Witnesses told members of Congress on Monday that law enforcement officers forcefully cleared out peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House earlier this month with little warning and indiscriminate attacks on some of those in the crowd.
The use of chemical agents by officers in riot gear, who at times shoved people out of the way, came before a 7 p.m. D.C. curfew was to go into effect on June 1. The action also occurred shortly before President Donald Trump walked through the area and held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“Things changed in an instant,” said Gini Gerbasi, an Episcopal priest who was at St. John’s the evening of the protests. “Suddenly, I saw protesters, I saw and heard protesters running from Lafayette Park. I saw billowing clouds of acrid smoke.”
Gerbasi said she tried to help people who were dealing with the effects of smoke canisters and pepper balls that U.S. Park Police used to clear the protesters.
Gerbasi was one of several people who testified at two separate hearings held Monday.
She spoke before a House subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., which looked at what happened not only at Lafayette Square but at protests across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.
Raskin is one of many lawmakers who are critical of what happened earlier this month near the White House.
“The government’s photo-op riot in Lafayette Square has been not an aberration from, but an illustration of, the kinds of official abuse of the First Amendment rights of the people,” Raskin said.
A separate hearing, conducted by the House Natural Resources Committee, focused specifically on what happened at Lafayette Square on June 1.
Amelia Brace, a correspondent for Australian broadcaster Seven News, was caught up in the events that evening while covering the protest with cameraman Tim Myers.
“Suddenly, the police lines surged forward,” she testified, noting that they moved back along with protesters.
Brace said officers then fired non-lethal projectiles, and Myers was hit in the neck. Their equipment was damaged. They tried to move out of the way as some protesters started falling to the ground.
“A Park Police officer, who was passing us, stopped, turned towards Tim and rammed him in the chest and stomach with the edge of his riot shield, causing Tim to keel over and drop down,” Chase said.
The officer also grabbed the lens of the news team’s camera, then as they tried move away, Chase said a third officer struck her with a baton.
U.S. Park Police have said that two officers are on administrative leave as the agency investigates what happened with the news crew.
A White House spokesman has said protesters were given three warnings by U.S. Park Police before the area was cleared, but witnesses told lawmakers they did not hear any warnings.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, was among the witnesses to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee.
He was a lead counsel involved in years of legal proceedings related to previous protests and arrests linked to the 2002 World Bank demonstrations in D.C.
Turley said guidelines, set up in the wake of 2002, established that protesters are required to get three audible warnings and to be able to disperse when ordered to.
He testified that his review of what happened at Lafayette Square indicates there are legitimate questions that need to be addressed related to how law enforcement quickly moved in.
“My summary concludes that the order to clear the park is probably going to be held as lawful,” Turley said. “Whether the means used to clear the park were lawful is something that this committee and other committees may be able to shed some light on.”
Turley noted that many courts would likely “express concern over the rapid escalation of force, particularly in a protest involving police abuse allegations.”
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the committee’s ranking Republican, said there are legitimate questions that need to be reviewed related to the protest.
But he also accused Democrats’ of carrying out “political theater.”
At least 50 U.S. Park Police have been injured during the weeks of protests in D.C., Bishop said.