Park Police defends forcible clearing of Lafayette Park


WASHINGTON — Condemning what he described as the “sustained violence from a number of bad actors,” the head of the U.S. Park Police, Gregory T. Monahan, defended the use of force to disperse protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on June 1 to protest police brutality and racism.

Roughly 30 minutes after Lafayette Park was cleared, President Trump and a small group of high-level administration officials walked from the White House to St. John’s Church, which sits on the northern edge of Lafayette Park. The church’s basement had been set on fire the night before amid protests. Trump did not enter the church or pray. Instead, he posed awkwardly with a Bible and left.

Gregory T. Monahan, Acting Chief US Park Police National Park Police, testifies during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on "Unanswered Questions About the US Park Police's June 1 Attack on Peaceful Protesters at Lafayette Square" on July 28, 2020 in Washington,DC. (Leah Milis/AFP via Getty Images)
Gregory T. Monahan, acting chief of the U.S. Park Police, testifies during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Leah Milis/AFP via Getty Images)

Monahan maintained that the events — the clearing of the park and the president’s walk to St. John’s Church — were not at all related. “We did not clear the park for a photo op,” he said at one point during testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, adding later that there was “100 percent, zero, no correlation, between our operation and the president’s visit to the church.”

The remarks came during a hearing of the committee about the Park Police’s role in clearing the protesters from Lafayette Park.

Monahan spoke with a light blue Park Police helmet beside him, which he said belonged to one of the 50 officers injured during several nights of protests in Washington, D.C. Eleven of those officers were taken to the hospital, with three held for treatment, according to Monahan.

The protests were part of a national outcry following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Monahan told lawmakers that his objectives on June 1 had been “to provide for public safety” and allow for peaceful protests to continue. “And I think we accomplished that goal,” he said, a view at odds with the widespread condemnation of the park’s clearing.

Most notably, former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis denounced the forcible clearing of Lafayette Park, which included the passive participation of the U.S. National Guard, as a dangerous abuse of presidential authority.

Major Adam DeMarco of the District of Columbia National Guard testifies about the June 1 confrontation with protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on July 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Leah Millis-Pool/Getty Images)
Maj. Adam DeMarco of the District of Columbia National Guard testifies at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Leah Millis-Pool/Getty Images)

A second witness, Maj. Adam DeMarco of the D.C. National Guard, contradicted Monahan’s testimony. DeMarco, who was present at Lafayette Park on June 1, said in his opening statement that what he saw that evening was “deeply disturbing.” He condemned the very same actions Monahan had been justifying from the same chair only minutes before as “an unnecessary escalation of the use of force.”

Congress has held several hearings about the incident, but questions remain about why the operation took place when it did and where the order for it originated. Monahan said in his testimony that the order for Park Police officers to begin pushing protesters back was given by Mark Adamchik, who he said was the “incident commander” at Lafayette Park.

The White House has previously said it had “no regrets” about clearing the park, but also did not take responsibility for the order that led to the clearing. According to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, that originated with Attorney General William Barr.

Barr arrived at Lafayette Park at 6:10 p.m. With him were Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley. Barr conferred with commanders of the Park Police. Barr wanted the security perimeter around Lafayette Park expanded but has also denied that the order to clear the park was his.

In his written testimony, DeMarco described meeting with Milley in Lafayette Square. “General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights,” DeMarco said. Milley and Esper have both denied any responsibility for the order to clear Lafayette Park, pointing to the Park Police as having requisite on-the-ground authority.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify before the US House Armed Services Committee hearing on 'Department of Defense Authorities and Roles Related to Civilian Law Enforcement', July 9, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

The Park Police gave the first of three warnings for protesters to disperse at 6:22 p.m., 40 minutes before a 7 p.m. curfew that had been imposed by Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, that afternoon. The previous night had seen some looting and violence in the district. DeMarco, standing nearby, described the warning as inaudible. Park Police began moving against the protesters at 6:27 p.m. Eight minutes later, the park was clear of protesters.

As a Park Police patrol officer, Monahan had been the subject of complaints and lawsuits charging him with performing illegal searches on suspects. In one 2002 case, he inserted his hand into the buttocks of a Black man in order to search for drugs. Although Monahan did find drugs, a judge said the evidence was inadmissible because Monahan “exceeded the outer limits” of the suspect’s constitutional rights.

The Park Police had also been in the news throughout the past several years for the 2017 killing of Bijan Ghaisar, an unarmed motorist who had been traveling along the same road — the George Washington Parkway — where Monahan had conducted his improper search years before. The infraction that ultimately led Park Police officers to kill Ghaisar was a minor traffic accident. The Park Police has continued to engage in what advocates and attorneys for Ghaisar have called “stonewalling.”

Riot police detain a man as they rush protestors to clear Lafayette Park and the area around it across from the White House for President Donald Trump to be able to walk through for a photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, near the White House in Washington, U.S. June 1, 2020. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)
Riot police detain a man as they rush protesters to clear Lafayette Park on June 1. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

During the Tuesday hearing, Monahan described the actions of his officers as necessary to “deescalate” the situation, though he also acknowledged that any violence on the part of protesters against his troops had taken place on previous nights, not on June 1.

At the same time that Monahan was testifying in one House hearing room, Barr was testifying in another. In the latter hearing, Barr attempted to justify the use of federal troops against protesters in Portland, Ore.

With additional reporting by Hunter Walker.


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Originally published