The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration Thursday, alleging officials violated the civil rights of protesters who were forcefully removed from a park near the White House by police using chemical agents before President Donald Trump walked to a nearby church to take a photo.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Washington, comes as Attorney General William Barr defended the decision to forcefully remove the peaceful protesters, saying it was necessary to protect officers and federal property.
The suit argues that Trump, Barr and other officials “unlawfully conspired to violate” the protesters’ rights when clearing Lafayette Park on Monday. Law enforcement officers aggressively forced the protesters back, firing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd to disperse them from the park.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the group Black Lives Matter D.C. and individual protesters who were present. It is filed by the ACLU of DC, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Arnold & Porter.
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.
U.S. 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.
The Justice Department had deployed agents from every one of its agencies, including the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, an elite tactical unit, and riot teams from the Bureau of Prisons.
The Park Police and Secret Service have had dozens of officers out in riot gear for the last few nights, in addition to the Metropolitan Police Department. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other Homeland Security agencies were also dispatched.
Members of Congress have raised concerns about a number of federal law enforcement officials in Washington who have refused to identify which agency they work for and stand, armed, without any visible identification or badges. Some lawmakers have vowed to introduce legislation to require federal agents to identify themselves at protests.