Trump crackdown on anti-racism White House protesters ‘unprovoked’
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A US national guard officer is set to testify that the Trump administration’s forcible clearing of anti-racism protesters from outside the White House last month was “unprovoked” and an “excessive use of force”.
The written testimony from the officer — who was at Lafayette Square on June 1 as a senior Washington national guard liaison — contradicts explanations given by Trump administration officials about the events, including denials that tear gas was used against the protesters.
After the demonstrators had been dispersed that evening, Donald Trump walked through the area from the White House to a nearby church for a photo shoot where he held up a Bible.
The officer, Adam DeMarco, is scheduled to appear before the House natural resources committee on Tuesday. In his written testimony, released on Monday, he described the demonstrators as “behaving peacefully, exercising their First Amendment rights”.
“From my observation, those demonstrators — our fellow American citizens — were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights. Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force,” according to his prepared remarks.
Mr Trump and his appointees have faced intense criticism over the events at Lafayette Square on June 1, which came as a wave of anti-racism protests were sweeping the US after the police killing of George Floyd.
The controversy about the Trump administration’s use of force against protests has continued throughout the summer, with nightly demonstrations at the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon.
Federal forces from the Department of Homeland Security have been deployed to Portland to protect the courthouse. Local officials have objected, arguing the federal presence is escalating rather than reducing tensions.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, has vowed to “continue to confront mob violence”. He is set to appear before the House judiciary committee on Tuesday.
Mr Barr has denied ordering federal forces to clear the protesters from around Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1. “My attitude was get it done, but I didn't say, 'Go do it',” he told the Associated Press last month.
He has said he gave the order to clear the area much earlier that day, well before there were any plans for Mr Trump’s photo.
The attorney-general has also rejected reports that tear gas was used. He did acknowledge to CBS in June that pepper balls were used, which he insisted were not a “chemical” irritant.
Mr DeMarco described in his testimony seeing smoke and feeling “irritation in my eyes and noise”, which he recognised from his training as tear gas. “And later that evening, I found spent tear gas canisters on the street nearby,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Mr Barr did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr DeMarco’s testimony.
The national guard officer said the effort to disperse the protesters came shortly after Mr Barr and Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had visited Lafayette Square around 6pm. Mr DeMarco said he had spoken with Gen Milley, but not the attorney-general.
“General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights,” he said. Mr DeMarco said the Washington national guard did not participate in clearing out the protesters.
Park Police, an agency of the federal Department of Interior, issued three orders to disperse at 6.20pm, but they were “barely audible,” according to the testimony.
“I did not expect the announcements so early, as the curfew was not due to go into effect until 7pm, 40 minutes later,” Mr DeMarco said. Once the area had been cleared by Park Police, Mr Trump shortly after 7pm walked to St John’s Church where he stood for photos while holding the Bible.
Mr DeMarco said he had been informed the reason for the clearance operation was to erect a new security fence. “The materials to erect it did not arrive on the scene until 9pm,” he noted.
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