WASHINGTON – Few have watched how the U.S. Park Police deals with protesters for as long and as closely as Ellen Thomas, an anti-nuclear activist who anchored a continuous sit-in vigil day and night on the pavement in front of the White House over two decades.
So Thomas, 73, speaks from great familiarity in describing her surprise at the force used by the U.S. Park Police and other law enforcement officers in front of the White House last week at one of the nation’s foremost protest spots, Lafayette Square. Two former Park Police overseers dating back to the Reagan administration also said the response was unprecedented in their experience.
In Monday's violent rout of protesters, authorities sent people stumbling and fleeing with chemical agents, clubs and punches.
“I was horrified," Thomas said. Now living in North Carolina, Thomas became known to millions of Washington residents and tourists as her vigils made her a witness to the force's handling of mass protests from the 1980s on.
Through protests of wars, inaugurations and other government actions, Thomas said, “I don’t recall there ever being anything even remotely like this."
Trump administration officials, and a Park Police labor representative who also was an officer on duty in Lafayette Square over the past week, are defending federal forces’ actions. They say it was justified by the violence the U.S. Park Police have faced in massive rallies following the death of George Floyd.
But two former leaders of the National Park Service, which oversees the Park Police, also said they had never before seen the force act as it did.
“It’s not a great example of crowd control, that’s for sure,” said Denis Galvin, who led the park service as deputy or acting director of the park service from the Reagan to George W. Bush eras.
Jonathan Jarvis, National Park Service director under President Barack Obama, said Park Police officers are trained to spot and isolate handling of troublemakers in otherwise peaceful crowds, in the hundreds of protests they oversee yearly. They’re also trained to peacefully create a wall of officers between dignitaries and crowds, rather than drive out the crowds, Jarvis said.
Any order for the uncharacteristic brute force Monday "had to come from somewhere above,” Jarvis said.
Democratic lawmakers are questioning whether administration officials are exaggerating the threat from protesters to justify the administration’s forceful response and to serve President Donald Trump’s political ends.
They ask why the Park Police, specially trained to safeguard Americans who peacefully exercise freedom of speech in some of the federal government’s premier protest spaces in Washington, New York and San Francisco, suddenly and violently turned on largely peaceful protesters.
In 2017, Park Police officers in Virginia chased, shot and killed a lone motorist, Bijan Ghaisar. Lawmakers, Ghaisar’s supporters and others accuse the force and other federal agencies of failing to be transparent and accountable in subsequent investigations in that prominent case.
The Park Police, part of the Interior Department, is the successor of a federal watch force created by George Washington in 1791.
“From May 30, the U.S. Park Police were under a state of siege, and routinely subject to attack by violent crowds,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva in a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.
Bernhardt in the letter took responsibility for asking for the National Guard deployment at federal monuments in the Washington protests. Bernhardt said he made the request to the Defense Department at the request of the Park Police. Trump had called and tweeted for National Guard deployments in cities after protests over Floyd's death in Minnesota turned violent.
Unlike most past waves of protests, this one had police themselves as the target, one Park Police labor official said.
“Officers did everything they could, as they were trained," in clearing the protest space Monday, said Kenneth Spencer, chairman of the U.S. Park Police Fraternal Order of Police labor committee. Spencer spoke as a labor representative, but also was on duty last week as security forces faced off with the demonstrators.
Park Police in recent days are “working 18-hour shifts, taking insults, and taking all kinds of projectiles on the front line there,’’ Spencer said during a break while on duty in the capital late Friday.
He described small groups of “antagonizers” within otherwise peaceful crowds lobbing bricks, chunks of wood, water bottles, fireworks and bottles of urine at officers.
Spencer said it was the Park Police — with his support and that of other officers— who had decided Lafayette Square should be cleared of protesters on Monday night. That was partly, Spencer said, because contractors needed to come in to put up a hastily decided upon additional fence.
Attorney General William Barr told the AP on Friday that it was the joint assessment of himself and the Park Police that protesters should be driven from the square and that Park Police had come up with a separate, similar plan to extend the perimeter the night before. White House officials and others in the administration had pinned the decision on Barr.
The White House and the Park Police have emphatically denied that tear gas was used to clear the demonstrators Monday. But the multiple security forces on the scene did use smoke canisters and pepper balls.
Federal institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense have listed tear gas as the common term for riot-control agents. Whether the common or formal term is used, the effects on people are the same.
Officers still were clearing the street Monday when they received word that Trump himself was coming for what would be a photo stop in front of a church, as he brandished a Bible. “We were all dumbfounded,” when they got word the president was on his way, Spencer said. “We had no idea that was going to happen.”
He said budget cuts have reduced the size and flexibility of the force.
Lafayette Square — now blocked by a tall chain link fence — provides the best spot in the country for citizens to protest the actions of their federal leaders, said Thomas, the longtime Lafayette Square demonstrator.
“There’s millions of people who come to the White House every year,” Thomas said of the protest space. “It’s the most public place that people without any money can use, to get the word out about issues.”
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City.