WASHINGTON — The DC chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing federal law enforcement officers of violating the constitutional rights of peaceful demonstrators who were forcibly cleared from a park north of the White House so President Donald Trump could walk through for a photo op earlier this week.
The lawsuit accuses officers of attacking the demonstrators without warning and using excessive force — including deploying incendiary devices such as flashbangs, tear gas, smoke canisters, pepper balls, and rubber bullets.
“This case is about the President and Attorney General of the United States ordering the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators who were speaking out against discriminatory police brutality targeted at Black people,” the complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, DC, begins.
It’s the first lawsuit filed over the events in Lafayette Square on June 1, and one of the first cases seeking to hold city, state, and federal law enforcement liable for alleged misconduct during protests nationwide that have led to more than 11,000 arrests. Besides the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, the plaintiffs in the DC case include a woman who was in the park with her 9-year-old child and other protesters from DC and Maryland who said they were injured and feared going back out to exercise their free speech rights. They are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of DC and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
A crowd of demonstrators had gathered in Lafayette Square on Monday in the late afternoon as Trump prepared to deliver remarks from the Rose Garden at the White House. The US Park Police and other federal law enforcement officers in the park suddenly deployed smoke canisters and chemical irritants and charged into the crowd, the sounds of which could be heard from the White House as Trump spoke.
The Park Police were joined by officers from the US Secret Service, the DC National Guard, the Arlington County police, and the US Army military police, according to the lawsuit and media reports. The lawsuit notes that the incident took place before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew.
It soon became clear that officers had cleared the park to allow Trump to walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he stood for photographs holding a Bible. The church had been burned the weekend before and was boarded up at the time.
The US Park Police released a statement that claimed demonstrators near the park had thrown bricks, frozen water bottles, and “caustic liquids,” and maintained that officers had given three warnings over a loudspeaker before taking action, but BuzzFeed News and other media outlets on the ground reported that the protesters were peaceful.
One of the plaintiffs heard an officer make an announcement over a megaphone about the city’s 7 p.m. curfew and “simultaneously” heard explosions, according to the lawsuit.
The agency also disputed the characterization of the irritants as “tear gas,” saying officers used “smoke canisters and pepper balls.” Pepper balls are projectiles filled with chemicals designed to irritate people’s eyes, mouth, and throat, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has generally described as types of “tear gas.” The lawsuit cites a tweet from a local reporter who said TV crews had collected canisters of tear gas from the scene.
The ACLU of DC previously told BuzzFeed News that it was investigating the Lafayette Square incident as well as other law enforcement operations in the past week, including mass arrests by the Metropolitan Police Department on Monday night. It joined Thursday's lawsuit.
The ACLU in Minnesota has already filed a lawsuit accusing Minneapolis police and state troopers of violating the constitutional rights of journalists covering demonstrations in the city.
The federal government has been sued before over its response to demonstrations in DC. The US Park Police paid out millions of dollars to settle allegations of constitutional violations by its officers around DC’s Pershing Park, near the White House, during mass arrests amid protests against the World Bank and the IMF in 2002.