Cities across the United States rose in protest following the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Over the next few months, the movement for racial justice and police reform was met with alarmist rhetoric from the Trump administration and brutal tactics on the part of federal and local law enforcement agencies, including the use of chemical irritants and physical force against peaceful protesters.
A year later, American Oversight’s investigations have uncovered new records related to the crackdown on protests, including an internal Secret Service timeline of the June 1 violent clearing of Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square. The timeline mentions the use of tear gas on protesters — something the agency had initially denied.
The records also include Trump administration communications about the law enforcement response in Portland, Ore., which saw some of the fiercest clashes between demonstrators and police, as well as a log of complaints made to the Department of Homeland Security about federal officers’ actions in that city.
The government’s harsh reaction to the racial justice protests drew intense public scrutiny to a slew of alleged civil rights violations, ranging from demonstrators being detained in unmarked vans to surveillance of protests. The latest documents released in response to American Oversight’s records requests help provide public accountability for this turbulent period, but also highlight unanswered questions about the government’s response.
An early instance of federal law enforcement using force against peaceful demonstrators occurred on June 1, 2020, when officers fired tear gas canisters and used physical force to clear Lafayette Square, a park in front of the White House. The crowd dispersal took place ahead of local curfew and before then-President Donald Trump posed for a photo op, during which he brandished a Bible in front of a nearby historic church.
A recent report from the Department of the Interior’s inspector general “determined that the evidence did not support a finding” that the Park Police (USPP) cleared the area for Trump’s photo, saying that the plan had been to clear the area so contractors could put up fencing to extend the secured perimeter around the park. The report also said that the arrival of then-Attorney General William Barr just prior to the clearing “had no influence on the USPP’s timeline for the operation.”
Video footage from shortly before the incident showed a USPP operations commander speaking with Barr, then hanging his head while another unidentified official patted him on the back. The report noted that during what appears to be the same interaction, Barr asked the USPP commander, “Are these people still going to be here when [the president] comes out?” The commander told the inspector general that he was not ordered to clear the park by Barr, and that the acting USPP police chief did not know what Barr was talking about.
Notably, the report only focuses on the actions of USPP, and notes that the inspector general did not interview Justice Department officials (which includes the Bureau of Prisons, whose officers were also there) or the Department of Homeland Security (which includes the Secret Service, whose officers, according to the report, initiated the violent clearing ahead of USPP’s plans, before USPP could warn the protesters to disperse).
A timeline released to American Oversight by the Secret Service in response to our request for directives regarding the use of force on June 1 shows a minute-by-minute accounting of activities related to that day’s protest. The document contains a series of details about some protesters’ alleged conduct, and notes the deployment of “Tear gas and/or flashbangs” at 6:35 p.m.
In a statement issued just a few days after the incident, the Secret Service said it had “determined that no agency personnel used tear gas or capsicum [pepper] spray during its efforts to secure the area near Lafayette Park.” But later that month, the agency changed its story, saying it had “learned that one agency employee” had used pepper spray during the incident. The document we obtained does not indicate which law enforcement agency deployed the “tear gas and/or flashbangs,” but appears at least to show that the Secret Service was aware of and acknowledged internally that these methods had been used against protesters.
Other law enforcement agencies, including Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the USPP, also released confusing or contradictory statements about the use of chemical irritants. MPD, for example, didn’t acknowledge its officers’ use of tear gas around Lafayette Square until late last month, during court proceedings in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
Confusion around these incidents was exacerbated by some agencies’ attempts to draw a distinction between pepper spray and tear gas. (Pepper spray is generally considered to be a type of a tear gas.)
Other records produced in response to American Oversight’s requests detail the involvement of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) in the protest response on June 1 and during the following days.
At 9:48 a.m. on the day of the Lafayette Square incident, USMS Director Donald Washington sent an email to agency staff with the subject line “George Floyd Riots-Criminal Acts.” The message, the content of which is entirely redacted, led to follow-up from the agency’s general counsel, Gerald Auerbach, and deputy general counsel, Lisa Dickinson, who emailed minutes later agreeing to set up a conference call to “discuss [USMS Office of General Counsel’s] next steps.”
