Officer challenges account of violent clearing of protesters

Ellen Knickmeyer
Associated Press

The U.S. Park Police and Secret Service violently routed protesters from Lafayette Square last month without apparent provocation or adequate warning, immediately after Attorney General William Barr spoke with Park Police leaders, according to an Army National Guard officer who was there.

The account of National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco challenges the Trump administration’s explanation for why federal forces clubbed and punched protesters and unleashed mounted officers and chemical agents to drive hundreds of people from the square in front of the White House on June 1. The offensive against protesters came just before President Donald Trump walked through the area to stage a photo event in front of a historic church.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, file photo police clear the area around Lafayette Park and the White House in Washington, as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd.

DeMarco’s account was released in written testimony for his scheduled appearance Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee, which is investigating the use of force – and who directed it – against what had appeared to be largely peaceful crowds in the square that night. The National Guard officer is expected to invoke the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which in part says that no one can block a member of the armed forces from lawful communications with Congress.

Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said Monday that from DeMarco’s written testimony, “it’s pretty obvious that at the highest levels the calls were being made,” although the testimony does not give any explicit details of anyone giving orders. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, but has previously denied that law enforcement and security forces cleared the square to make way for Trump’s appearance before news cameras. The incident came near the height of nationwide protests over the killings of Black people at the hands of police.

“From what I could observe, the demonstrators were behaving peacefully,” when Park Police, the Secret Service and other, unidentified forces turned on the crowd, DeMarco writes. The rout started shortly after Barr and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared in the square, where Barr appeared to confer with Park Police leaders, he says.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John's Church across from the White House in Washington.

The legally required warnings to demonstrators before clearing the square shortly after were “barely audible” from 20 yards (18 meters) away and didn’t appear to have been noticed by protesters, he said.

Park Police and other officers then began suddenly routing the crowd without warning to National Guard forces present, DeMarco said.

A Park Police liaison officer told DeMarco that his forces were only using “stage smoke,” not tear gas, against the crowd. DeMarco said the stinging to his nose and eyes appeared to be tear gas, however, and said he found spent tear gas canisters in the street later that evening.

The National Park Service, which oversees the U.S. Park Police, responded Monday by repeating Park Police head Gregory T. Monahan’s statement last month that his officers acted to “curtail the violence that was underway.” The Park Police, a force of a few hundred officers nationwide, oversees a handful of the nation’s most iconic federal lands and monuments. Monahan is scheduled to testify for the first time publicly about the event at Tuesday’s committee hearing.

Videos and accounts by journalists and demonstrators present at the square, and now from the National Guard officer, challenge the Trump administration’s accounts that protesters were attacking security and law enforcement officers there at the time. Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly challenged the Trump administration to provide evidence of that.

Grijalva said lawmakers had also asked for recordings of the law enforcement and security forces’ radio traffic that night. They were told by the administration that a “technological glitch” prevented the recordings, he said.

DeMarco says he was the appointed liaison at the event for the Interior Department’s Park Police and the National Guard and was standing near a statue of Andrew Jackson, as Barr and other senior officials involved congregated.

DeMarco describes a quick conversation with Milley, the Pentagon’s top general, at the time in the square that DeMarco says gave no warning of the imminent push by the Park Police, the Secret Service and others against demonstrators.

“As the senior National Guard officer on the scene at the time, I gave General Milley a quick briefing on our mission and the current situation,” DeMarco writes. “General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.”

Shortly after Park Police and others forced out fleeing protesters, Milley walked in military fatigues alongside Trump as the Republican president strolled to nearby St. John’s Church, where demonstrators had been blamed for starting a fire in a building basement on a previous night. Trump thrust a Bible in the air briefly for news cameras, underscoring his administration’s get-tough message against protests.

Milley subsequently apologized for taking part, after heavy public criticism. Milley said he “should not have been there” and his involvement “created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

DeMarco previously served in the U.S. Army, including a combat assignment in Iraq. A candidate matching his name and description ran for Congress for Maryland in 2018 and lost in the Democratic primary.