It’s been more than two weeks since an ill-mannered Trump supporter caught hands at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.
A thudding dose of corrective consequence struck one the former president’s loyalists squarely in the face during a Jan. 5 protest. It came courtesy of Ashanti Smith, 28, a licensed unarmed special police officer who works near the White House.
Smith, who is Black, was seen on camera landing a flush punch that left Therese Duke’s face leaking. She fired on Duke after the white Trump lover tried to snatch Smith’s cellphone out of her hand.
Video of Smith and Duke’s skirmish quickly went viral on social media, to the delight of many, including Duke’s own daughter. But for Smith, it was a life-altering moment with a two-fold fallout that’s proved both good and bad. On one hand, Smith was arrested following the incident and now faces a misdemeanor assault charge, for which could be fined $1,000 and spend six months in jail. She’s been suspended from her security job without pay and demonized by a multitude of conservatives.
But Smith, who maintains she was acting in self-defense, has also felt a global embrace. People worldwide have sent her messages of support. Many of those well-wishes have come with donations. A GoFundMe page that Smith started to raise money for legal fees and living expenses had raised more than $246,000 by Jan. 25.
“It’s definitely a surprise,” Smith told Atlanta Black Star on Friday. “It’s overwhelming. I just get so many messages. Even when people, if they can’t support, they just send me words of encouragement. It helps keep me going. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I might go and just try to read the messages and respond to people and just thank them. Even if they can’t send much, like they say, it’s not even about the money. The support means a lot.”
Prelude to Capitol riots
Before insurrectionists stormed and breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to thwart Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, a legion of protesters swarmed the streets of nation’s capital. Trump supporters gathered in a show of support for the outgoing president that lasted late into the night Jan. 5.
According to a court affidavit, the incident between Smith and Duke unfolded shortly after 10 p.m. at the BLM Plaza about two blocks north of the White House.
Smith ventured out on her lunch break and was taking photographs of the raucous crowds. She was filming on her cellphone when Anne Lorenz, Duke’s sister, approached and asked to be her friend. Smith said she politely declined the 52-year-old woman’s gesture.
Lorenz was with a group of five people who were heavily intoxicated and not wearing face masks. Duke was part of the group.
They began following Smith and asking about her political affiliations. They wondered aloud why she was filming and hurled racial slurs at her. When Smith said she didn’t vote for Biden or Trump, Lorenz began accusing her of being a member of antifa, an anti-fascism political movement that’s reviled by Trump and his supporters.
Police records show the small clan bumped and grabbed Smith. They tried to take her mask off, attempted to snatch her phone from her hands and remove her keys from her pocket. One of the men in the group even assaulted her, she said.
“I asked them were they trying to rob me, I didn’t know what was going on,” Smith said.
A Metro Police officer saw Smith, who was wearing her uniform, being harassed by the group. The officer grabbed her and pulled her in, protecting her behind a police barricade that was separating the throng of Trump demonstrators and counter-protesters. After a few minutes, the officer let Smith go and told her to head back to work.
But when he released Smith into the crowd, Lorenz and company surrounded her again.
“It was basically like they targeted me, and were just waiting on standby for me to leave,” Smith said.
They continued to lob racially charged death threats and the crowd grew larger as Smith tried to walk away.
It was commotion from that second encounter that attracted the attention of a Freedom News TV photographer who began filming the video clip that went viral.
“They were pulling me from different directions, they were screaming racial slurs. And someone hocked spit on me before the video that you all saw,” Smith explained. “So I’m trying to leave, I’m getting enclosed by everyone, I don’t know who’s pulling me from any direction, I’m in fear for my life, then somebody spits on me. Then the video started. And that’s when you see Miss Duke trying to grab my phone.”
The clip showed Duke swipe at Smith twice, attempting to yank her cellphone away. Her hand brushed across Smith’s face. Smith responded by turning toward Duke and delivering a straight right hand that busted the woman’s nose and left her face bloodied.
“I defended myself with one hit, I stepped away and tried to back out of the crowd,” Smith said.
Richard Lorenz, a man standing next to Duke, took a swing at Smith before three men in the crowd grabbed her and dragged her to the nearby police line. A few seconds after they reached the barricade, Anne Lorenz came from behind and struck Smith in the back of the head.
Officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowd and again whisked Smith behind the barricade for protection.
Anne Lorenz was arrested and charged with assault.
Smith said she went back to work, cleaned up and finished her shift. When she got off work, she returned to the scene to retrieve a few items that she lost during the earlier chaos. But while she was at work, Duke reported that Smith assaulted her. Duke claimed Smith was filming her and she confronted the special officer, according to arrest reports. By the time Smith returned, detectives had already watched the video.
Officers on the police line returned Smith’s items. As she turned to leave, a detective ran up and questioned her. Minutes later, he arrested her, despite objections from officers who witnessed the encounters, Smith said.
She was taken to a holding cell overnight and went before a judge the following afternoon. When she was finally released about 2 p.m., the Capitol riots were in full swing.
Smith didn’t realize at the time that the Capitol about 12 miles away was under siege or that her punch from the previous night had gone viral. She had no phone and her job would not let her back on premises to get her car keys — she found a few days later it was because she’d been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.
Smith was forced to wander the chaotic streets for hours until she could call someone to give her a ride home. She said a few protesters recognized her from the viral video but no one bothered her.
“I just tried to keep my head down and walk as fast as I could,” she said. “I didn’t try to make any eye contact and just find my way. I tried to ask certain pieces for directions. Some people were helpful, some I just didn’t even know if I could approach.”
Smith has had weeks to reflect on her ordeal, and she indicated she’s sought therapy for the lingering effects of what she endured that night.
“To be honest, it mentally broke me. I’ve been unstable in a sense, I haven’t been able to really eat or sleep,” Smith said of the ordeal. “I think I’m semi-paranoid — not really paranoid — there’s lot of thoughts that run through my mind, because I don’t really know who’s around or who might be against me. I have reached out to seek therapy. It’s been hard on some days because it does take a toll.”
Conservative media outlets portrayed Duke as the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. But many sided with Smith saying Duke reaped the karma of her own actions.
One of those people was Duke’s 18-year-old daughter Helena, who outed her mother, aunt and uncle to the FBI. Smith said she’s been in contact with Helena Duke, who’s expressed her support.
Meanwhile, Therese Duke was a caregiver at University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care. But the hospital announced in a Jan. 8 statement that she was no longer employed there.
Smith remained humbled by the support she’s gotten, saying it’s given her motivation to keep fighting through the trauma of her experience. She also insisted she was only trying to defend herself.
“I Don’t Even Call It Violence When It’s In Self Defense,” her Instagram page states. “I Call It Intelligence”
Smith made it a point to highlight her stance.
“I do not want people to think that I support violence or any of that. I’m just not for hate crimes,” she said. “I don’t want people to go out and do anything crazy. We need to change the narrative because they already look at us as the aggressors. So we need to just change the narrative. That’s the best way possible to show them that we’re better than what they’ve labeled us as.”