Law Enforcement’s Response to Nationwide Racial Justice Protests

As Americans took to the streets to demand an end to police brutality in the summer of 2020, the Trump administration’s response was one of dangerous escalation and abuses of power. American Oversight is investigating the involvement of both federal and local law enforcement in suppressing, surveilling, and policing the protests.

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, 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 has 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.

Related Documents

August 7, 2020

Complaint: American Oversight v. DOJ, DHS, CBP, ICE, DOD and NGB – Federal Deployment Orders and Use of Force Guidelines at Protests

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Guard Bureau
Litigation
August 5, 2020

FOIA to DOJ for Records Regarding Operation Legend Funding

Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to DOJ U.S. Attorneys’ Office Seeking Communications About Operation Legend

Department of Justice, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Criminal Division Seeking Communications Regarding Operation Legend

Criminal Division, Department of Justice
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Communications Regarding Operation Legend

Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Operation Legend Arrest Data

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Criminal Division, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Numbers of Personnel Deployed in Operation Legend

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Criminal Division, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Information Policy, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Documents Reflecting Violent-Crime Reduction Strategy of DOJ’s Operation Legend

Criminal Division, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
August 5, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Directives Related to DOJ’s Operation Legend

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Criminal Division, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Information Policy, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
August 3, 2020

FOIA to DOJ for Communications with Police Unions

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
July 31, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Emails Regarding Protester Classifications

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 31, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking New or Changed Directives Regarding Police Response to Protests

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 31, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Reports and Recommendations Regarding Nationwide Protest Data

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 29, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Acting Secretary Wolf’s Decision Memos

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 29, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Acting General Counsel Mizelle’s Decision Memos

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 28, 2020

No Records Response from ICE Regarding Interagency MOU Agreements on Protest Surveillance

Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Agency Reply
July 27, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Whistleblower Complaints Submitted in Response to Federal Agents’ Actions Against Portland Protesters

Department of Justice, DOJ Office of the Inspector General
FOIA Request
July 27, 2020

Records Request to Portland, Ore., Seeking Complaints of Excessive Force Against Protesters

Portland Independent Police Review Division
FOIA Request
July 27, 2020

FOIA to CRCL Regarding DHS Activity Against Protesters in Portland

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications with Portland Police Association

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

FOIA to DHS Seeking Communications with Members of the Portland Police Association

Department of Homeland Security
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to the Portland Police Bureau Seeking Communications with the Federal Government

Portland Police Bureau
FOIA Request
July 23, 2020

ORR to the Portland Police Bureau Seeking Communications with Police Unions

Portland Police Bureau
FOIA Request
July 22, 2020

Records Request to Oregon Governor’s Office Seeking Federal Communications

Oregon Office of the Governor
FOIA Request
July 22, 2020

Records Request to the Mayor of Portland, Ore., Seeking Communications with Federal Agencies

Portland Mayor's Office
FOIA Request
July 21, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Directives to Designate Antifa as a Terrorist Organization

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
July 17, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies for White House Communications Regarding Portland, Ore., Protests

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy
FOIA Request
July 17, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies for Records Related to Federal Police, Use of Force Guidelines, and Deployment Orders at Protests

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Marshals Service
FOIA Request
July 14, 2020

Records Request to Georgia Attorney General for Texts About Black Lives Matter Protests

Georgia Attorney General
FOIA Request
July 14, 2020

No Records Response from OIP Concerning MOU Agreements About Protest Surveillance

Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy
Agency Reply
July 10, 2020

No Records Response from DHS Regarding Law Enforcement Tracking of Protesters

Department of Homeland Security
Agency Reply
June 11, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Assessments on Coronavirus Risk Posed by Use of Tear Gas and Mass Arrests

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Guard Bureau, National Park Service, Office of Information Policy, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Secret Service
FOIA Request
June 10, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Assessments of Protests

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Office of Information Policy
FOIA Request
June 10, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Interagency MOU Agreements Regarding Protest Surveillance

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Customs and Border Protection, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Air Force, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Guard Bureau, Office of Information Policy, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Secret Service
FOIA Request
June 10, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Regarding Tracking of Protesters

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, Customs and Border Protection, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Air Force, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Guard Bureau, Office of Information Policy, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Secret Service
FOIA Request
June 9, 2020

FOIA to D.C. Mayor’s Office Regarding Communications with Trump Organization

District of Columbia Mayor's Office
FOIA Request
June 9, 2020

FOIA to D.C. Metropolitan Police Regarding Communications with Trump Organization

District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department
FOIA Request
June 9, 2020

FOIA to D.C. Metropolitan Police Regarding Communications with White House

District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department
FOIA Request
June 8, 2020

FOIA to DC Mayor’s Office Regarding Federal Response to DC Protests

District of Columbia Mayor's Office
FOIA Request
June 8, 2020

FOIA to DC Mayor’s Office Regarding Discussion Memos about Federal Response to DC Protests

District of Columbia Mayor's Office
FOIA Request
June 4, 2020

FOIA to DOJ Seeking Records Related to the Federal Protest Response Led by Attorney General Barr

Department of Justice
FOIA Request
June 3, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Records Regarding the Use of Low-Flying Helicopters Against Protesters

Department of Defense, Department of the Army, National Guard Bureau
FOIA Request
June 2, 2020

FOIA to Multiple Agencies Seeking Order to Use Force on Protesters in Lafayette Park in Advance of Presidential Photo-Op

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, National Guard Bureau, National Park Service, United States Secret Service
FOIA Request