DC officials blame ‘outside agitators’ for disrupting peaceful protests

Protesters and police converge at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

D.C.’s police chief and mayor claimed Monday that people traveling to the District with the specific intent to disrupt peaceful protests, damage property and behave aggressively toward police were part of an “organized, funded attempt to create violence in our city.”

“This isn’t just Washington, D.C. We’ve seen violence in other cities and to the extent that that is coordinated, us in law enforcement, we have a responsibility to find out if it is and then answer that question ‘Who?’ — and hold them accountable,” D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham said at a Monday news conference with Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The police chief said 70% of those arrested in recent days were from outside D.C.

Downtown protests came to an abrupt end Sunday night with the widespread use of crowd control munitions in Black Lives Matter Plaza for the second night in a row.

Bowser said “outside agitators” brought weapons that were used to “destroy property in the District.”

Many arrived in D.C. last Wednesday and Thursday “armed for battle,” according to Bowser, with fireworks, laser pointers and baseball bats, ahead of President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention renomination speech from the White House on Thursday night.

“We don’t know who they are necessarily, who funds them, who organizes them. But we know they came together to create havoc,” Bowser said.

“What these agitators are doing is distracting from what our nation needs,” said Bowser, who added that D.C. police are “here to protect people, all people.”

The mayor stressed that the “agitators” are “not the same as our residents who proudly say ‘Black Lives Matter,'” referring to the thousands of people gathered in D.C. last Friday as part of a massive movement to protest police brutality.

“If we need a curfew, we’ll impose a curfew. We won’t hesitate to do it, if the chief thinks that is going to help him,” she added.

The mayor responded to criticism from Trump, who tweeted, “Mayor Bowser should arrest these agitators and thugs! Clean up D.C. or the Federal Government will do it for you. Enough!!!” It was after the police response to Thursday night’s unrest in the city, where several videos showed protesters confronting attendees of his White House speech.

Bowser called on the federal government to “assist us the best way they can” by “supporting our officers.”

“When we make arrests for violent protests, we need those violent agitators to be prosecuted,” said Bowser, who said the president’s tweets were “meant to distract from the failures of the last four years.”

She said there is “no accountability” for people who come to protests and attack police, “and we haven’t seen a willingness from the U.S. attorney to prosecute them.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in a statement later Monday called Bowser’s comments “patently false and serves no purpose other than to pass blame and foster innuendo.”

“Since the protests began, this office has never turned down a single case for prosecution in which there was sufficient evidence to support probable cause,” the U.S. attorney’s office said.

The office said it has charged more than 9,500 cases over the past year, including more than 2,500 felony cases.

“Specifically, with regard to the spike in protest-related violence throughout the District this summer, the office aggressively charged 121 criminal cases from May 28, 2020 to August 1, 2020,” the office said. “These cases included assault and battery on local police officers and federal agents, arson cases, and the destruction of both private and government property.”

From over the weekend, the U.S. attorney’s office said it brought criminal charges against five people linked to “protest-related violence,” which included assaults on police officers.

“The office remains committed to keeping the community safe, but also holds true to the rule of law and constitutional protections for all citizens,” the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Bowser continued the back-and-forth Monday evening when she released a letter addressed to Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. Attorney for D.C., asking his office to “fulfill your role as a public safety partner by advancing the prosecutions of those responsible for assaulting police officers, destroying property, and undermining the safety of those who seek to demonstrate peacefully in Washington, D.C.”

She said she was “dismayed” when the office declined to prosecute most of the people who were arrested after protests in Adams Morgan earlier this month.

“Indeed, since May 30, the Metropolitan Police Department has submitted 63 affidavits in support of arrest and search warrants directly related to criminal activities conducted under the guise of First Amendment assemblies. Twenty-eight of these warrants have been declined, while another 24 are still pending review by your office,” Bowser said.

She added that this delay was also found with homicide cases, and she repeated her concerns over the delays that affected the safety of police officers.

“Given the stakes for demonstrators seeking to protest peacefully and our officers who are being assaulted while seeking to preserve the peace, I again urge you in the strongest possible terms to move forward with these cases,” Bowser said.

During the news conference Monday, Bowser also said “what I’m worried about is this country descending into a race war.”

With help from the FBI, police investigated a van that was driven recklessly, endangering police and people on foot. Newsham said the driver had been taken into custody, and that the van was registered in Washington state.

“We have intelligence to suggest that that van was also at some of the violence we saw in Portland, Oregon, and some of the violence we saw in Kenosha (Wisconsin),” Newsham said.

NBC Washington reported that the suspected driver ultimately had no charges filed against him, and a judge ordered the return of his van.

Matt Small

Matt joined WTOP News at the start of 2020, after contributing to Washington’s top news outlet as an Associated Press journalist for nearly 18 years.

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