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Black Lives Matter, protesters sue Trump admin over aggressive crowd clearing
The Washington, D.C., chapter of Black Lives Matter and several protesters sued the Trump administration Thursday over its use of chemical agents and rubber bullets earlier this week to scatter crowds gathered near the White House.
The plaintiffs accused the administration and more than 100 law enforcement personnel of carrying out a conspiracy to violate their free speech and other constitutional rights while they peacefully protested the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody when a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
"The President's shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked, and frankly criminal attack on protesters because he disagreed with their views shakes the foundation of our nation's constitutional order," said Scott Michelman, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, one of the groups backing the legal challenge.
The administration sparked a bipartisan backlash Monday when law enforcement used aggressive measures, including tear gas, flash bombs and rubber bullets, to scatter a largely peaceful protest around Lafayette Square.
Moments later, President Trump walked across the vacated street flanked by Cabinet members, a heavy security detail and senior staff to stand in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, where he hoisted a Bible and posed for photographs, in what critics viewed as a surreal political stunt.
Attorney General William Barr said Thursday that it was his decision to "move the perimeter northward by a block," and that he did so to ensure the safety of federal facilities and personnel as the crowd was becoming "more unruly," using projectiles and threatening federal officers.
Barr also said the protesters were asked multiple times to move, and that federal agents took action only after the crowds refused to leave.
But in their filing to the U.S. District Court in Washington, plaintiffs say they did not hear any prior warnings. They allege the agents unleashed "flash-bang shells, tear gas, smoke canisters, pepper balls, and/or rubber bullets" on protesters at Lafayette Square, which it describes as "a traditional public forum where First Amendment rights are at their apex."
The suit alleges a half dozen counts listing violations of the First Amendment, the protection from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as federal conspiracy counts.
"What happened to our members Monday evening, here in the nation's capital, was an affront to all our rights," said April Goggans, core organizer of Black Lives Matter D.C., the lead plaintiff in the case. "The death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers has reignited the rage, pain, and deep sadness our community has suffered for generations. We won't be silenced by tear gas and rubber bullets. Now is our time to be heard."
The effort - backed by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Arnold & Porter - names Trump, Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper among the defendants.