Tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets this past week to protest the senseless killing of Minnesota man George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of police. The irony of protests against police brutality being met with violent escalation by law enforcement is perhaps matched only by the authoritarianism of President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr.
Thousands of federal law enforcement officers and National Guard members from various states have been deployed to the streets of Washington, D.C., which has its own police department but limited home rule for pushing back against the federal deployment. Their presence is a result of Barr’s strategy to “flood the zone” to squash protests, and many of the officers do not wear identifying insignias or badges and refuse to tell protesters what agency they represent. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s comment on Monday that states needed to “dominate the battle space” — “battle space” being U.S. cities engaged in protest — contributed to the dystopian sense of Americans being occupied by their own military.
That disturbingly came to a head on Monday outside the White House, when federal officers physically charged protesters engaged in a peaceful demonstration in Lafayette Square, using flash grenades and chemical agents to disperse the crowd nearly a full half hour before the city’s curfew was to take effect. The alarming use of force was apparently done to allow Trump to pose for photos in front of the nearby St. John’s Church with a Bible in his hand, an ill-conceived and tone-deaf publicity stunt that has drawn condemnation from religious leaders, including those of that church. The Washington Post later reported that the order to clear the square was given by Barr himself.
That same day, the federal government flew at least two military helicopters — one of which bore Red Cross markings — alarmingly low over crowds, creating wind and scattering debris, in a clear attempt to intimidate protesters. And as the week has progressed, new reports of troubling abuses of police authority have emerged alongside Trump and Barr’s continued defense of their authoritarian actions.
American Oversight has already filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for orders, directives, and authorizations to use force on the protesters gathered at Lafayette Park, and for records of orders specifically issued by Barr in response to the protests. We’re also requesting any orders or directives regarding the use of low-flying helicopters. And given that riot gear appears more common than face masks on officers, we’re asking multiple agencies for records reflecting any Covid-19 testing of federal agents deployed at the protests.
If you’re a journalist, activist or concerned citizen interested in filing your own public records requests, our investigation and legal teams have put together a list of strategies for putting them together, from how to conceive requests to tips for writing them.
We support those protesting systemic racism and police brutality and we are committed to using our resources to uncover public records, expose misconduct, and hold those in power accountable.
Federal Court Rules in Favor of NAACP LDF and American Oversight in Census Case: Last week, a federal district court ruled that the Justice Department had failed to adequately search for records regarding its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had sought the records in a lawsuit against the department, and American Oversight is serving as co-counsel.
New Coronavirus-Related Documents from Nevada and King County, Wash.: We recently published new records from Nevada and Washington state that shed some light on the level of coordination among federal agencies and state and local public health officials in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Included in the documents are emails with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials regarding distribution of a potential early vaccine in the fall as well as a number of examples from early March of an apparent underappreciation of asymptomatic transmission risks.
Pregnant Asylum-Seekers Kept from Hearings: Under the Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as Remain in Mexico), some asylum-seekers are forced to stay in Mexico while they wait for their asylum cases to proceed. Despite the Department of Homeland Security’s official policy to make exceptions for asylum-seekers with known health concerns, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are reportedly targeting and preventing pregnant asylum-seekers from entering the U.S. until after they give birth, keeping them from attending their own asylum hearings. We filed FOIA requests with DHS for communications and statistics concerning the treatment of pregnant asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Reopening DACA Cases for Possible Deportation: In October 2019, DHS began reopening previously closed deportation cases for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients who have maintained minor or no criminal records. These reopenings follow a May 2018 order from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions barring the practice of “administrative closure,” which allowed immigration judges to put particular deportation cases on hold. In January 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement stated that the agency was preparing to deport Dreamers pending a Supreme Court ruling on DACA, which is expected this month. We filed FOIA requests with DHS, ICE, the Department of Justice, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review for data regarding these cases, including how many have been reopened since January 2017.
‘Covid Mail’: In April, the Washington Post reported on the existence of an internal White House “Covid Mail” email address that funnels queries from select, private individuals across the country to the appropriate agencies. Accordingly, the queries take up agency resources, and have some officials worried that the emails are being prioritized over more critical agency tasks related to Covid-19. We asked multiple agencies for “Covid Mail” communications from the White House to learn more.
Coronavirus and the 2020 Census: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted operations across the federal government, including the rollout of the 2020 census, and we want to know more about how the Census Bureau is responding to the outbreak. We filed FOIA requests with the Commerce Department for email communications with external individuals, and communications sent by agency officials, regarding Covid-19. We also asked Commerce for Secretary Wilbur Ross’s communications with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office regarding the census. You can read more about our census-related work here.
Pandemic Preparations for Florida’s Election: On April 7, Florida elections supervisors sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking for emergency changes in election rules to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on voter safety and turnout. Supervisors say they are scrambling to adjust polling places, issue mail-in ballots, and prioritize social distancing, all without the support of DeSantis. Working with the League of Women Voters of Florida and the First Amendment Foundation, we filed requests for communications from the Florida House of Representatives, the Florida Senate, the governor, and the Florida State Department about safe election procedures.
Retaliation for Sexual Assault Complaint at VA Hospital: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is under investigation by the agency’s inspector general for allegedly attempting to discredit the reputation of Andrea Goldstein, a congressional aide who says she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. ProPublica reported in April on an email sent to Wilkie’s chief of staff, Pamela Powers, indicating that Wilkie may have solicited information about Goldstein from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who had been deployed with Goldstein while they served in the Navy. We filed related FOIA requests with the VA back in April, and this week we asked for Powers’s email communications concerning the incident and for Wilkie’s personal emails and texts about agency business.
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