The scene by Lafayette Square on Monday evening.
Protesters and civil liberties groups are suing President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr and heads of military forces and law enforcement for violating their constitutional rights by violently dispersing a peaceful protest at Lafayette Square on Monday evening, all so Trump could walk to a nearby church for a photo op.
Black Lives Matter D.C. and a number of local residents, including a nine-year-old, who were at Lafayette Square to protest the killing of George Floyd say they were given no warning before federal law enforcement used tear gas, pepper spray capsules, rubber bullets and flash bombs to clear the public space.
"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," the lawsuit says, connecting law enforcement actions that day to events like the Tulsa Race Massacre, Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and other "violence against Black people and their supporters committed by state actors. What differentiates the actions here from the others is that the President and Attorney General of the United States ordered the violence."
While Trump and the U.S. Park Police deny that authorities used tear gas against protesters, evidence shows otherwise. Journalists and demonstrators have maintained that they experienced the deployment of chemical irritants. On Thursday, WUSA journalist Nathan Baca tweeted images of canisters of tear gas reportedly collected Monday night in the square after the dispersal. That tweet is included as evidence in the lawsuit.
The Park Police also claims it issued three warnings and was dealing with "violent protestors on H Street NW [who] began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids." Eyewitness accounts from the scene dispute these claims, as do the lawsuit's plaintiffs.
The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. and Arnold & Porter. The ACLU of D.C. has also indicated it is investigating other police activity on June 1, including the kettling of demonstrators by D.C. police on Swann Street NW after the 7 p.m. curfew, and the ACLU of Minnesota has filed a lawsuit on behalf of journalists injured by police violence in Minneapolis.
The lawsuit points out that Trump had used violent rhetoric towards the protesters in the days leading up to the incident, including tweeting that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" and telling governors in a phone call earlier that day that "in Washington, we're going to do something people haven't seen before."
While D.C. was under a curfew beginning at 7 p.m. on Monday, federal law enforcement began clearing the square at approximately 6:30 p.m., shortly before Trump began a speech in the Rose Garden.
The president said in his remarks that he was deploying "thousands and thousands" of military personnel and law enforcement to the District: "We are putting everybody on warning on a 7:00 curfew that will be strictly enforced. Those who threaten innocent life and property will be arrested, detained, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted in response to the clearing of the park that "A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful!"
The lawsuit says the dispersal of the park amounts to violations of the First and Fourth Amendments. The event impacted Black Lives Matter D.C. "by chilling BLM members and supporters from exercising their rights to demonstrate and by creating fear when they do," per the suit, and individual protesters faced trauma, bruising, symptoms related to inhaling tear gas and other injuries.
The day after the clearing of Lafayette Square, Trump tweeted, "Washington, D.C., was the safest place on earth last night!"