Some clarity a day after reports of tear gas in Lafayette Square, but questions remain

Authorities have admitted to deploying smoke canisters and PepperBalls. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, has been the local epicenter of the last five days of protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody last week.

The statue-dotted green space, just north of the White House, is usually filled with residents and tourists taking a break from work or from a long day of visiting monuments.

But on the evening of June 1, just as President Donald Trump was making a speech about authorities asserting themselves in the face of the Floyd-inspired protests around the country, a combination of shield-wielding police from federal agencies (Secret Service, Park Police, DC National Guard) and nearby Arlington, Virginia, began to push the assembled crowd back past the north side of the square, toward H Street NW and beyond.

The police action came about 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. curfew that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had announced earlier Monday.

Both Bowser, D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham and the District’s Attorney General Karl Racine have criticized the action as premature and unwarranted, just a quarter of an hour before the curfew was to commence.

Racine’s Tuesday statement called it “an assault” on peaceful protesters. Bowser called it unprovoked and “shameful.”

Just after the crowd was pushed north, away from the Square, Trump emerged from the White House and walked one block to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church to take photos with a Bible in his hand.

Trump walked through the park to reach St. John’s Episcopal Church shortly after it was cleared. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Twenty-four hours later, a number of questions persist about what prompted the police to advance on the protesters.

Who gave the order to push protesters away from Lafayette Square, and when was the order made?

Did police make any effort to warn protesters that they should move back?

Were the police provoked by the protesters?

Was tear gas or another irritant used to break up the crowd of protesters?

A day later, a number of official comments have been made on the issue, along with some non-comments, and the picture about what happened is not much clearer.

To start with the first question, a number of reports came out Tuesday that put the responsibility on U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

CBS News confirmed reporting from The Washington Post that Barr and his office made the decision either late Sunday (May 31) or early Monday to extend the perimeter around the White House. When he arrived in the area on Monday afternoon, he surveyed the square and was disappointed his request had not yet been carried out.

At that point, after talking with police, the move to expand the perimeter started. A Department of Justice official, who spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, said “he [Barr] basically said: ‘This needs to be done. Get it done.'”

However, in a statement late Tuesday from the U.S. Park Police Acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan, there was no mention of this conference with Barr. Instead, the Park Police characterized protesters close to the park as being violent and throwing objects such as frozen water bottles and “caustic liquids,” which is what prompted three warnings to move back and an eventual push on the crowd.

WTOP’s reporter on the scene, Alejandro Alvarez, who posted video to Twitter showing Barr evaluating the situation at the north end of the square earlier in the afternoon, said he did not hear three requests from the police that protesters should move back away from the H Street side of the park.

By Tuesday, a larger perimeter around the White House had been created.

According to a CBS News Justice Department source, Barr and his department made the decision to move the crowd back from the square regardless of Trump’s plan to walk to the church for photos.

But, CBS News also reported that Barr and other presidential advisers wanted Trump to make the walk in a “show of strength” after reports surfaced over the weekend that he had retreated into a White House bunker during Friday night’s protests.

Adding more detail to the events in the park Tuesday was Arlington County, which sent a release discussing its decision to recall officers it had detailed to D.C. to support the National Park Police. The county memo reinforced the assertion that “demonstrators were ordered to leave the area” about 10 minutes before the “redirection” began.

D.C. police Chief Newsham, in his discussion of Monday’s incident during a Tuesday news conference, also noted that “federal law enforcement officers” gave warnings to disperse.

The next question is, how did the police “redirect” the crowd? In its release, Arlington County noted its officers did not “unholster their batons, or fire rubber bullets or tear gas at the protesters.” (Note: Later Tuesday, Arlington amended its release to remove the reference to “batons.” Arlington County confirmed to WTOP that its officers did unholster batons.)

But, why were reports circulating that tear gas was used?

Earlier Tuesday, WTOP’s Neal Augenstein tweeted that he had asked the Secret Service for some clarification “several times.”

The response? “For operational security reasons, the US Secret Service does not discuss our protectees, our protective means and methods.”

Augenstein continued his reporting Tuesday afternoon, getting this response from Acting United States Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monhan.

“No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park,” Monahan said via a release from the National Park Service.

As Arlington County’s release noted, its officers were attempting to move the crowd with “their presence” and not any irritants.

Why, then, did multiple reporters describe the irritant in the area a tear gas, and why was it deployed?

Deeper reporting reveals that protesters did begin to get arrested, throwing water bottles, rocks and other projectiles at the oncoming police.

