WASHINGTON – Lawsuits filed by protesters who were forcefully removed from a park near the White House before a photo op by former President Donald Trump should be dismissed because the new administration is not likely to repeat the events of last June, lawyers argued Friday.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration on behalf of individuals and Black Lives Matter last June, arguing that administration officials violated the protesters' civil rights. U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich heard arguments on whether or not to dismiss the cases and said she would issue a ruling later.
“These lawsuits seek to prevent a recurrence of the June 1st events in Lafayette Square,” said Justice Department attorney Christopher Hair. “The change in administration” to Democrat Joe Biden makes their claims moot, he said.
The suits argue that Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and other officials “unlawfully conspired to violate” the protesters’ rights when clearing Lafayette Park. Law enforcement officers aggressively forced the protesters back, firing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd to disperse them from the park.
The protests erupted nationwide last year over police brutality following the death of George Floyd, who died May 25, 2020. Initially, Trump and administration officials expressed sympathy for Floyd's death, but quickly denounced the protests.
Federal officials warned of an aggressive response in the District of Columbia after nights of violence that led to fires being set, windows shattered, store shelves emptied and dozens of police officers injured.
After the park was cleared, Trump, flanked by administration officials, walked to a nearby church and stood outside it holding a Bible in a photo opportunity meant in part to show he wasn't hiding from the protests that were bearing down on the White House.
An attorney for the protesters said the group was doing nothing illegal, and posed no threat to anyone or any property. A number of the protesters suffered injuries - burns, bruising and breathing problems - and psychological trauma that “lingers to this day,” attorney Randy Mastro said. It's important to get to the bottom of how it happened, even if the Biden administration shows more deference to protests and the causes behind them, the protesters' lawyers argued.
“Why did it happen?” Mastro asked. “Was it the curfew? The park was cleared before the curfew. Was it to stop violence? The attorney general himself has said there was no violence there that day.”
Mastro said the justification for the action has constantly shifted, but he said it’s clear from Trump’s own tweets that “these protesters were targeted because of their viewpoint, their message, their speech.”
“Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination,” Trump wrote the day after the square was cleared. The president also shared a letter on Twitter that referred to the protesters as “terrorists.”
“The conduct here was so flagrantly unlawful and so obviously unconstitutional that it requires a remedy. And we are here today, your honor, to do everything we can to see that nothing like this ever happens again in our country,” Mastro said.
Lawyers for the administration and the former officials said in addition to the litigation now being unnecessary, their clients have immunity because they were performing necessary law enforcement functions to secure a space for the president of the United States.
Another attorney for the protesters said the change of the administration is not enough to do away with the case, arguing that the new administration has not completely repudiated the conduct or showed it can never happen again.
The judge questioned why it would be unreasonable to clear the park for the president, noting that the large crowd would present a security risk.
“To me, it seems quite obvious that you need to clear the square that he needs to walk through before he reaches the church. Why is that not reasonable for the defendants to do?” the judge asked, though she said she understands the lawyers’ concerns about the level of force that was used to do so.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the group Black Lives Matter D.C. and individual protesters who were present. It is filed by the ACLU of DC, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Arnold & Porter.