WASHINGTON — Moments before President Donald Trump vowed to use military might to stop rioting, police backed by the National Guard stormed into a peaceful protest outside the White House and scattered a large group of people protesting unprovoked police violence against African Americans.
At the time, none of the protesters or nearby journalists knew the reason for clearing the street. But the purpose became clear as soon as Trump finished his speech in the Rose Garden.
Trump left the podium and walked through Lafayette Square, with staff in tow, crossed H Street, where the protesters had been assembled, and came to a stop at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a congregation known as the “church of presidents” that was damaged by fire during an uprising Sunday.
Outside the church, Trump posed for photos with a Bible. And then he walked back.
It was show of force for demonstration purposes, and it injected danger into what had been a calm protest as those in the street fled horse-mounted police to avoid being trampled, struck by projectiles or gassed. It also came as a surprise to the protesters, who were flanked by police after National Guard and federal agents acted as decoys by advancing from the front in full riot gear.
The protesters had expected to have until a 7 p.m. curfew to voice their criticism, but police moved on them almost half an hour before that. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser had announced the curfew earlier Monday. But it was clear shortly after 6 p.m. that authorities were getting ready for imminent conflict.
Attorney General Bill Barr walked purposefully between lines formed by Park Service police, National Guard members and law enforcement officers from various federal agencies. The officers put on gas masks, raised shields and moved forward until they were face-to-face with protesters.
Then they backed off a little and police rushed in from the east side of the street, firing rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and flash bang grenades into the crowd.
The curfew was imposed after a chaotic night of violent protests in downtown Washington, in which people started fires — including one in the basement of the church — stole from businesses across the city, and vandalized numerous buildings.
Trump’s Rose Garden address to the nation was a vow to use military force to quell the disruptions if local officials did not do so.
Police officers, some on horses, also pushed back protesters around the White House, Lafayette Park, and its surrounding blocks moments after Trump’s speech ended as he and some members of his administration, including Attorney General William Barr and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, walked from the White House to pay respects to the fire-damaged church.
The president held up a Bible in front of the sign in front of the church. When asked by reporters if it was his Bible, he said “It’s a Bible,” before making brief remarks.
Asked if the park was cleared in order to accommodate Trump’s visit to the church, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said, “The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.”
Bowser called the police’s actions “shameful” and said that they would make it more difficult for Washington Metro Police officers to keep the peace. Libby Garvey, a member of the Arlington County, Va., board, said on Twitter that officers from her jurisdiction were ordered “to immediately leave DC” as a result of the action.
“Appalled mutual aid agreement abused to endanger their and others safety for a photo op,” she wrote.
Earlier, other demonstrators marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, with some cursing Trump as they passed the president’s namesake hotel. The hotel, which is several blocks away from the White House, was guarded by about two dozen uniformed police officers and metal barricades.
Barr was seen entering the White House complex shortly before Trump spoke. He was greeted by protesters cursing him as well after they spotted him.
Just before authorities stormed H Street to clear protesters, Alisha Earle of Washington said she joined the demonstration because she hoped images of police aggression will sway the public the way that clips of police using hoses and dogs on civil rights activists did in the 1960s.
“My fear is nothing will change,” said Earle, 43, a South Carolina native who has lived in Washington for most of her adult life.
She said she doesn’t approve of looting and vandalism but that people who are focused on that element of the uprising rather than the killing of unarmed black men by police “might be part of the problem.”
Bowser previously set a curfew for the city at 11 p.m. ET on Sunday, but at a news conference on Monday, she told reporters that there had been violent clashes with police and significant property damage among peaceful demonstrations against police violence.
“Tonight, I’m ordering another curfew in Washington, D.C. We want your voices to be heard, but we also want to protect the safety of everyone in our city,” Bowser said. The curfew will last until 6 a.m. Tuesday and another will be imposed from 7 p.m. Tuesday until 6 a.m. Wednesday.
During the curfew, no resident, unless designated by the mayor, should be out in an alley, park, or other public places within the city. Essential workers, including health care personnel and credentialed media, are exempt. Voters, poll workers, and volunteers participating in Tuesday’s primary election in the city are also exempt.
At a second news conference Monday afternoon, Bowser said that the violence seen was from people who were “hell-bent” on destruction and distracted from the peaceful demonstrations.
“Smashing and looting should not be the story,” she said. “Racial justice and healing should be the story.”
Bowser said she disagrees with Trump’s message urging local officials to “get tough” with demonstrators.
“I don’t agree with that type of language, but interests are the same in keeping all parts of D.C. safe,” she said, adding that she had asked for federal assistance in protecting monuments and statues, several of which had been vandalized Sunday night.
“Significant damage” occurred across the city, especially near Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House, Bowser said Monday morning, adding “We will not allow the continued destruction of our hometown, by people who are coming here to protest or by D.C. residents.”
“We certainly empathize with the righteous cause that people are here protesting every single American should be outraged by the murder of Floyd, however, smashed windows and looting are becoming a bigger story than the broken systems that got us here,” she said.
Washington Chief of Police Peter Newsham said at Monday morning’s press conference that the destruction of property and “looting” Sunday night were “expansive” and occurred in the northeast, and upper northwest parts of the city and the Georgetown area. Newsham said that the “antagonists” appeared to be “organized in nature” and police had to use pepper spray and stingball grenades to control crowd activity.
Police arrested at least 88 people Sunday, half of whom charged with felony rioting, and a number of whom were also charged with burglary after looting broke out in several parts of the city, Newsham said.
He said a significant number of people were also arrested for violating the city’s curfew Sunday, which began at 11 p.m. ET. The department is not done making arrests, he said, and police can use the city’s CCTV system and government-owned cameras to identify perpetrators.
Asked why a policeman hit a CNN cameraman Sunday night with a baton when he was clearly carrying a camera, Newsham couldn’t provide a specific answer and said only that the department has a thorough system of investigating those issues or an independent office of police complaints could launch a probe.
Newsham said that the curfew was an “inconvenient decision” for many people and will disrupt their lives.
“This is a decision that was forced upon us by the behavior of the people who are intent on coming to our city and destroying property and hurting people,” he said.
Bowser said residents should use “common sense” when thinking about going out during curfew for activities such as walking their dogs.
“We are going to get our city back to normal as soon as possible,” she said.
Jonathan Allen and Rebecca Shabad reported from Washington and Dartunorro Clark reported from New York