The Trump administration’s decision Monday to forcibly remove protesters from outside the White House, seemingly so that President Donald Trump could hold a photo op, has become a flash point in the ongoing unrest and widespread protests over George Floyd’s killing and systemic racial injustice. Federal police and law enforcement officials used tear gas, rubber bullets, flash bangs, and other forcible measures against a crowd of peaceful protesters gathered outside the White House in Lafayette Square, apparently at the direction of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, minutes before Trump and other senior officials strolled through the park to stand outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Now, civil rights groups are alleging that the Trump administration violated protesters’ constitutional rights with the showing of force, filing a lawsuit Thursday against Trump, Barr, and other senior administration officials. “This case is about the President and Attorney General of the United States ordering the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators who were speaking out against discriminatory police brutality targeted at Black people,” the lawsuit alleges. “Defendants’ actions to shut down the Lafayette Square demonstration is the manifestation of the very despotism against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.”
The lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and several individual protesters, alleges the Trump administration violated protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights through their forcible efforts to break up the peaceful demonstration, saying the government “had no legitimate basis to destroy the peaceable gathering.” “Defendants professed purpose—to clear the area to permit the President to walk to a photo opportunity at a nearby church—was a wholly illegal reason for abridging the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and the others assembled in Lafayette Square,” the lawsuit alleges. The civil rights groups also pointed out the president’s own history of “hostility towards viewpoints different than his own” to demonstrate the administration’s discriminatory motivation for kicking out the protesters, as well as Trump’s comments to governors that they should “dominate” protesters.
“For Defendants to describe their actions as ‘domination’ is telling. To dominate is to establish supremacy by subjugation of others,” the lawsuit notes. “It is precisely such domination—in the form of centuries of white supremacy and subjugation of Black lives—that was the core focus of the peaceful demonstration in Lafayette Square.” Just as in other injustices police have committed against civil rights protesters throughout American history, “the Lafayette Square assault was violence against Black people and their supporters committed by state actors,” the lawsuit alleges. “What differentiates the actions here from the others is that the President and Attorney General of the United States ordered the violence.”
The ACLU said Thursday that the Lafayette Square lawsuit is the first of many the organization is likely to file regarding the nationwide protests, which have involved numerous instances of police using force against peaceful protesters and journalists. BuzzFeed News reported Thursday that police have now arrested more than 11,000 protesters nationwide. “Across the country, law enforcement armed with military weaponry are responding with violence to people who are protesting police brutality,” Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement. “The First Amendment right to protest is under attack, and we will not let this go unanswered. This is the first of many lawsuits the ACLU intends to file across the country in response to police brutality against protesters.”
Despite the widespread condemnation of the Trump administration’s actions in forcibly clearing the Lafayette Square protesters for a photo op, the administration has doubled down, defending its actions and attempting to craft a less-reprehensible narrative. The president and his team have denied that police used tear gas against protesters and called on media outlets to retract their reporting, despite eyewitness accounts and physical evidence demonstrating that tear gas was used against protesters in the Monday event. Trump also tweeted a letter Thursday from his attorney John M. Dowd to former Defense Secretary James Mattis, after Mattis publicly slammed Trump, in which the Trump lawyer claims without evidence that “the phony protesters near Lafayette were not peaceful and are not real.” “They are terrorists using idle hate filled students to burn and destroy,” the lawyer continued, baselessly. “They were abusing and disrespecting the police when the police were preparing the area for the 1900 curfew.” (By all accounts, the protest was largely peaceful before the police intervention, and there is no evidence to suggest any organized terror groups were involved.)