Interior secretary: Park Police faced 'state of siege' at Lafayette protests

Interior secretary: Park Police faced 'state of siege' at Lafayette protests
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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told lawmakers on Friday that U.S. Park Police (USPP) officers faced “a state of siege” leading up to the clearing of protesters near the White House earlier in the week, saying violence during the demonstrations was “indisputable.”

Bernhardt's letter to lawmakers comes as congressional Democrats seek an explanation for why chemical agents were used to clear those protesting George Floyd’s death at Lafayette Square on Monday shortly before President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE left the White House to visit a nearby church for a photo-op.

“Beginning on Saturday May, 30, 2020, the USPP were under a state of siege and routinely subject to attack by violent crowds," Bernhardt wrote to members of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.

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"The incidents are numerous and include USPP officers having their police cars vandalized; being subject to bombardment by lighted flares; Molotov cocktails, rocks, bricks, bottles and other projectiles; and physical assault so violent that to date over 50 area law enforcement officers have been injured to some degree,” Bernhardt wrote, adding that one officer required emergency surgery. 

Bernhardt’s response proved unsatisfactory to lawmakers on the Democratic-led panel who had requested a briefing on Park Police tactics used during the clearing.

“That you attempted to ‘respond’ to our letter without actually responding to our request for a briefing is irresponsible; that you sought to explain the police violence on June 1 without mentioning that the goal was to allow a frightened president to pose for a photo-op with a borrowed Bible is pathetic. Efforts to spin a narrative plainly contradicted by video evidence is folly,” Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a letter to Bernhardt late Friday.

While there have been numerous reports of looting of businesses and vandalism of federal buildings in Washington, D.C., Monday’s protests were considered generally peaceful before protesters were cleared using chemical agents shortly before a 7 p.m. curfew took effect.

Bernhardt insisted in his letter that “while standard equipment ... like pepper balls” were used to clear the crowds on Monday evening, “no tear gas was used by USPP or associated agents at Lafayette Park.”

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A Park Police spokesman on Friday said it was a "mistake" to say that no tear gas was used given that chemical agents that law enforcement officers deployed cause similar eye and lung irritation.

“I’m not going to say that pepper balls don’t irritate you,” Park Police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Delgado told Vox, noting they contain an irritant derived from pepper plants. “I’m not saying it’s not a tear gas, but I’m just saying we use a pepper ball that shoots a powder.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes pepper spray and pepper balls under the category of a “riot control agent,” something it defines as “chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”

Bernhardt also said the Monday protests included demonstrators who “began assaulting law enforcement with projectiles while threatening to storm the secured areas,” ending his letter with an offer for lawmakers to accompany him when he visits injured officers.

Grijalva said he would accept.

“Please identify a date and time when we can speak with any U.S. Park Police officer injured on June 1, as well as the leadership of the force,” he wrote. “We will also invite victims of USPP violence during this incident to participate.”