Black Lives Matter sues Trump administration over use of force on D.C. protesters

Doha Madani

Black Lives Matter sued President Donald Trump and his administration Thursday, alleging that their civil rights and First Amendment rights were violated when peaceful protesters were forced out of Lafayette Square so Trump could take a photo in front of a nearby church.

Protesters demonstrating peacefully against police violence in the wake of George Floyd's death were forced out of the square in Washington on Monday by U.S. Park Police and the National Guard. Journalists and protesters alike reported that the otherwise peaceful demonstration was met with authorities using horses, projectiles and gas to force them out.

The clearing out of the square came just moments before Trump left the White House and walked to St. John's Episcopal Church, where he posed for a photo with a Bible.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

The Washington, D.C., chapter of the activist organization filed the suit along with the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that the administration violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights, which protect the right to protest and protect against unreasonable search and seizure.

Authorities fired flash-bang shells, tear gas, smoke canisters, pepper balls and rubber bullets into the crowd, the suit said. U.S. Park Police have disputed that their officers used tear gas.

Image: D.C. protest against death of George Floyd (Joshua Roberts / Getty Images)

The lawsuit also claims that the administration conspired to deprive them of their civil rights and protections.

"The conspiracy targeted Plaintiffs' protected First Amendment activities because Defendants held animus towards Plaintiffs' viewpoints," the lawsuit said. "The violent actions of the conspirators directly and unlawfully interfered with these activities."

Black Lives Matters and the ACLU are asking for a jury trial, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The groups are also asking for a judge to grant relief by issuing an injunction to stop the administration from continuing to use force against protesters.

"Defendants' actions to shut down the Lafayette Square demonstration is the manifestation of the very despotism against which the First Amendment was intended to protect," the suit said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney General William Barr, who is named in the lawsuit, defended the use of force on protesters Thursday. Barr alleged that the administration was provoked by increasing violence.

"On Monday, we were still facing very large demonstrations that were belligerent and throwing projectiles," Barr said, adding that "it's very important to use sufficient forces, law enforcement, to establish law and order in a city when you have riots running. If you use insufficient resources, it's dangerous for everybody."

Multiple news outlets with reporters at the scene Monday have contradicted claims of escalating violence, reporting that protesters had been in the park for hours without any notable incidents of aggression.