WASHINGTON (CN) — The ACLU and Black Lives Matter sued President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr on Thursday for using violent force to clear peaceful protesters so the president could pose for a photo holding a Bible outside the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The civil liberties groups compared the incident Monday evening — which the complaint describes as law enforcement officers firing tear gas, pepper-spray capsules, rubber bullets and flash bombs into the crowd gathered outside the White House to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody — to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when police cracked down on lawful demonstrators with brutal violence 55 years ago.
“Defendants had no legitimate basis to destroy the peaceable gathering. Defendants professed purpose — to clear the area to permit the President to walk to a photo opportunity at a nearby church — was a wholly illegal reason for abridging the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and the others assembled in Lafayette Square,” the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia states.
In a press conference Thursday, Barr claimed the hundreds of protesters on Monday were “becoming increasingly unruly,” and that plans were well underway to clear them hours before the president crossed Lafayette Square to the church.
“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.
But the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, with its six co-plaintiffs who were in the crowd, argue that the Justice Department has confirmed that Barr ordered the park cleared just minutes before law enforcement officers in riot gear closed in on protesters.
Looking back at the days and hours leading up to the moment that shocked Americans, the complaint argues Trump is to blame for expressing his intent to violently attack protesters and “dominate” them.
“For defendants to describe their actions as ‘domination’ is telling. To dominate is to establish supremacy by subjugation of others,” the complaint states.
It goes on to explain that “precisely such domination — in the form of centuries of white supremacy and subjugation of Black lives,” was the core focus in Lafayette Square, and cites 12 other protests against racial injustice met with violence against black people and their allies.
Accusing the president of targeting black demonstrators and civil rights activists with his calls for violence, the complaint argues Trump expressed support for majority white protests last month when armed demonstrators threatened lawmakers and stormed statehouses calling for an end to coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
One of the most indelible remarks by Trump over the last three years — that “You had very fine people, on both sides” in the violent Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia — is another example of the president’s subjective stance on demonstrators based on race, the complaint argues.
One plaintiff in the case, Garrett Bond, a white man and Maryland resident, is an Eagle Scout and trained in basic first aid methods. When Bond approached an injured demonstrator who was dazed and bleeding, according to the complaint, the plaintiff saw the victim had a rubber bullet lodged in his face, piercing his lower lip.
In harrowing detail, the complaint lays out how Bond was attempting to apply gauze to assist the injured man outside St. John’s Church when someone yelled, “They’re coming!”
“Mr. Bond then turned around to see several fully armored police officers charging at him with batons and shields,” the complaint states.
Other plaintiffs in the case suffered injuries, their individual experiences in the chaos that ensued recounted in the complaint, including burning eyes from tear gas and pepper spray, and bruises and cuts so painful they made it difficult to eat in the days that followed.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has repeatedly claimed that “no tear gas was used, and no rubber bullets were used,” on protesters Monday.
But reports show that claim is true only in that the substances used by police were not labeled “tear gas” and “rubber bullets,” with the Park Police acknowledging that officers fired off “pepper balls,” which send irritant powder into the air, and “smoke canisters.”
Black Lives Matter argues that it now has to prepare for possible police violence in protests that continue each day in the nation’s capital with peaceful demonstrations and chants of “I can’t breath,” a reference to Floyd’s final words.
“For example, the organization has purchased goggles to protect demonstrators from chemical irritants and paid for mental health services for a member who was present when defendants forcibly expelled protestors from Lafayette Square, and suffered trauma as a result,” the complaint states.
Demonstrators with large welts from rubber bullets returned on Tuesday to the White House, where a large black fence was newly set up, separating thousands of Washington residents and protesters from out of town from Secret Service, D.C. National Guard and military police officers lining Lafayette Square.
One protester near the front of the demonstration that remained peaceful late into the night on Tuesday carried a sign that read, “Lost yesterday’s sign when police started rioting.”
The ACLU is arguing the unprovoked attack on peaceful demonstrators violated the First Amendment, and is calling for a federal judge to block the government from using similar force tactics against protesters. The complaint also lists Secretary of Defense Mark Esper as a defendant, claiming he is responsible for the actions of U.S. military police officers.
“Defendants’ actions to shut down the Lafayette Square demonstration is the manifestation of the very despotism against which the First Amendment was intended to protect,” the complaint states, noting the right of protestors to peacefully assemble, practicing freedom of speech without being subjected to unwarranted seizures by the government.
The Justice Department and White House did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint filed late Thursday afternoon.