WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General William Barr has justified use of force to clear Lafayette Park across the street from White House last Monday evening of protesters just ahead of President Donald Trump walking through the park for a photo-op in front of a nearby church.
“They were not peaceful protesters,” Barr contended on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” show. “And that's one of the big lies that the media is, seems to be perpetuating at this point.”
Barr, the top law enforcement official in the U.S., said protesters were given three warnings to clear the park before police and authorities clad in riot gear advanced on them, firing pepper balls.
The police action against the protesters came in the midst of nationwide protests against the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American man who was held face down by a white police officer on a street in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes even as he said repeatedly he could not breathe.
Barr denied the use of chemical irritants such as tear gas in clearing Lafayette Park, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the pepper spray that was used as a type of “tear gas” or “riot control agent.”
Barr said the park was cleared because of violent clashes that had erupted there from Friday to Sunday a week ago, May 29-31, with police “under constant attack.”
“On Sunday, things reached a crescendo,” Barr said. “The officers were pummeled with bricks. Crowbars were used to pry up the pavers at the park and they were hurled at police. There were fires set in not only St. John's Church (that Trump stood in front of Monday night), but a historic building at Lafayette was burned down.”
After the May 31 clashes, Barr said, U.S. Park Police decided to expand the fenced-in perimeter around the White House, where Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron live.
“When I came in Monday, it was clear to me that we did have to increase the perimeter on that side of Lafayette Park and push it out one block,” Barr said. “That decision was made by me in the morning. It was communicated to all the police agencies.”
The attorney general said he saw projectiles being thrown at police, but added, “Here's what the media is missing. This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block.”
CBS’s Margaret Brennan told Barr that to Americans watching on television it appeared that the park was cleared of protesters so Trump, accompanied by heavy security and top aides, could walk to St. John’s for his brief photo opportunity with a Bible held aloft.
“In an environment where the broader debate is about heavy-handed use of force in law enforcement, was that the right message for Americans to be receiving?” she asked.
“Well, the message is sometimes communicated by the media,” Barr said. “I didn't see any video being played on the media of what was happening Friday, Saturday and Sunday” of the authorities being attacked by projectiles.
“All I heard was comments about how peaceful protesters were,” Barr said. “I didn't hear about the fact that there were 150 law enforcement officers injured and many taken to the hospital with concussions. So, it wasn't a peaceful protest. We had to get control over Lafayette Park, and we had to do it as soon as we were able to do that.”