“As many of the protesters became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls.” Monahan’s statement also described “caches of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the street.”

PepperBall is in fact a brand name touted on the company’s website as “your complete nonlethal solution.” The balls themselves resemble paint balls, and can be “launched” from different devices, most of which resemble weapons.

Promotional material calls PepperBalls “the most effective chemical irritant available” and can create a 12-foot cloud that can affect the eyes, nose and throat of those who are in the way.

A Google search shows that PepperBalls were recently used to break up a crowd at the University of Dayton in early May. News reports from that incident also note a confusion between the PepperBalls and tear gas.

Newsham noted in his news conference Tuesday that D.C. police was only made aware of Trump’s planned walk to the church moments before it happened, and even then, it was only called “presidential movement in the area” of Lafayette Square.

Reporters are still working to verify information provided by the authorities on Tuesday.

The Justice Department, according to CBS News, continues to refer all questions about the forceful tactics used Monday night to the agencies that carried them out.

Reporting from The Washington Post and WTOP’s Alvarez reveals that from what they could see, the demonstration had been peaceful before the police initiated the move just before 7 p.m.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein, Alejandro Alvarez and CBS News contributed to this report.

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Members of the National Guard block an intersection on Monday night.  (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Protesters holds their hands up as a military helicopter flies low pushing a strong vertical down wash of air (rotor wash) onto the crowd during a protest over the death of George Floyd on June 1, 2020. – President Donald Trump vowed Monday to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation violent protests gripping the United States, saying he was sending thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

D.C. Police hold a line along M Street, blocking a group of protesters on Pennsylvania Avenue from entering Georgetown. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

Police blocked a group of protesters between 14th and 15th St. NW at Swann St.

Helicopters flew low late on Monday night in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood after a small number of demonstrators moved into the area. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Demonstrators wait in a police vehicle after being taken into custody as they protested the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. The arrests occurred after a curfew went into effect in Washington.

With tears in her eyes, a demonstrator is taken into custody by police after a curfew took effect during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

Demonstrators react as a helicopter circles low as people gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

A military Humvee blocks an intersection along K Street in downtown Washington as demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks from the White House through Lafayette Park to visit St. John’s Church Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Park of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Park of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Police begin to clear demonstrators gathered as they protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

A demonstrator is taken into custody by police after a curfew took effect during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

A demonstrator is taken into custody by police after a curfew took effect during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

Police prepare transport vehicles for people who they arrest during protests over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

U.S. Park Police string security tape around Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Workmen board up the windows of a building ahead of demonstrations against the death of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Trucks transport D.C. National Guard troops along West Executive Drive in support of law enforcement officers that are keeping demonstrators away from the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Trucks transport D.C. National Guard troops along West Executive Drive in support of law enforcement officers that are keeping demonstrators away from the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secret Service officers stand on the roof of the West Wing while keeping watch on protesters gathered outside the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Members of the Secret Service walk past the White House as protests over the death of George Floyd continue on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Police officers hold a perimeter near the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the killing of George Floyd on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards near the White House on Monday, June 1, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Protesters take a knee and raise their fists in Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.

A cyclist rides pass an armored vehicle heading towards Lafayette Square on 16th Street, as people protest the death of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C. on Monday, June 1, 2020.

A demonstrator walks by graffiti in Lafayette Park on H Street NW, on Monday, June 1, 2020, after weekend protests sparked by the death of George Floyd occurred near the White House.

People protest the death of George Floyd near the White House in D.C. on Monday, June 1, 2020.

People protest the death of George Floyd down the street from the White House in D.C. on Monday, June 1, 2020.

People protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, outside Lafayette Square near the White House in D.C. on Monday, June 1, 2020.

Vehicles for the D.C. National Guard are seen outside the D.C. Armory, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Protests have erupted across the U.S. to protest the death of Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Shattered window and door glass is scattered on the floor inside Mervis Diamond Importers in Washington, Monday, June 1, 2020, after a night of protests over the death of George Floyd.

A damaged cash machine is seen in Washington on I Street NW, Monday, June 1, 2020, after a night protests over the death of George Floyd. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington, during a news conference to announce a new 7 p.m. curfew for the city for the next two nights. Across the U.S., people gathered to protest the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

An ATF officer walks out of Lafayette Park on H Street NW, on Monday, June 1, 2020, after weekend protests sparked by the death of George Floyd occurred near the White House.

afl-cio building
A worker cleans graffiti off the AFL-CIO building on 16th Street NW in D.C., on Monday, June 1, 2020, after weekend protests.

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Donald Trump
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Park of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
afl-cio building

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