We now know that on the evening of June 1, one of those demonstrations, a peaceful one, was violently evicted from public space by multiple police agencies. The agencies used chemical irritants, mounted officers, rubber bullets, projectiles, smoke canisters, batons and riot gear. We also know that the police action took place just minutes after Attorney General William P. Barr visited the park. And we know that less than an hour after protesters were ejected, the president of the United States — who has expressed disdain for protesters, glorified police violence and, let’s be blunt, spit up a lot of racism — walked by the now-empty park to pose on his way to a photo shoot in which he awkwardly gripped a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Since then, the administration and its defenders have relentlessly lied about it all. Within days, Trump retweeted an unhinged screed published by the Federalist, which accused the media of inventing the police abuses we’ve now seen on video. His campaign demanded retractions. The administration and its defenders accused the media of fabricating the use of tear gas, relying on a semantic distinction between two types of chemical irritant — a distinction that sources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Scientific American don’t recognize. Administration officials have claimed the protesters were violent and that law enforcement was under “siege.” This is contrary to a mountain of video evidence; statements from protesters, witnesses and journalists at the scene; and even statements from National Guard troops on the other side of the police-protest line.
In other words, the administration is doing on a larger and grander scale what law enforcement agencies have historically done when marginalized people seek justice for police abuses of power: belittling them, vilifying them, ignoring them and calling them liars. The administration is telling the people there that they didn’t wheeze from the irritant burning in their eyes, noses and throats; that their bruises were left by baton blows that never happened; that the rubber projectiles that struck their arms and legs were imaginary.
In the seven weeks since the expulsion, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has tried to get the U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monahan to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee. So far, that’s been difficult.
When he first asked that Monahan and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt debrief his committee on the incident, Bernhardt replied that, instead, Grijalva should join him in visiting the 50 U.S. Park Police officers injured during the protests. This is a common Republican talking point. So far, the administration has offered no documentation for the 50 injured officers, much less proof that the injuries were inflicted by protesters at Lafayette Square on June 1.
Still, Grijalva agreed. They would meet with any injured officers, as long as they also met with protesters. Bernhardt backed off and suggested a meeting in his office instead. He tweeted at Grijalva’s committee about how the flight from Arizona to D.C. is an “easy trip.”
Instead, the committee decided to move forward with a hearing, and asked Monahan to testify. The Interior Department responded with a series of demands, including that the hearing be in person and not virtual, and that, in the middle of the pandemic, the 72-year-old chairman fly from Arizona to D.C. to appear in person. “It seemed like a schoolyard dare sort of thing,” Grijalva says. “Like they didn’t think I would come.”
But Grijalva did come. In fact, the committee met all of Interior’s demands. Monahan still didn’t show. Five days before the June 29 hearing — conveniently past the deadline for the committee to issue a subpoena compelling him to appear at that hearing — Monahan canceled. In a letter, he stated that he couldn’t attend because of the “violence and destruction of memorials and monuments,” which meant his office “must currently continue in its highest operational status.”
The hearing went on anyway. A protester, a journalist and an Episcopal bishop testified to what they had seen. All three described the protests as peaceful, and the police action as violent, undemocratic and excessive.
Grijalva has continued to attempt to call Monahan to testify. The department finally agreed, just this week, after Grijalva threatened a subpoena. “We need to know who gave the order for the Park Service to clear the protests,” Grijalva says. “When was the order given, and why? Why was there such a rush?”
Audio recording of the radio transmissions between Park Police officers should have provided some answers to those questions. But as The Post’s Tom Jackman reported, the Park Police now claim the recording device was broken. They only have written notes from dispatchers that were then put into a spreadsheet. “I’m trying to play nice here,” Grijalva says. “But there are coincidences, and then there are really fortunate coincidences. In a situation like that, for the recordings to be missing, it seems like a really fortunate coincidence.”
Polls have consistently shown that solid majorities of Americans support the protests, and support for Black Lives Matter has grown significantly since the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Solid majorities of Americans now believe that policing in America suffers from systemic problems, and that racism is one of them.
We’ll see whether those numbers hold up. But in the meantime, Lafayette Square feels like an important test of this newfound interest in police abuse and racial justice. As Grijalva puts it, “This is about more than just dissecting what happened. The police response is part of a historic pattern with police and people of color. That sort of response is also exactly what the people were protesting. The lack of transparency and honesty after the fact — that too is part of a pattern. It’s just that this time it was on a national stage, in front of the White House.”
This administration is lying about why and how the park was cleared, an abuse of power that was conducted in broad daylight, in front of dozens of cameras and hundreds of witnesses. And it was an abuse of power against people protesting how the system has covered up and enabled smaller abuses of power every day, all over the country — abuses that might not be caught on camera or have any witnesses at all.
It’s encouraging that majorities are now on board for substantive police reform. But we can’t claim to be sincere about ending all the less-celebrated everyday abuses of power if we don’t demand accountability for this really big, really obvious one.