Energy & Environment

Park Police asked to defend rationale behind clearing protesters

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The Department of the Interior is under increasing pressure to explain the involvement of its Park Police (USPP) in clearing protestors from an area near the White House who were demonstrating in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) penned a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt late Wednesday, delving into what has largely been a semantic battle and asking him to disclose if any “chemical irritants” were used by Park Police to clear Lafayette Square.

“The mission of the U.S. Park Police is to provide ‘quality law enforcement to safeguard lives, protect our national treasures and symbols of democracy, and preserve the natural and cultural resources entrusted to us.’ None of those goals are served by using the officers of the USPP as a force to indiscriminately fire chemical agents and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protesters exercising their first amendment rights,” wrote McCollum, chair of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior.

“It is unacceptable to prioritize clearing the way for the photo opportunity for the president over allowing a peaceful, legal demonstration,” she said, adding that Park Police should have been working to protect bystanders if there were indeed any violent agitators. 

McCollum requested a response to a number of questions by Friday, including who gave the order to push protesters out of the park as well as more details about the injuries sustained by Park Police. 

Her letter was followed by several others, including a list of 12 similar questions from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and a letter from House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-A.Z.) and others asking why Park Police have since completely walled off Lafayette Park. The National Parks Conservation Association, along with nearly 80 fellow environmental advocacy organizations, also asked Interior to explain its actions. 

Park Police said Monday that it did not use tear gas to clear protestors gathered in Lafayette Square shortly before President Trump crossed the park for a widely covered photo opportunity, Bible in hand, in front of a nearby church. Moments earlier, Trump said “I am your law and order president” during remarks in the Rose Garden.

Park Police said it used “smoke canisters and pepper balls” to clear “violent” protests in the area, counter to multiple reports that peaceful demonstrators were met with tear gas.

Interior did not immediately respond to request for comment on Thursday, but Bernhardt has frequently tweeted his support for Park Police.

“We will not stand for anarchy, and the rule of law will prevail,” he wrote just hours before Park Police cleared Lafayette Square.

Internal Interior communications shared on Twitter show the agency has called the latest protests “largely peaceful.” 

But Thursday morning, Bernhardt said earlier violence led him to request National Guard assistance–a move that has been opposed by local leaders in Washington, D.C. 

“After the U.S. Park Police experienced violence over the weekend, I requested the assistance of the ⁦@NationalGuard⁩. Thank you for your service and the work you’re doing at our wonderful memorials and monuments,” he tweeted

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee have already requested a briefing with Interior over the protests.

“We require further information about alarming reports indicating that U.S. Park Police were among the law enforcement officers who launched a violent attack on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park to clear the way for President Trump’s photo opportunity at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the head of Park Police. 

“Officers are credibly accused of launching flash bangs, tear gas, and shooting rubber pellets at unarmed, nonviolent protesters.”

Sometimes-violent protests have broken out across the nation after Floyd died while in Minneapolis police custody. Four former officers involved in his arrest have been charged. 

Updated at 5:24 p.m.

Tags Betty McCollum David Bernhardt Donald Trump George Floyd George Floyd protests Interior Department Lafayette Square Tom Udall U.S. Park Police

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