News & Politics

Feds Cleared Lafayette Square With Gas and Rubber Bullets Before a Trump Photo Op. Now the Biden Administration Has Agreed to Change Police Tactics for Demonstrations.

A protester is treated after law enforcement sprays chemical irritants to clear the area in advance of Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2022. Photograph by Evy Mages

US Park Police and Secret Service will change the way they police demonstrations to partially settle legal actions brought by people who were gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, in advance of former President Trump’s famous photo op outside St. John’s Church. The changes are a partial settlement of overlapping lawsuits brought on behalf of Black Lives Matter DC and other protesters after feds cleared the square either, depending on whom you believe, at the order of former Attorney General William Barr (per the Trump Administration) or at the behest of a Park Police commander (per Barr).

Last June an Interior Department inspector general’s report found that the park wasn’t cleared so Trump could take a photo, but that law enforcement acted before protesters, who were reacting to the murder of George Floyd, could hear warnings to disperse. The report, as Radley Balko wrote for the Washington Post, “clears only the Park Police — and not the Secret Service or any other law enforcement agencies present — of coordinating with the White House to clear the park for Trump’s photo op.”

Among the changes agreed to by the law enforcement agencies: Park Police won’t revoke demonstration permits unless there’s a “clear and present danger to the public safety,” or “widespread violations of applicable law that pose significant threat of injury to persons or property.” The force will facilitate the safe dispersal of crowds, providing audible warnings beforehand. Park Police will wear clear identification, and they won’t display gas masks or shields without approval from a high-ranking officer. And the Secret Service will modify its policy to “make clear that uses of force and dispersals are not normally justified by the unlawful conduct of some individuals in a crowd.”

Lafayette Square on the evening of June 2, 2020. Photograph by Evy Mages

The original suits named Trump and Barr and asked for monetary damages. One cited a Trump tweet that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” (Trump famously hid in a bunker during demonstrations the night before his photo op; his administration eventually turned the area around the White House into a militarized island.) Last June a federal judge dismissed many of their claims but found that protesters could pursue complaints against several police forces.

“We are pleased that the Biden Administration is taking an important step to protect protesters’ rights so that what happened on June 1, 2020 doesn’t happen again,” ACLU of the District of Columbia legal director Scott Michelman says in a statement.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.