Congress Reviews Police Actions Against Portland and D.C. Protesters

July 29, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Federal officers deploy tear gas and crowd control munitions at demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

WASHINGTON – Recent police action against protesters fell under criticism during two congressional hearings Tuesday.

Some accusations of wrongdoing were directed at U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who Democratic lawmakers accused of abusing his authority by authorizing excessive force against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.

“Shame on you, Mr. Barr,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

He accused the nation’s top law enforcement official of “projecting fear” by sending federal troops to Portland, where protesters have torched some businesses and shut down part of downtown during nightly demonstrations.

Nadler said in his opening statement, “We see the full force of the federal government brought to bear against citizens demonstrating for the advancement of their own civil rights. There is no precedent for the Department of Justice actively seeking out conflict with American citizens, under such flimsy pretext, or for such petty purposes.”

Republicans generally sided with Barr, saying the protests have become too violent to be described as civil rights demonstrations.

Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio showed a video of protesters engaged in violence against police and property.

The protests continued this week in Portland, particularly around the local and federal courthouses. Monday night a fire set in cardboard signs and plywood burned near the federal courthouse. 

Just after midnight Tuesday, someone threw a Molotov cocktail near the courthouse. Federal officers fired tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd.

“In Portland, the courthouse is under attack,” Barr told the House Judiciary Committee.

He mentioned the violence near the courthouse to defend his decision to send hundreds of federal agents to the city to control protesters.

The Black Lives Matter movement was prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

Barr described Floyd’s killing as a “horrible” event but said it was not a primary reason for the ongoing violence.

“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” Barr said. 

In a separate congressional hearing, the House Natural Resources Committee heard from law enforcement officials who either criticized or defended police for the way they cleared protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1.

Police removed them with smoke bombs and pepper balls shortly before President Donald Trump, accompanied by Barr, walked in front of a nearby church for a photo opportunity in which Trump held up a Bible.

Adam DeMarco, a major in the District of Columbia National Guard, described the actions of U.S. Park Police as “unprovoked” and “excessive.”

“Having served in a combat zone, and understanding how to assess threat environments, at no time did I feel threatened by the protesters or assess them to be violent,” DeMarco said in his testimony. “In addition, considering the principles of proportionality of force and the fundamental strategy of graduated responses specific to civil disturbance operations, it was my observation that the use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was an unnecessary escalation of the use of force.”

DeMarco’s observations were sharply contradicted by Acting U.S. Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan.

He said protesters threw “bricks, rocks, caustic liquids, water bottles, lit flares, fireworks” at police. He said 50 officers were injured but acknowledged under questioning from lawmakers that only one was hurt during the June 1 conflict.

“We were met with violent resistance” when officers tried to remove protesters from Lafayette Square, he said.

“Our actions as an agency on June 1 centered around public safety and the safety of my officers,” Monahan said in his testimony.

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