A coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU of the District of Columbia is suing President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and other federal officials over the brutal police assault on peaceful demonstrators near the White House Monday that cleared the way for the president's photo-op at St. John's Episcopal Church.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Black Lives Matters D.C. and individual demonstrators, comes after Barr on Thursday defended his decision to instruct law enforcement to beat back peaceful protesters gathered in Lafayette Square Monday evening. Barr's order resulted in a violent attack on demonstrators by members of the U.S. Park Police and D.C. National Guard, who beat protesters with batons and dispersed crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.
"What happened to our members Monday evening, here in the nation's capital, was an affront to all our rights," said April Goggans, core organizer of Black Lives Matter D.C. and the lead plaintiff in the suit. "The death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers has reignited the rage, pain, and deep sadness our community has suffered for generations. We won't be silenced by tear gas and rubber bullets. Now is our time to be heard."
Scott Michelman, legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement that "the president's shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked, and frankly criminal attack on protesters because he disagreed with their views shakes the foundation of our nation's constitutional order."
"And when the nation's top law enforcement officer becomes complicit in the tactics of an autocrat," Michelman added, "it chills protected speech for all of us."
The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined the ACLU in filing the lawsuit against Trump and federal officials.
In an appearance on Fox News Radio Wednesday, Trump parroted the claim by U.S. Park Police that "tear gas"—often used as an umbrella term to describe chemical agents that irritate the eyes and lungs—was not deployed on Monday to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful demonstrators.
"They didn't use tear gas," Trump said, contradicting evidence compiled by reporters and others who were on the scene at the time.
In a tweet Tuesday, Trump celebrated the law enforcement attack on demonstrators as "overwhelming force" and "domination."
Breaking: police canisters gathered by @wusa9 crews Monday night show federal police DID use artificial CS tear gas in addition to natural OC gas on #BlackLivesMatter #WashingtonDCProtests Asking @usparkpolicepio & @realDonaldTrump for response on statements claiming otherwise. pic.twitter.com/ouFi8NWC2s
— Nathan Baca (@NathanBacaTV) June 4, 2020
"For the president to refer to this assault as domination is very telling and indicates a willingness to use brute force to trample on the rights of Americans," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "The Lafayette Square assault amounts to unconstitutional and unlawful state-sponsored violence perpetrated against nonviolent civil rights activists."
"The actions of the government caused harm and were intended to chill the speech and right to assembly of people exercising constitutionally protected rights," Clarke continued. "This lawsuit is about defending rights that lie at the heart of our democracy."