Excessive Force Used Against Protesters Outside White House, Guard Commander Claims

Demonstrators gather near the White House to protest the death of George Floyd.
Demonstrators gather in Lafayette Park to protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A Washington, D.C., National Guard major is set to testify before Congress on Tuesday that a June 1 U.S. Park Police clearing operation, which involved the use of tear gas and pepper balls against peaceful protesters, was "an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force."

Maj. Adam DeMarco's account of the "attack on peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square," in testimony submitted to the House Committee on Natural Resources, contradicts White House officials who maintained that it was necessary to use force to clear crowds of non-compliant protesters from an area near the White House well before the city's 7 p.m. curfew.

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The Washington Post first reported DeMarco’s prepared testimony.

The night before, on May 31, crowds of demonstrators, protesting the death of George Floyd, turned violent inside Lafayette Square, pelting Guard members and police with projectiles as they threatened to push past barricades near the White House.

The protests continued June 1, but crowds were peaceful when Park Police began to aggressively clear them from the area ahead of President Donald Trump's speech at St. John's Episcopal Church, according to DeMarco, who was on the scene that evening to serve as a liaison between the D.C. National Guard and District of Columbia authorities.

"From my observation, those demonstrators -- our fellow American citizens -- were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights," DeMarco said in his statement. "Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force."

DeMarco's account runs counter to the way Attorney General William Barr described the protesters in a June 7 CBS News interview.

"The Park Police was facing what they considered to be a very rowdy and non-compliant crowd," he said during the interview. "And there were projectiles being hurled at the police."

Barr added, "I was there. They were thrown. I saw them thrown."

Shortly after arriving on the scene at 6 p.m., DeMarco was briefed that Guard troops would be in support of Park Police as they widened a security perimeter by clearing H Street, between Vermont Avenue to the east and Connecticut Avenue to the west, and then move north on Vermont Avenue, 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue to extend the security perimeter from H Street to I Street.

The Guard was not to be actively engaged in the clearing operation, DeMarco said.

"I asked my Park Police liaison if tear gas would be used because I had observed tear gas canisters affixed to Park Police officers' vests, and I knew that tear gas had been used against demonstrators the previous evening," he said in the statement. "The Park Police liaison told me that tear gas would not be employed."

A few minutes later, DeMarco saw Barr and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, walking across Lafayette Square from the direction of the White House.

Barr walked right up to the line of Park Police and D.C. National Guard, in front of the demonstrators, then headed toward the statue of President Andrew Jackson, where he appeared to confer with Park Police officers, DeMarco said.

Milley, dressed in his operational camouflage uniform, walked over to DeMarco and asked about the Guard mission and the current situation, the major said.

"General Milley asked for an estimate of the number of demonstrators, and I estimated 2,000," DeMarco said in the statement. "General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators' First Amendment rights."

Milley, along with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have been criticized for appearing in photos with Trump before the Park Police clearing operation.

At around 6:20 p.m, Park Police issued the first of three warning announcements to the demonstrators, directing them to disperse, according to DeMarco.

"I did not expect the announcements so early, as the curfew was not due to go into effect until 7:00 p.m, 40 minutes later," he said.

The warnings were conveyed using a megaphone near the statue of Jackson, approximately 50 yards from the demonstrators, DeMarco said in the statement. "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."

At approximately 6:30 p.m., Park Police, led by Civil Disturbance Units and horse-mounted officers, were joined by Secret Service and other law enforcement personnel as they began the clearing operation, DeMarco said.

"I heard explosions and saw smoke being used to disperse the protesters," he said in his statement. "The Park Police liaison officer told me that the explosions were 'stage smoke,' and that no tear gas was being deployed against the demonstrators.

"But I could feel irritation in my eyes and nose and, based on my previous exposure to tear gas in my training at West Point and later in my Army training, I recognized that irritation as effects consistent with CS or 'tear gas.'"

DeMarco added, "Later that evening, I found spent tear gas canisters on the street nearby."

No National Guard personnel participated in the push or engaged in any other use of force against the demonstrators, according to DeMarco.

"From my vantage point, I saw demonstrators scattering and fleeing as the Civil Disturbance Unit charged toward them; I observed people fall to the ground as some Civil Disturbance Unit members used their shields offensively as weapons," he said in the statement.

"As I walked behind the Civil Disturbance Units pushing westward on H Street, I also observed unidentified law enforcement personnel behind our National Guardsmen using 'paintball-like' weapons to discharge what I later learned to be 'pepper balls' into the crowd, as demonstrators continued to retreat."

About 10 minutes after the clearing operation began, the Park Police ordered the Guard members to move up behind the Park Police clearing elements pushing north on Vermont Avenue, 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue to reinforce and relieve the Park Police on the newly established northern perimeter, according to DeMarco.

At around 7:05 p.m, DeMarco said he saw Trump walking onto H Street from Lafayette Square, near St. John's Church, accompanied by his security detail.

"The president's arrival was a complete surprise, as we had not been briefed that he would enter our sector," DeMarco said in the statement. "As for the new security barrier, whose installation was the stated purpose of the clearing operation, the materials to erect it did not arrive on the scene until around 9:00 p.m, and it was not completed until later that night."

Before joining the Guard, DeMarco served five years on active duty in the 1st Cavalry and 1st Armored Divisions and has three overseas deployments, including a combat deployment to Iraq, according to the statement.

"Having served in a combat zone, and understanding how to assess threat environments, at no time did I feel threatened by the protesters or assess them to be violent," DeMarco said in the statement. "In addition, considering the principles of proportionality of force and the fundamental strategy of graduated responses specific to civil disturbance operations, it was my observation that the use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was an unnecessary escalation of the use of force."

DeMarco said he is testifying before Congress about the events of June 1 because he "swore as a military officer to support and defend the Constitution of the United States."

"It is the foundation of the trust safely placed in the Armed Forces by the American people," DeMarco said. "And it compels me to say something -- and do something -- about what I witnessed on June 1 at Lafayette Square."

-- Gina Harkins contributed to this story.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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