and all who are in it [including Trump] …. I stand w/people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism.”

“There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons,” she wrote. “There is just a scared man.”

The war of words tipped over into too much for Bowser when the Trump administration sent in military and other federal agents in response to the protests near the White House. The night of June 1, they forcibly cleared peaceful protesters from the area, ahead of the imposed curfew, so Trump and other officials could walk to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church in a photo-op that his aides argued was meant to project resolve amid chaos. (St. John’s had been damaged by a small fire during the protest.)

The trip drew widespread backlash, including from local religious leaders.

Bowser called it a “political stunt,” then she devised a stunt of her own — a message, in her words, of humanity instead of division.

All she needed was some space.

She had to cede Lafayette Square across from the White House, a historic location for protests, because it was, in fact, federal land, and was now fenced. The street leading up to the park, however, was in her jurisdiction. She wanted transform a section 16th Street that leads up to the park into “a place where people felt safe addressing their grievances.”

She commissioned muralists to write “Black Lives Matter” in giant yellow letters in the dark of night. On Friday morning, the city woke up to a newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza that runs past the St. Regis and Hay Adams hotels, with the D.C. flags’ stars and stripes ending the mural just before St. John’s.

At the unveiling, a recording was played of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1968 speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

People walk down 16th Street after volunteers, with permission from the city, painted "Black Lives Matter" near the White House.

“There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of distrust of police and the government, there are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized,” Bowser said at a Friday afternoon press conference. “We had that opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city. That message is to the American people, that black lives matter, black humanity matters and we as a city raise that up as part of our values as a city.”

By 2 p.m., the president weighed in with a new Twitter attack, calling Bowser “incompetent” and slamming her for what he called an out-of-control budget. He said she was “constantly coming back to us for ‘handouts.’ ” He took issue with the mayor’s complaint that the city would not be paying for hotel rooms for out-of-state National Guards, whom she hadn’t requested alongside the D.C. guardsman she had, instead asking that they be sent home with active-duty military.

“If she doesn’t treat these men and women well, then we’ll bring a different group of men and women!” Trump wrote.

Bowser read the tweet quickly during her press conference. Asked about it by a reporter, she said, “There are so many things that I could respond to in that tweet, but I think we all have to just refocus on what’s in front of us. Our nation is hurting, it’s in need of healing and leadership at all levels, all the way from the top to mayors like me and to all of us, to focus on how we bring people together.”

Asked later about the president’s criticism of her competency, she smiled. “You know the thing about the pot and the kettle?”

The city’s blocks-spanning mural was not universally lauded. Black Lives Matter DC was upset with Bowser using their slogan without accepting their platform.

A day after the mural was unveiled, the group changed the painted D.C. flag to an equals sign. While some activists' call to defund the police has gained renewed attention, Bowser said she was not swayed. "My budget doesn't fund it a penny more than we need and certainly not a penny less. ... [C]ertainly we wouldn't want the people on our forces not to have the proper training or equipment that makes for better community policing.," she told NPR this week.

“There are going to be a lot of different opinions,” Bowser tells PEOPLE.

She is proud of the mark the mural has made. “We think it’s going to have a place not just in D.C. history, but in American history,” she says. The city council also quickly passed emergency legislation aimed at further police reforms, though Bowser — who said she supported it — urged a slower process with more public discussion.

“Allowing for community input and vetting by our residents can only serve to refine and strengthen changes to policing in the District,” she wrote.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser
Marvin Joseph/getty images
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser holding daughter Miranda in
Bill O'Leary/Getty Images

While Bowser worked seven days in a row when the George Floyd protests began, she takes time out for her adopted 2-year-old, Miranda, whom the very private mayor debuted on the Today show in 2018, when her little girl was 4 months old.

“She still needs Mom to take care of her to love her and be present,” Bowser tells PEOPLE. The novel coronavirus — still spreading even as the national unrest has overlapped it as a crisis — keeps doting grandparents away. But Bowser, the first single mom to helm the capital city, downplays the stress of juggling. “There are a lot of moms out there who have a lot more to deal with than I do and less resources to do it,” she says.

Mother and toddler live near Rock Creek Park and Bowser, who never married, says she walks with close friends and talks about all that’s going on at work and at home. “I don’t do well with silos in my life,” she says. “It all blends together.” She was happy to have this Sunday off, which gave her a chance to garden and catch up on housework.

Trump did not seem to have gotten the best of her. “It’s laughable,” she says. “If you’re fighting with a mayor and you’re the president of the United States, you’re losing.”