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Justice Department settles with protesters who sued over 2020 incident at Lafayette Square

By Tierney Sneed

The Justice Department has reached a settlement to settle four lawsuits by protesters who were forcibly cleared out of Washington’s Lafayette Square during a racial justice protest outside the White House in 2020.

The US Park Police and the US Secret Service have agreed to revise their policies toward demonstrations and crowd control, according to a settlement filed in DC’s federal court.

“The federal government is committed to the highest standards for protecting civil rights and civil liberties in any federal law enforcement response to public demonstrations,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement Wednesday. “These changes to agency policies for protest responses will strengthen our commitment to protecting and respecting constitutionally protected rights.”

Among those bringing the lawsuits was Black Lives Matter DC and individual protesters at the June 1, 2020 demonstration. They were cleared out, following which President Donald Trump walked across the square to a nearby church for a photo-op.

A narrow review of the Park Police’s decision-making by the Interior Department’s inspector general said that agency did not act to clear to park in order to allow for Trump’s walk.

With the settlement filed Wednesday, the Park Police has agreed to update policies requiring that officers wear visible identifiers, and adopt guidelines and policies aimed at de-escalation tactics and dispersal warnings. The US Secret Service also revised its policies to include this language: “The fact that some individuals in a crowd have engaged in unlawful conduct does not normally provide blanket grounds for use-of-force countermeasures, crowd dispersal, or declaration of an unlawful assembly.”

“Today marks a win for the ongoing resistance against all attempts to subvert dissent,” said April Goggans, core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC, in a statement. “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.”

Then-Attorney General William Barr gave the order to clear the park that day, which had been the site of multiple days of protests. After the warnings from the Park Police, the authorities aggressively converged on the protesters, who reported experiencing irritation from the smoke canisters that had been employed.

The Inspector General review found that the dispersal warnings the Park Police had issued were not audible to everyone in the crowd, and that the police used “less-lethal munitions,” including “pepper ball rounds, stinger ball grenades without irritant, and white smoke without irritant after protesters physically attacked officers.”

In the statement announcing the settlement, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said the agency hoped “this updated policy can serve as a model for others to uphold civil rights and facilitate safe demonstrations.”

“The United States Park Police is committed to ensuring people can gather safely to express our most fundamental and cherished right to free speech,” he said.

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