WASHINGTON – The Biden Administration announced changes to United States Park Police and Secret Service policies related to the policing of demonstrations, to settle some of the legal claims by civil rights protesters unconstitutionally and brutally attacked outside the White House with tear gas and other military-grade weapons while demonstrating for Black Lives Matter and racial justice in June 2020.
The settlement resolves portions of four separate lawsuits after nearly two years of litigation on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and 13 individual protesters by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firms of Arnold & Porter; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP; and Regan Zambri Long. The suits were filed after hundreds of people demonstrating against police brutality and Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in Lafayette Square, the park in front of the White House, were violently dispersed, without warning or provocation, by U.S. Park Police and other federal and local enforcement officers using chemical irritants, rubber bullets, smoke bombs, flash grenades, and a baton charge. Later that evening, former President Trump posed for a photo holding a bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The Trump Administration acknowledged that then-Attorney General William Barr gave the order to disperse the demonstrators.
The District of Columbia is the site of hundreds of demonstrations each year. This case demonstrates, however, that Black Lives Matter demonstrators and their allies are treated with unique violence and hostility. The measures included in this settlement are an important step forward in ensuring that protests are not suppressed.
To settle the demonstrators’ claims for court orders to prevent future attacks of this kind, the Biden Administration has agreed to important changes to Park Police and Secret Service policies covering policing demonstrations, including the measures below:
- Protecting the right to demonstrate by providing that Park Police cannot revoke demonstration permits absent “clear and present danger to the public safety,” or “widespread violations of applicable law that pose significant threat of injury to persons or property;”
- Protecting demonstrators by requiring Park Police to enable the safe withdrawal of demonstrators if a protest is being dispersed;
- Protecting demonstrators by requiring Park Police to provide audible warnings before dispersing a crowd;
- Promoting accountability by requiring Park Police to wear clearly visible identification;
- Protecting demonstrators from intimidation by prohibiting Park Police from displaying gas masks and shields at protests, unless approved by a high-ranking officer;
- Prohibiting discriminatory policing based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or viewpoint; and
- Reducing the opportunity for guilt-by-association policing by modifying Secret Service policy to make clear that uses of force and dispersals are not normally justified by the unlawful conduct of some individuals in a crowd.
“The use of tear gas and rubber bullets will never be enough to silence our voices or diminish our duty to demand an end to police violence against Black communities,” said April Goggans, Core Organizer of Black Lives Matter D.C. “Today marks a win for the ongoing resistance against all attempts to subvert dissent. These attempts to disrupt the ability to organize for an end to the recurring trauma caused to Black communities by police attacks will not go unchallenged.”
“When they began to shoot what I believe were tear gas canisters into the crowd, it sounded like bombs were exploding, and the scene quickly resembled a war zone,” said Plaintiff Radiya Buchanan. “People were running over each other, looking for anything to pour into their eyes to stop the burning all while trying to dodge flares and gas canisters. It did not feel like we were in America.”
The lawsuits also include claims for damages against former Attorney General William Barr and the Park Police incident commander Mark Adamchik, who gave the order to respond to civil rights demonstrators with unprovoked violence, along with line-level officers from the Park Police and Arlington Police Department who carried out the order, and Metropolitan Police Department officers who attacked fleeing demonstrators. Today’s settlement does not cover those claims, and the plaintiffs will continue to litigate to seek compensation for demonstrators and accountability for those directly involved.
“The Trump Administration’s attack on peaceful protesters who were seeking justice for George Floyd and other victims of police violence was an appalling and unnecessary display of force,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The attempt to silence their calls for accountability actually underscored the point the protesters were making about the racial injustice that is inherent in such acts of state violence. The resolution of this case, while only a partial victory, is a step toward protecting the rights of not only protesters who stand up for racial justice, but also the people who are too often subjected to use of violent force by police in their communities.”
“Federal officers’ shocking and unprovoked attack against civil rights demonstrators raising their voices in front of the White House to oppose police brutality and racism was a frontal assault on the fundamental American ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and racial justice,” said Scott Michelman, Legal Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “We are pleased that the Biden Administration is taking an important step to protect protesters’ rights so that what happened on June 1, 2020 doesn’t happen again.”
“This country has a history of responding to racial justice protests with violent and abusive policing. The Lafayette Square protesters – who themselves were protesting against the unnecessary use of force by police officers – were attacked by federal and local police with batons and tear gas. This settlement is an important step towards protecting future protests from police attacks like the one on June 1st,” said Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
“These policy changes represent major steps to enhance protection for freedom of expression in the future,” said John A. Freedman, Senior Pro Bono Counsel, Arnold & Porter. “They represent significant revisions to the rules of engagement that govern how the Park Police and Secret Service interact with peaceful demonstrations that will both reduce risk that protestors are injured and strengthen measures to hold officers who utilize excessive force accountable.”
“This assault on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park is a day that will live in infamy, but with today’s historic settlement, it’s a new day for our democracy. We now have the government’s commitment as a matter of policy that such abuses of executive power will never happen again,” said Randy Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, counsel for Plaintiffs Buchanan, Dagrin, and Field. “Nevertheless, there is a price to be paid for such outrageous misconduct, so we intend to continue to pursue damages claims against the officials responsible to compensate our clients for the serious injuries they suffered that day at the hands of their own government.”
“American citizens were maimed by our government in pursuit of a photo op. This never should have happened, and this settlement is a first step in ensuring that history does not repeat itself,” said Patrick M. Regan of Regan Zambri Long PLLC, one of the attorneys for some of the injured protesters. Attorneys Christopher J. Regan and Emily C. Lagan joined Regan in the firm’s representation of the injured protesters.
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