That afternoon, an email to agency staff with the subject line “USMS to support to Park Police“ from Jeffrey Tyler (now the agency’s deputy director) indicates that USMS was in coordination with the Park Police on June 1. It also identified then-acting U.S. Attorney for D.C. Michael Sherwin, who butted heads with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser later that summer regarding the prosecution of violent protesters, as the point person to connect USMS with the Park Police about “final logistics and arrival details.”
An hour later, a USMS attorney sent Auerbach and Dickinson an email, also almost entirely redacted, with the subject line “Legal Guidance on Responding to Violent Protesting.”
Just over an hour before the protest clearing, a message to Tyler and other officials outlined the deployment of deputy U.S. marshals (DUSMs) to Lafayette Square. The number of those deployed is redacted in the message, but it noted USMS would “be providing support to the U.S. Park Police at Lafayette Park” and that it intended to “utilize the DUSMs as reinforcements and to support detainee operations.” The message also suggests other agency personnel were deployed in Lafayette Square to provide “less than lethal support.” (“Less than lethal” is a term that can encompass law enforcement methods including tear gas.)
A similar assessment was later shared in a message from USMS Chief of Staff John Kilgallon to senior staff, sent around the time of the park clearing.
An email chain regarding a situation report (“SITREP”) shared by senior officials shortly before and after the clearing also shows deployment numbers, though they are also redacted. Another message sent at 7:19 p.m. by a member of the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force mentioned the president’s appearance outside the White House: “POTUS is back inside the house. He gave us all a fist and a good job on the way by.”
Finally, an email sent at 7:38 p.m. on behalf of Director Washington mentioned plans for further action, saying that Barr had “directed the USMS to assist with addressing civil disturbances currently underway around the United States” and outlining instructions about the agency’s deployment across the country.
We also obtained records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that include a series of emails from before and after the Lafayette Square incident. The documents are substantially redacted, but provide yet another glimpse into how law enforcement officers from across the federal government — many wearing no identifying insignia — were deployed against the protests in Washington, D.C., in June 2020.
A series of messages starting in late May show officials discussing the deployment of an ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) special response team to the capital, including to the area near Lafayette Square.
In an email sent to senior ICE officials on the afternoon of May 30, 2020, the executive associate director of ICE ERO said he was requesting a legal opinion, apparently on the subject of deployment. A follow-up email from the same official said that the special response team “is onsite at our building and is ready to deploy if we give them the approval.”
On the day of the Lafayette Square incident, Tony Pham, then ICE’s principal legal adviser, sent an early morning email to then-acting ICE Director Matthew Albence, noting that Pham’s office was engaged with the agency’s general counsel and that he would “follow up with additional discussion” that morning.
The messages and prior reporting show that special response teams were on call at the time of the square clearing and later deployed in Washington, D.C., in the days that followed, including near the White House.
Top Trump administration officials continued to defend the Lafayette Square clearing and make allegations about outside agitators escalating the protests to violence. Barr claimed during a June 4 news conference to “have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups” were involved in unrest around the country, as well as “foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
While violent clashes between demonstrators and police occurred during the protests, including in the days before D.C.’s local curfew was implemented on June 1, protests in the capital and around the country were largely peaceful. An email sent to ICE senior officials at 12:47 a.m. on the morning on June 3 reflected this: “No reports of widespread criminal activity reported,” said an official whose name is redacted. Another message sent just before 3 a.m. noted that “most agencies are drawing down” and that around “300 protestors remain scattered throughout city.”
An email chain from that evening said the ICE teams “have been requested to serve as [a quick reaction force] for personnel located in the box/zone around Lafayette Park” and that its “second shift will start an hour earlier than anticipated, 10:00PM, due to crowd sizes and curfew time changes.” But the situation was again quiet. “No reports of violence or widespread destruction in any sections of city as of 0000 hours,” another email sent in the early hours of June 4 read.
ICE, USMS, and Secret Service personnel were just part of the federal law enforcement response to the District’s protests. As protests gained momentum across the country, aggressive law enforcement actions were also unleashed in other cities, from tear gas and rubber bullets to tactics like kettling — in which officers push people into tightly packed spaces for mass arrests — that could be especially dangerous during the pandemic. The government’s use of covert surveillance and information-gathering on protesters, including the use of military-style drones over demonstrations to obtain video for law enforcement, also raised serious First Amendment concerns.
