Guard officer: Lafayette Square police tactics ‘disturbing’

Major is to testify at a House hearing today. As a candidate in 2018, he was critical of Trump

Police in riot gear stand in front of the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd in Washington on May 31. Police reportedly used tear gas to clear the crowd the next day. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Police in riot gear stand in front of the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd in Washington on May 31. Police reportedly used tear gas to clear the crowd the next day. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 28, 2020 at 6:00am

A National Guard officer present at the June 1 clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square will testify Tuesday that he found what he saw that day to be “deeply disturbing” and that law enforcement officials were heavy-handed in their tactics, engaging in an “unnecessary escalation” of force.

In written testimony, Adam DeMarco, a major in the District of Columbia National Guard and an Iraq war veteran, said the protesters at Lafayette Square were peaceful, that he found “spent tear gas canisters” after the clearing of the park, and that the U.S. Park Police and other federal law enforcement agencies escalated the clash with demonstrators. While dispersing the protesters, some Park Police officers “used their shields offensively as weapons," he said.

DeMarco is scheduled to testify Tuesday at 10  a.m. before the House Natural Resources Committee, which will also hear testimony from Gregory Monahan, the acting head of the Park Police, a division of the Interior Department.

DeMarco’s account undercuts public statements from the Trump administration, which has described the Lafayette Park protesters as violent and has ratcheted up its force against protesters nationwide in the wake of the killing of George Floyd,  whose death in Minnesota in May set off a global push against police brutality.

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The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating the U.S. Park Police role at Lafayette Square, and the Justice Department’s inspector general said last week he would begin a probe into federal law enforcement agencies’ policing of protests.

DeMarco’s account of the incidents of June 1 matches other witnesses, including Kishon McDonald, a protester, and Amelia Brace, an Australian reporter. Both told the House Natural Resources Committee June 29 they did not hear police demand protesters clear the area.

DeMarco has been critical of President Donald Trump in the past. He challenged Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., in the Democratic primary in 2018, and in a question-and-answer archive The Baltimore Sun maintained about political candidates, DeMarco is sharply critical of Trump.

His LinkedIn profile lists him as a part-time officer for the National Guard, stationed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and as a marketing director for a nonprofit called Warrior Rising.

Under a 2015 agreement, federal police, including members of the Park Police, are required to issue three clear and loud warnings to demonstrators and to give them time to disperse.

After briefing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, DeMarco, a senior National Guard officer on the scene, said he heard the Park Police at roughly 6:20 p.m. issue the required three warnings, 40 minutes before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew.

“The warnings were conveyed using a megaphone near the statue of President Jackson, approximately 50 yards from the demonstrators,” DeMarco said.  “From where I was standing, approximately 20 yards from the demonstrators, the announcements were barely audible and I saw no indication that the demonstrators were cognizant of the warnings to disperse.”

A different National Guard official present, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., told her the “peaceful crowd was too large for most” to hear warnings from officers to disperse.

Ten minutes later, the Park Police went to work on horseback and on foot, clearing protesters by using chemical irritants, riot shields, batons and pepper balls.

“The Secret Service, and other law enforcement agencies I was unable to identify, also participated in the push,” DeMarco said. “No National Guard personnel participated in the push or engaged in any other use of force against the demonstrators.”

The Park Police have disputed that tear gas was used against protesters. After the police agencies had cleared the protesters, DeMarco said he found “spent tear gas cannisters [sic] on the street.”

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Milley's orders

DeMarco also peels back a moment from Milley, who arrived in the park with Attorney General Bill Barr about 30 minutes before the clearing and who has since apologized for his presence in Lafayette Square.

“General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights,” DeMarco said.

In the aftermath, Milley, who wore camouflage head to toe in the park, said: “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

The statement from DeMarco also sheds light on the timeline of events on June 1. He said the arrival of Trump at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible and said little during a photo-op, was a “complete surprise.”

Monahan has said the USPP cleared the park after the U.S. Secret Service warned crowds to break up so authorities could install a black metal fence around the White House compound.

However, DeMarco said the fencing had not arrived until two hours after Trump’s appearance.

“As for the new security barrier,” DeMarco said, “whose installation was the stated purpose of the clearing operation, the materials to erect it did not arrive on the scene until around 9 p.m., and it was not completed until later that night.”

Barr has denied any link between the president’s Bible display before the church and the aggressive clearing of the park.

“The events I witnessed at Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1 were deeply disturbing to me, and to fellow National Guardsmen,” DeMarco said in part. “From my observation, those demonstrators — our fellow American citizens — were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights.  Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force.”