Police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, as they gather on June 1 to protest the death of George Floyd.

Police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, as they gather on June 1 to protest the death of George Floyd. Alex Brandon / AP

Lawmakers, Legal Experts Decry Federal Crackdown on Protesters as Unlawful

House committee holds hearing on controversial federal law enforcement tactics prior to Trump's church photo op.

Federal law enforcement officers unnecessarily put the safety of protesters at risk and likely violated the law when they deployed forceful tactics and chemical irritants outside the White House earlier this month, lawmakers, those present at the events and legal experts said at a congressional hearing on Monday. 

The House Natural Resources Committee hearing focused on the crackdown on protesters in Lafayette Square—the federally operated park just north of the White House—on June 1, where U.S. Park Police and other federal officials violently pushed back those demonstrating against police violence and racial injustice. The incident immediately preceded President Trump walking through the park for a photo opportunity in front of a church that borders it. The Park Police, a division of the National Park Service, initially denied that officers used tear gas during the events, but later walked back its denial after journalists found canisters on the scene suggesting it did. The agency initially admitted officers used pepper balls and smoke canisters. 

Kishon McDonald, a protester on the scene who is party to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the administration, and Amelia Brace, an Australian journalist who covered the protest and gained attention after footage showed federal officers violently pushing her and her crew, repeatedly said they did not hear any warnings from Park Police to disperse. They added the officers made no effort to deescalate the situation or seek to elicit voluntary compliance. 

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., noted this would have violated the Park Police’s use of force policy as updated in November 2019. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at The George Washington University who served as a Republican witness during Trump’s impeachment and during Monday’s hearing, said the agency’s actions were likely unlawful even if it had issued warnings for the crowd to disperse as it has claimed it did. Turley noted federal law and court precedent suggest law enforcement can legally move back the line where demonstrators can protest for just cause, but that doesn’t speak to the means deployed to move them. 

“These facts, however, do not give the government carte blanche to clear the park in any manner that it desires,” Turley said.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., agreed federal officials could have legally moved protesters back if they did so more slowly and with additional warnings to give the demonstrators a chance to “escape.” 

Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly said he had previously ordered federal officials to move the line back and he did not know about Trump’s photo op until much later. Turley suggested the order was likely legal, but said a court would likely find unlawful the use of forceful tactics without proper warning or opportunity for peaceful compliance. Those present at the crackdown noted it occurred 30 minutes prior to 7 p.m., the time for which curfew had been set in Washington that night. 

In testimony, McDonald recalled what he described as a flash grenade exploding at his feet, while Brace said she was hit by non-lethal projectiles. McDonald said police rushed at protesters with their riot shields without warning or any audible request to move. Turley said attacks on journalists like Brace “appeared unjustified and unlawful,” adding it “does not strike me as a very close call.” 

Republicans on the committee condemned the hearing as biased and showed several videos of protesters around the country engaging in violence and vandalism. The Trump administration has said in the days leading up to the June 1 events, 50 Park Police officers and 100 total federal officers were injured at the hands of protesters. 

“Describing protests as mostly peaceful is like describing Al Capone as a mostly law abiding citizen,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. 

Democrats, meanwhile, highlighted that footage showed protesters acting peacefully before the Park Police push. Brace and McDonald said they did not see any protesters acting violently. 

The incident was an “indefensible attack on our own people and our freedoms,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the committee. 

The lawmakers also criticized the Trump administration for not making agency officials available for the hearing. The Interior Department said it would be inappropriate to testify on a panel with those who have pending litigation against it, but after the committee offered a separate panel for the officials the department cited timing as an issue. 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany opened her press briefing on Monday by discussing the Trump administration's ongoing efforts to punish protesters it says have acted illegally. 

“The [Justice Department] has arrested over 100 anarchists for rioting and destruction of federal property,” McEnany said. “The DoJ has also charged four men in federal court for attempting to tear down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square.” 

Without specifying their nature, she added the FBI has more than 200 domestic terrorism investigations ongoing and that Barr has created a "task force on violent anti-government extremists." Trump in recent days has taken to tweeting out photos of individuals sought by Park Police for allegedly engaging in illegal forms of protest and vandalism.