Civil rights groups sue Trump over assault on peaceful protesters near White House


Protesters were forcefully removed from a park near the White House before Trump walked to a nearby church to take a photo

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups are suing Donald Trump, William Barr and other federal officials over the assault on peaceful protesters near the White House on Monday, to allow the president to hold a photo op at a historic church.

According to a release from the ACLU of the District of Columbia, the lawsuit filed on behalf of Black Lives Matter DC and individual protesters accuses Trump and the other officials are accused of “violating their constitutional rights and engaging in an unlawful conspiracy to violate those rights”.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Arnold & Porter also filed the suit.

Protesters demonstrating over the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis were gassed, shot with rubber bullets and forcefully cleared on Barr’s orders so Trump could walk to St John’s church, the so-called Church of the Presidents, and hold up a Bible in a photo op meant to reassure evangelical supporters.

“What happened to our members Monday evening, here in the nation’s capital, was an affront to all our rights,” April Goggans of Black Lives Matter DC, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in a quote provided by the ACLU.

“The death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers has reignited the rage, pain and deep sadness our community has suffered for generations. We won’t be silenced by teargas and rubber bullets. Now is our time to be heard.”

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Washington, comes as William Barr, the attorney general, defended the decision to forcefully remove the peaceful protesters, saying it was necessary to protect officers and federal property.

Scott Michaelman, the legal director for the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said: “The president’s shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked and frankly criminal attack on protesters because he disagreed with their views shakes the foundation of our nation’s constitutional order.

“And when the nation’s top law enforcement officer becomes complicit in the tactics of an autocrat, it chills protected speech for all of us.”

Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said lawsuits would be filed across the US, where “law enforcement armed with military weaponry are responding with violence to people who are protesting police brutality.

“The first amendment right to protest is under attack, and we will not let this go unanswered.”

Trump and supporters have claimed protesters in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, and near St John’s church were not teargassed. But as an Associated Press factcheck points out, “the US Park Police denied using teargas, yet acknowledged deploying a pepper compound, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific organizations list as one form of teargas”.

The White House has also contested reports that rubber bullets were also used to clear the crowd before Trump, who had just promised to enforce “law and order” in a brief Rose Garden address.

The events in and around Lafayette Square on Monday night have contributed to a growing rift in US society and even within the US military. Trump was accompanied to the church by officials including Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, and Gen Mark Milley, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff.

Esper has said he had not known the president was intending to hold a photo op. But senior figures including the former defense secretary and marine corps general James Mattis, the former JCOS chair admiral Mike Mullen and the former marine corps general John Allen, a former US commander against Isis and in Afghanistan, have expressed their disgust with both the stunt and the military’s participation in it.

Barr said he had met with other law enforcement officials earlier Monday and decided they needed to extend a security perimeter around the White House to protect federal agents “who could be reached by projectiles from the street”. He expected the perimeter to be moved in the early afternoon, but when he arrived in the evening, shortly before Trump was set to speak at a news conference, he learned it wasn’t done and ordered law enforcement officials to take action.

After the crowd was dispersed, Trump, followed by an entourage of his most senior aides – including Barr – along with Secret Service agents and reporters, walked over to St John’s Church, the landmark pale-yellow building where every president, including Trump, has prayed, that had been damaged Sunday night in a protest fire. Barr said Trump, as the nation’s chief executive, had every right to do so and claimed it wasn’t political.

“I don’t necessarily view that as a political act. I think it was entirely appropriate for him to do,” Barr said.

US Park Police launched an investigation after officers were seen hitting an Australian journalist with a shield as they cleared the protesters.

For days, the federal government has vowed to have an aggressive response in the District of Columbia after nights of violence that led to fires being set, windows shattered, store shelves emptied and dozens of police officers injured. The federal government has deployed law enforcement officials from numerous agencies, and national guard troops from a number of states have been sent to the District of Columbia.


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