Some of the most intense clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement last summer occurred in Portland, Ore. American Oversight’s investigations have resulted in the release of several new records related to the government’s response there, including a frightening account from a food delivery worker regarding police behavior as well as communications between officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security about coordination with local law enforcement.
The delivery driver’s account is among a handful of complaints related to federal officers’ alleged behavior in Portland last June and July, which were collected in a spreadsheet by the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and released to American Oversight. Many of the entries reference public media reports of law enforcement violence or inquiries from lawmakers related to such reports. According to the spreadsheet, the driver’s account was submitted directly to CRCL.
The driver alleged that around 11:55 p.m. on July 16, 2020, he was “caught in the middle of a protest next to the Mark Hatfield Courthouse in Portland.” CRCL wrote that “he had just finished doing a ‘postmates order’ when he got into his car.” An officer then asked him to get out of his vehicle, which he refused to do “because he claimed he had not broken any laws.” The driver said the officer “proceeded to force my window down and break it until they finally backed off.”
The complainant asked for “justice and compensation,” saying that he needed to use his car to make a living. According to the spreadsheet, which is dated Aug. 21, 2020, the complaint was “processing” and that “more information” was needed.
American Oversight and others have pointed out the stark differences between the Trump administration’s response to 2020’s racial justice protests and its failure to prepare for the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year. The latest records contain a number of emails that show how closely White House officials were monitoring the protests in Portland, in an apparent effort to bolster then-candidate Trump’s “law and order” campaign messaging.
On July 20, 2020, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf (who had just returned from a pricey trip to Portland) sent an email to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows featuring links to videos “of what is happening in Portland” that had been shared on Twitter by conservative media figures.
On July 24, Christopher Tomney, the director of the DHS Office of Operations Coordination, sent an “interim update” to a number of senior DHS officials, including Wolf, Ken Cuccinelli, and acting DHS general counsel Chad Mizelle, who forwarded the message to White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller. The message is almost fully redacted, but shows Tomney saying that law enforcement operations were “still actively underway against violent opportunists.”
A few days later, then-acting DHS Undersecretary for Management Randolph Alles sent a message to Wolf regarding a meeting he’d had with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and a number of law enforcement officials. Wolf forwarded the message, which is also almost fully redacted, to Meadows and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
American Oversight had also requested records about a meeting between Wolf and the Portland Police Association on July 16, 2020. In response, we received documents prepared for the meeting, including a briefing memo, draft agenda, redacted talking points, and a list of participants with the names, but not titles, of local officials redacted.
The memo said that a goal of the meeting was to discuss DHS’s “mission to actively support law enforcement across the country, as violent rioters and looters usurp legitimate protests to engage in violence.” It also highlighted a June 16, 2020, executive order issued by Trump that included opposition to “defunding, dismantling, and dissolving the nation’s police departments.”
Finally, American Oversight obtained documents from the Portland Police Bureau regarding the local police response to a Portland rally held by the hate group the Proud Boys in September 2020. The records contain previously reported emails from Oregon State Police and the Multnomah County sheriff declining to assist in crowd control, citing the city’s prohibition on the use of tear gas for crowd control — the result of efforts by local leadership to curtail certain law enforcement tactics after the earlier clashes with protesters.
Reporting from last summer as well as efforts by American Oversight and others have helped shed light on this period, but there are still significant questions remaining about the actions of federal and local government.
Several of American Oversight’s inquiries have been met with agencies responding that they could locate no responsive records. For example, the National Guard Bureau said it had nothing about information-sharing among agencies regarding protest response, nor did it have any records regarding the impacts that certain tactics — such as the use of chemical irritants, crowd-control measures, or mass arrests — could have on further spreading the coronavirus.
In addition, DHS told us it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of records related to investigations into Black Lives Matter leadership or antifa protesters and their purported leadership — records we requested after Wolf claimed that the Justice Department was “working on” investigating these movements.
American Oversight will continue to seek answers about the government’s response to last summer’s protests.
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