/I was horrified: Witnesses injured by police testify about Trumps photo op at Lafayette Square

I was horrified: Witnesses injured by police testify about Trumps photo op at Lafayette Square

WASHINGTON – Members of Congress heard from a series of witnesses, including several who were injured in the forcible clearing of protesters before President Donald Trump’s controversial walk this month to St. John’s Church for a photo opportunity.

The House Natural Resources Committee held its first hearing Monday on the incident June 1, in which protesters were removed from the park by authorities using chemical irritants, rubber bullets, shields and horses. Trump, who posed with a Bible in front of the historic church along with members of his administration, drew wide condemnation for the force used on demonstrators. 

House Democrats pressed the Trump administration for information on its response to the protesters, who were cleared roughly a half-hour before a 7 p.m. curfew in Washington. The Interior Department’s inspector general’s office opened an investigation.

“Covering protests does carry unavoidable risk, but the media’s role is essential. We don’t just have a right to be there, we have an obligation,” Amelia Brace, an Australian reporter who was repeatedly hit by officers during the clearing, told members of the committee. “As Australian journalists, we are the eyes and ears of our people – in this case, witnessing civil unrest in the capital of our most powerful and closest ally. It is crucial to democracy that journalists be allowed to do their job freely and safely. And that is certainly something we should expect in the world’s greatest democracy.”

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The Democrat-led panel heard from witnesses and experts to examine what happened in the events leading up to and after the clearing of protesters, whether excessive force was used and what policy options are available. 

Kishon McDonald, a protester and Navy veteran who said he was injured that day by law enforcement, told the panel he’d never been involved with protests before that day and felt a duty to do so. He said the violent protesters are the minority and something he hasn’t witnessed. 

“I should not have been forced to move and be attacked with tear gas and flash bangs since I was peacefully protesting for change,” McDonald told the panel. “The dogs and water cannons from the ’60s have turned into tear gas and flash bangs today.” 

McDonald and Brace were joined by the Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s Church, and Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University Law School professor and a GOP expert witness during the president’s impeachment. 

McDonald is part of a lawsuit against the Trump administration filed with other protesters and the Washington chapter of Black Lives Matter, alleging the administration violated protesters’ First Amendment rights. The lawsuit says McDonald was “repeatedly struck by the shields of multiple officers, which left bruises on his body,” was struck even as he left the protest and suffered symptoms “related to inhaling tear gas.”

Police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church across Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1 in Washington.

Brace and her cameraman were hit repeatedly by law enforcement in a scene captured on camera and struck by rubber bullets despite identifying themselves as press, prompting Australian officials to call for an inquiry. 

She told her network, 7NEWS, that it was a “terrifying” ordeal, and she could still “feel it across my shoulders where I was whacked with that baton, and we’ve got welts from the rubber bullets.”

Budde said she watched the protest from afar, and “I was horrified” when she saw the movement by police and Trump’s photo op at the church.

“When the president held up a Bible outside our church, as if to claim the mantle of spiritual authority over what had just transpired, I knew that I had to speak,” she said. “Nowhere does the Bible condone the use of violence against the innocent, especially those who are standing up for justice.” 

Before appearing before the committee, Budde condemned Trump’s visit to the church without the church’s permission and called the photo opportunity “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for.”

The square and the nearby streets had been filled with protesters for days in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police. Before Trump’s visit to the church, the security perimeter outside the White House was expanded. The U.S. Park Police said warnings to protesters were delivered several times over a loudspeaker before they were cleared, but accounts noted the warnings were inaudible over the noise of the crowd. 

Law enforcement agents used pepper spray and other chemical irritants to clear protesters from the square and street.

Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., started off the hearing by saying the president’s comments about protesters on his Twitter account made clear that he viewed this as a “war: us against the protesters,” and the explanations for what happened that day have not added up. 

“The Trump administration is still scrambling to explain how this happened, often contradicting itself,” he said. 

Republicans questioned the impartiality of the witnesses brought before the panel, noting at least one was involved in litigation involving the incident. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the top Republican on the committee, called the hearing a “distraction” that wouldn’t bring forth facts. 

“It is political theater,” he said. 

Throughout the hearing, Republicans showed several videos of protests, including one of police officers being beaten and another of police facing off with protesters amid a fire burning in Lafayette Square the night before the area was cleared. 

“To describe what happened in Washington, D.C., as mostly peaceful protests, I think that’s a lot like a describing Scott Peterson as a mostly faithful husband or Al Capone as a mostly law-abiding businessman,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said after playing one video. 

Republicans framed the clearing of protesters and the president’s photo op in front of the church as two separate things that weren’t linked, something Turley testified was a “case of correlation without causation.” 

“The attorney general, the head of the Park Police and others have said that this plan was actually approved 48 hours in advance,” Turley told the panel, noting that many denied knowledge about the president’s plan to take photos at the church.

Interior Department Inspector General Mark Greenblatt wrote a letter to congressional leaders saying his office would “make an initial determination of which agency had command and control of the law enforcement operation and conduct a review of Park Police actions accordingly.”

Former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis called the event a “bizarre photo op” in a scathing statement. Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said it was a “mistake” to participate in the walk to the church.

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