Judge hears arguments in suits against Trump, Barr over 2020 Lafayette Square protest

A federal judge is considering arguments in four lawsuits against former President Donald Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and local and federal police agencies, each claiming the constitutional rights of protesters were violated on June 1, 2020, at Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.

The ACLU, representing Black Lives Matter DC, and three individual protesters argued the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbang grenades were part of a coordinated attack on peaceful protesters demonstrating against police brutality after the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis.

Other defendants in the case include the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the Arlington County Police Department, the U.S. Park Police, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Secret Service and the D.C. National Guard.

Lafayette Square was cleared forcefully minutes before a curfew imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Soon after that, Trump walked with other administration officials across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he posed for pictures with a bible.

The plaintiffs argued the government officials who ordered and carried out the clearing of the park should be held accountable.

However, lawyers for Barr, the Park Police and other defendants say federal officials can’t be sued for damages for constitutional violations that occur near the White House. They also claim qualified immunity — a protection granted to government officials, including police officers, from being personally liable in civil cases, unless they violate “clearly established” law.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich pointed out several times that the protesters were peaceful.

“You just can’t wail on someone with batons if they’re running away from you,” said Friedrich.

Friedrich also said the crowd dispersal came before the 7 p.m. curfew, which was imposed by Bowser, after two nights of destructive protests in the nation’s capital.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice defended the park clearing.

“Federal officers do not violate First Amendment rights by moving protesters a few blocks, even if the protesters are predominantly peaceful,” said John Martin.

Martin said courts have always allowed law enforcement to protect the president of the United States.

“Presidential security is paramount,” Martin said. “No officer has ever been denied immunity for clearing an area before an appearance by the president.”

Representing the protesters, attorney Randy Mastro played video and showed photos of chemicals being sprayed by police during the park clearing.

“Your honor, why did it happen? Was it to stop violence? The attorney general himself said there was no violence,” Mastro said.

“The president had tweeted that these peaceful protesters were domestic terrorists,” argued Mastro. “It appears from the president’s own words that these protesters were targeted.”

Mastro said if the defendants’ argument that all tactics are allowed to protect presidential security, “In theory, Lafayette Square could have been cleared with live ammunition.”

After 90 minutes of arguments, Friedrich took the matter under advisement, and said she was rule in the near future.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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