Feds used "excessive" force on "peaceful" protesters to clear area for Trump photo-op, officer says

"Those demonstrators . . . were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights"

Published July 27, 2020 2:33PM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Park Police committed "excessive use of force" in an "unprovoked escalation" last month when they violently cleared protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington to make room for President Donald Trump's Bible-toting photo op, according to the congressional testimony of an Army National Guard commander who was on the ground.

"Members of the committee, the events I witnessed at Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1 were deeply disturbing to me and to fellow National Guardsmen. Having served in a combat zone, and understanding how to assess threat environments, at no time did I feel threatened by the protesters or assess them to be violent," Adam DeMarco, an Iraq veteran and current major in the D.C. National Guard, said in written testimony submitted ahead of a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

"In addition, considering the principles of proportionality of force and the fundamental strategy of graduated responses specific to civil disturbance operations, it was my observation that the use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was an unnecessary escalation of the use of force. From my observation, those demonstrators – our fellow American citizens – were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights," he wrote. "Yet, they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force."

Demarco, who was acting as a liaison between Park Police and the D.C. National Guard, said he was standing near the statue of former President Andrew Jackson when Attorney General William Barr and other senior administration officials gathered nearby. The order to clear the park came 40 minutes early, well ahead of the 7 p.m. local time curfew and immediately after he observed Barr consult with Park Police officials, he claimed.

The account challenges key claims in the Trump administration's explanation for clearing the protesters just minutes before the president walked through the area to stage a photo-op in front of a boarded-up historic church, where he held aloft a Bible and made no remarks.

"There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president's going over to the church," Barr said at a June 4 press conference.

The House Natural Resources Committee is holding the hearing about the incident, where law enforcement, backed by the National Guard, unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang shells against peaceful demonstrators on live TV across the street from the White House. The action came at the height of unrest which roiled the country after the death of George Floyd in police custody.

DeMarco also claimed that the officers' legally required warnings were "barely audible" to him, and he did not think the protesters could hear them. Officers moved on the crowd without even warning the National Guard troops present, DeMarco further claimed. He also challenged the government's narrative that law enforcement did not use tear gas on the protesters:

I did not know what orders or rules of engagement had been issued to the Park Police concerning the use of force against the demonstrators. I asked my Park Police liaison if tear gas would be used because I had observed tear gas cannisters affixed to Park Police officers' vests, and I knew that tear gas had been used against demonstrators the previous evening. The Park Police liaison told me that tear gas would not be employed.

"From what I could observe, the demonstrators were behaving peacefully," when Park Police, the Secret Service and unidentified forces believed to be affiliated with the Department of Justice routed the crowd, DeMarco said.

He added that Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had conferred in the park with Barr, had warned DeMarco to keep his troops in check.

"General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators' First Amendment rights," DeMarco wrote.

Milley has since apologized for his presence at Lafayette, saying: "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Milley has not expressed similar regrets for appearing on the D.C. streets later that night as military helicopters performed counterinsurgency tactics over peaceful protesters.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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