Several civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against President Trump and Attorney General William Barr for attacking protesters assembled in D.C.’s Lafayette Square moments before the president walked over to St. John’s Church for what critics charge was nothing but a photo-op.
At Lafayette Square, located near the White House and long a popular spot for protests, Barr ordered federal agents to disperse a crowd of peaceful demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last month while in police custody in Minneapolis.
The agents, carrying riot shields and wearing riot gear, pushed and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters shortly before Trump came to the church with Bible in hand.
“This suit is about one core principle that lies in the heart of our democracy: the right to free speech and the right to freedom of assembly,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a press conference Thursday evening.
Clarke said her group, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, joined the D.C. office of the ACLU and the law firm of Arnold & Porter in filing the suit on behalf of several protesters who were attacked, including members of the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter.
“Defendants directed their agents in the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, D.C. National Guard, and U.S. Military Police to fire tear gas, pepper spray capsules, rubber bullets and flash bombs into the crowd to shatter the peaceful gathering, forcing demonstrators to flee the area,” according to the 34-page filing. “Many peaceful demonstrators were injured, some severely, by this unprovoked attack.”
The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, states that Barr ordered Lafayette Square to be cleared “minutes” before the assault started.
“Defendant Barr issued this order following a series of statements from Defendant Trump in the days and hours leading up to this attack in which he clearly threatened to use and encouraged violence against protestors,” the suit states.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is also listed as a defendant in the suit because of the use of the military. His involvement drew condemnation from his predecessor, retired Gen. James Mattis.
“The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation,” Mattis said in a statement to the Atlantic. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis said. “Instead, he tries to divide us.”