Witnesses: No warnings from Park Police in clearing of square
'Suddenly the police line surged forward,' said an Australian journalist who was seen on video being hit by U.S. Park Police in Lafayette Square on June 1
Two witnesses to the police clearing of Lafayette Square on June 1, when law enforcement officers aggressively pushed largely peaceful demonstrators from the park, told House members Monday they did not hear police issue warnings to disperse before charging the crowd and deploying nonlethal weapons.
Federal officers, including the U.S. Park Police, are required under a 2015 legal settlement to issue three clear and audible warnings to protesters and leave room for them to exit the area. The USPP said it gave three warnings over a loudspeaker system telling protesters to disperse.
Kishon McDonald, who joined protests June 1 outside the White House, said he did not hear warnings from police that day. “At no time did I hear any instructions to move,” McDonald said. “They gave no instructions.”
Amelia Brace, an Australian broadcast journalist who, along with her cameraman, Tim Myers, was struck by USPP officers during the June 1 clearing, said she did not recall hearing police warnings either.
Both McDonald and Brace said police swiftly moved to break up the protesters at roughly 6:30 p.m., half an hour from the curfew Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed. “We did not hear any warning from law enforcement,” Brace said. “Suddenly the police line surged forward, we moved back along with many protesters.”
The U.S. Park Police declined to send a witness to the hearing. Cole Rojewski, head of the Interior Department’s office of congressional and legal affairs, said in a letter that acting U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monahan was occupied protecting federal memorials but could appear in July.
McDonald and Brace appeared at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing examining the role of the U.S. Park Police, a little-noticed federal agency that has come under congressional and public scrutiny in the spate of demonstrations nationwide following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minnesota.
The USPP protects federal parks in New York, San Francisco and Washington, including the President’s Park, which encompasses the Ellipse south of the White House and Lafayette Square to the north, as well as visitors to sites in those cities.
Acting U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monahan said in a June 13 statement about criticism of the response that more than 50 officers had been injured in protests since May 29.
Shortly after federal officers on June 1 cleared protesters from Lafayette Square using chemical gases, pepper balls and sprays, President Donald Trump walked from the White House to hold up a Bible in front of cameras by the St. John’s Church, just across the street from the park.
The USPP and Attorney General William Barr have said that there was a plan two days before the June 1 clearing to install fencing around the White House complex, an explanation Democrats widely dismiss as an explanation to justify an attack on protesters.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose department includes the USPP, has grown vocal this month in criticizing protesters and defending federal statues, including one of former president Andrew Jackson.
Federal authorities charged four men on Saturday for attempting to tear down the Jackson statue in Lafayette Square on June 22. And Trump on Friday ordered the Justice Department to aggressively prosecute protesters if they damage federal monuments.
“I just left Lafayette Square where another so called “peaceful protest” led to destruction tonight,” Bernhardt said on Twitter on June 22. “Let me be clear: we will not bow to anarchists. Law and order will prevail, and justice will be served.”
Law professor Jonathan Turley, a Republican witness, said that while the government had likely acted legally in clearing the park, its officers' tactics appeared to be illegal.
The attack on Brace and Myers, who two USPP officers struck with their riot equipment, was unacceptable, said Turley, who added that the police action to disperse protesters “should have been delayed.”
“I think that that attack was unlawful,” Turley, a George Washington University professor, said of the attack on the Australian TV crew, a video of which was viewed around the world. “This one doesn’t strike me as a particularly close call.”
Before appearing as a key Republican witness during the impeachment proceedings of Trump, Turley worked on a case, filed in 2002 over police treatment of protesters demonstrating against the World Bank, that set standards for police managing crowds.
“Many courts would express concern over the rapid escalation of force, particularly in a protest involving police abuse allegations,” Turley said.
McDonald is a plaintiff in a lawsuit the ACLU brought against the Trump administration, including the Interior Department, filed in a federal court in Washington court June 4.