A new report from the inspector general of the U.S. park police paints a chaotic picture of law enforcement formulating a plan to clear Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. and put up higher fencing amid protests last summer, a scheme foiled by poor coordination, unauthorized use of tear gas and a surprise visit by President Donald Trump.
The episode has become one of the most iconic images of the Black Lives Matter protests that roiled D.C. last summer, as protesters were brutally removed from the square shortly before Trump took a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible aloft. Some reporting suggested that then-Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the area be cleared so Trump could take that photo.
The new report from USPP IG Mark Greenblatt found that the square wasn’t cleared for Trump’s photo-op or at Barr’s command — rather, Greenblatt said, plans were already in motion on June 1, 2020 to clear out protesters and ring the park with higher, anti-scale fencing to separate officers and protesters.
At around 6:10 p.m., the report details, Barr stopped by the park, immediately provoking protesters who recognized him. The USPP operations commander told Barr that the area was unsafe, and asked him to move further from the crowd. Barr asked why a crowd remained on H Street, saying that he thought the protesters would be gone by that point.
The operations commander told Greenblatt’s team that Barr asked: “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?”
The operations commander, who hadn’t known that Trump was planning a visit, responded: “Are you freaking kidding me?” according to the report. He then hung his head and walked away. Barr left the park, and the operations commander maintained that Barr did not instruct him to clear the area.
The USPP incident commander too said that the plan was in motion before Barr’s arrival, and that his visit did not alter the operation or timeline.
“This plan doesn’t get developed in 2 minutes,” he said, per the report. “[The Attorney General] might be a very important guy in the government, he’s just not my boss.”
When officers decided to begin clearing the square, things quickly devolved into chaos.
The USPP incident commander planned to give the protesters three warnings to disperse before officers started physically pushing people out. The report details that the warnings were very hard to hear amid a chaotic and noisy atmosphere, and that many protesters expressed confusion at what the commander was saying.
Then, even before the commander had given the final warning, Secret Service, the USPP and Arlington County Police Department civil disturbance units all deployed, visibly surprising many of the protesters. The warnings, hard to hear and incomplete as they were, also did not point protesters towards a safe pathway to exit that would have allowed them to avoid the oncoming officers.
That frenzy intensified when members of the Metropolitan Police Department used chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS) gas, sometimes colloquially called tear gas, which, the report said, USPP had not authorized.
“The MPD assistant chief of police later confirmed that the MPD used CS gas on 17th Street and told us that it did so in response to protesters who engaged in acts of violence against MPD officers after the USPP cleared Lafayette Park and began pushing protesters toward 17th Street,” the report said. “The MPD also told us that its internal investigation determined MPD officers used CS gas on 17th Street on June 1.”
The USPP previously denied that CS gas was used on protesters.
The report details that some USPP officers were also surprised by the MPD’s use of the unauthorized irritant, forced to stop and strap on gas masks as they felt its effect.
In addition, the report found, officers with the Bureau of Prisons may have fired pepper balls into the crowd on June 1, again contrary to the USPP incident commander’s instructions.
Many have criticized law enforcement agencies for charging before the city’s 7:00 p.m. curfew, which Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed as tensions ratcheted up and clashes between protesters and police officers intensified. The report found that officers were eager to get the fencing up as quickly as possible, to put a barrier between officers and protesters before night fell, a time that had marked an uptick in violence during the past few days of protests.
The report ends by recommending that USPP write out more detailed procedures and requirements for situations like the protests in the square, including the number of warnings required and how better to ensure that protesters can actually hear them. The IG also recommended that USPP figure out how to manage multi-agency operations, to make sure they’re all operating under the same rules and expectations.
Read the full report here: