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"People were happy to get out and do something," the organizer tells PEOPLE

By Amy Eskind
January 16, 2021 02:28 PM
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Vets Clean Up Capitol
A group of some 150 veterans gather Sunday to clean up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in the wake of the deadly Capitol riot.
| Credit: Ben Peifer/courtesy David Smith

On Sunday afternoon, David Smith, a 40-year-old Navy veteran, assembled a group of more than 150 veterans to clean up Pennsylvania Avenue.

They had their work cut out for them: Days earlier, a mob of pro-Trump supporters had trodden down the iconic approach to the U.S. Capitol as part of their violent march on a joint session of Congress.

The rioting left five people dead and much destruction. Smith and his volunteers wanted to fix a part of that — even a small part — if they could.

In addition to picking up trash, including the odd wooden flag pole, the group scraped off political stickers stuck on street signs and building walls.

They had to go, particularly the Trump stickers, Smith tells PEOPLE. "The stickers were the biggest thing because of the symbology of hate. Anyone who incites a riot inspires hate."

"The chaos, the lack of control, was somewhat similar" to his experience in Afghanistan, Smith says, who spent 13 years in the Navy and retired in December as a petty officer 2nd class hospital corpsman.

Vets Clean Up Capitol
A group of some 150 veterans gather Sunday to clean up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in the wake of the deadly Capitol riot.
| Credit: Ben Peifer/courtesy David Smith
Vets Clean Up Capitol
A group of some 150 veterans gather Sunday to clean up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in the wake of the deadly Capitol riot.
| Credit: Ben Peifer/courtesy David Smith

Smith, who lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb, founded his volunteer veterans group Continue to Serve last June after Black Lives Matter protesters were forced out of Lafayette Park to make way for President Trump to pose with a Bible in front of a nearby church.

He'd never been to a protest and had certainly never organized one, but watching police and military move out the protesters was "gut wrenching," he says now.

Their First Amendment rights were suppressed, he says, and Black Hawk helicopters that were meant for medical use flew over the protesters to scare them.

After that, he formed a group to join the weekly protests against racial injustice. Sunday's clean-up effort was one such way to give back.

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Continue to Serve is growing exponentially, Smith says, and members want to do more neighborhood clean-ups.

Sunday's event was "a positive event in the face of something very negative," he says. "People were happy to get out and do something. D.C. residents really do care about their community and it shows."