Clearing Out Lafayette Park for Trump’s Church Photo Op Was Wrong, Even If Cops Didn’t Use Tear Gas

“On Monday, President Trump left the White House, walked across Lafayette Park—where rioters burned a public restroom the night before—and posed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a Bible. This photo op was made possible by U.S. Park Police, who cleared overwhelmingly peaceful protesters from the area using aggressive crowd control tactics.

People are now debating whether those tactics included the use of tear gas, which swiftly became central to the mainstream media coverage of the incident, and a focal point of criticism from former Vice President Joe Biden. Multiple on-the-ground reporters said they suffered the effects of tear-gassing—burning in the throat and eyes—but Park Police have emphatically denied this, claiming that officers fired canisters of smoke rather than tear gas. It’s hard to know for sure what happened, but it seems plausible that the protesters directly in front of Lafayette Park were, in fact, hit with smoke.

Whether the Park Police used tear gas or smoke matters because the truth always matters. If media reporting on that detail was wrong, they should correct their reporting. But whatever kind of canister was fired into the peaceful crowd, the most important point is that the entire episode was completely unacceptable. Law enforcement officers who harass peaceably assembled citizens are violating the First Amendment, whether or not they use tear gas.

Park Police have claimed they didn’t know of Trump’s plans to walk to the church, and that they began clearing the area prior to the curfew going into effect because protesters were throwing water bottles at them. Reports on the ground suggest some throwing of objects, but also tons of protesters instructing the throwers to stop it immediately. Multiple things could be true here, of course: The police might not have known precisely why they were instructed to push the protesters back, but if Trump had his heart set on walking to St. John’s, the cops were going to have to move the protesters to accommodate him. That the scene on ground was more complicated than it may have appeared is not an excuse for voiding the right to protest. ”

“It was morally wrong to disperse protesters at 6:30 p.m., and it would have been wrong to disperse them at 7:05 p.m.—curfew or not. Public officials at every level of government are making arbitrary decisions about whether such-and-such activity should stop being practiced in such-and-such manner and at such-and-such time. These excuses for violating civil liberties are just not compelling.”

“By all means, let’s pursue the truth of exactly what happened outside Lafayette Park. But let’s not get lost in the weeds along the way. The government’s rough handling of protesters—not rioters and looters, but citizens engaged in constitutionally protected demonstrations against police violence—is unlawful. It’s immoral. And it’s making things worse.”

It Wasn’t Tear Gas. It Was a Gaseous Substance That Causes Tears.

“No, President Donald Trump didn’t have police shoot tear gas at innocent people so he could pose for a pic with an upside-down Bible. Both the president and his lackeys at certain media outlets want to make sure we’re clear on that. You see, the truth is that Trump had police bombard a law-abiding crowd with a gaseous substance that produces tears.

You see the difference? Not really? It doesn’t matter. We’re talking about this right now, and that’s what Trump boosters and predator-cop stans want. The more time people spend debating the difference between tear gas and “smoke canisters and pepper balls,” the less focus on the fact that the Trump administration had peaceful citizens attacked so he could pretend on camera to be brave and religious.

This is the same tactic we’ve seen again and again from the Trump administration: deny, shift stories, and quibble over inane particulars.

It doesn’t matter if most media or even most Americans don’t really buy the administration’s deflections and lies. The point is to shift the public conversation, give Trump supporters an easy retort to critics, and to present enough reasonable doubt that folks not especially attuned to politics tune out. Getting people to see this as just another far-removed partisan squabble is essential to covering up the heinous and extreme nature of the stunt the administration pulled in Lafayette Square.”

“Trump folks want to pretend that masses of individual protesters and members of the press were lying, in coordination, to trick people into thinking the administration behaved worse than it did. But the fact of the matter is that being tear-gassed and being bombarded with a pepper-spray bomb produce the same effects, and people were reporting on what they had experienced and witnessed directly.

Accuracy in media matters, of course, and Reason has often been the first to point out when most press is getting a story wrong. But reporting accurately and truthfully means doing the absolute best you can with the facts that are available to you, admitting what you don’t know, and updating your narrative when new information arrives. And it certainly doesn’t mean describing things in exactly the terms that government officials or other powerful people prefer you to use.

The Trump administration might not want to call the substance law enforcement agents deployed “tear gas.” But under the common understanding of tear gas—”an umbrella term for about a half-dozen so-called ‘riot-control agents’ or ‘less lethal’ chemical weapons” per Mother Jones—and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition, it was.”

The White House’s explanation for a tear gas attack on peaceful protesters doesn’t add up

“Just minutes before President Donald Trump was scheduled to give a speech in the White House Rose Garden about the anti–police brutality protests, law enforcement officers outside the White House launched tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in neighboring Lafayette Square.
It produced a shocking scene of federal officials shooting a weapon banned from warfare at Americans. The crowd scattered, allowing Secret Service, National Guard, and Park Police personnel to make a path for Trump and his team to visit a nearby church after his address.

That led to widespread speculation that Trump or someone else at the White House had ordered the tear gas attack solely to give Trump the photo op he wanted with his team at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a recent cause célèbre among the right after its basement was partially burned during the unrest on Sunday night.”

“I asked the White House, via email, a simple question: “Do [you] know who gave the order to clear the crowd in Lafayette Square with tear gas?”

Here’s the response from Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson: “The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7:00 pm curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the US Park Police.”

This explanation is suspect for several reasons — the most important being that, although DC Mayor Bowser had ordered a curfew for DC starting at 7 pm, video of the incident shows that law enforcement fired the tear gas well before then.

Second, the statement did not address the question of who gave the order.

And third, the statement explicitly mentions the church, which seems to signal that the goal of the whole ordeal was to get Trump to St. John’s no matter what.”

“Let’s be clear about what this means: The White House is explicitly not denying that Trump or another administration official greenlit the tear gas attack, and there’s no clear explanation why anyone thought using tear gas on peaceful protesters was warranted just so the president could have a photo op.

At a time when citizens across the country are taking to the streets by the thousands to demand accountability for unchecked police violence, the White House — perhaps even the president himself — seems to have made a conscious decision to respond to one of those (entirely peaceful) protests with more unchecked police violence.”