The May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reignited the national movement for racial justice and police reform and sparked massive protests in cities across the country. As Americans rose up to demand change, federal and local law enforcement agencies responded with escalating tactics and dangerous rhetoric.
Multiple cities saw police deploy tear gas, fire rubber bullets, or use tactics like mass arrests and “kettling” — in which officers push people into tightly packed spaces — that are particularly dangerous during a pandemic. Other reports raised serious First Amendment concerns about the use of covert surveillance and information-gathering on protesters, including the use of military-style drones over demonstrations to provide video to law enforcement.
The involvement of federal officers and National Guard members in the protest response was especially noticeable in the nation’s capital, where thousands were deployed in an effort by Attorney General William Barr to “flood the zone” and squash demonstrations. Many didn’t wear identifying insignia or badges and refused to tell protesters what agency they represented. Low-flying helicopters hovered near protesters in an apparent attempt to disperse crowds.
In one early June incident that heightened the dystopian sense of U.S. cities being occupied by their own military, federal officers fired tear gas canisters and used physical force to push back peaceful protesters demonstrating near the White House well ahead of the District of Columbia’s 7 p.m. curfew. Shortly thereafter, then-President Donald Trump staged his ill-conceived and highly criticized photo opportunity in front of a nearby church, where he brandished a Bible for the cameras. According to reports, the order to push back the protesters came from Barr himself.
The federal government’s aggressive response escalated to a frightening new level in mid-July, when officers in unmarked vehicles drove around downtown Portland, Ore., detaining protesters without explaining the reason for the arrest or who they were. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf’s inflammatory rhetoric about “violent mobs” of anarchists formed the justification for the alarming abuses of federal power, as local and state leaders demanded that federal forces leave.
American Oversight filed numerous public records requests to expose what was happening behind the scenes of law enforcement’s dangerous tactics and the federal government’s aggressive response to the protest movement.