Trump accused of abusing power after tweeting people wanted for vandalising statues during Black Lives Matters protests

Alex Woodward
The equestrian statue of former US President General Andrew Jackson has ropes and chains still hanging, after protesters tried to topple it, at Lafayette square, in front of the White House, in Washington, DC on June 22, 2020: AFP via Getty Images

Four men have been charged by federal prosecutors for their alleged role in an attempt to take down a statue of Andrew Jackson after Donald Trump called for the arrests of 15 people and shared a series of “wanted” posters, alarming critics that he had put lives at risk by targeting protesters.

The men were charged with destruction of federal property, the Justice Department announced on Saturday.

Protesters across the US have also targeted monuments to the confederacy, while city and state officials have announced intentions to remove them. The president and conservative allies have been roundly criticised for calling attention to property damage and vandalism during antiracism protests without addressing attacks by police and the police killings that compelled the protests in the first place.

Acting US Attorney Michael R Sherwin said in a statement that “these charges should serve as a warning to those who choose to desecrate the statues and monuments that adorn our nation’s capital: your violent behaviour and criminal conduct will not be tolerated”.

On Monday, protesters attempted to topple the statue using ropes and chains but were stopped by police. The next day, the president said he had authorised the federal government “to arrest anyone who vandalises or destroys any monument, statue or other such federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent”.

Gregory Monahan, acting chief of the US Park Police, denounced the “deplorable acts of violence” against the statue. Police fired pepper spray and rubber bullets and used batons against protesters.

On Friday, the president announced an executive order to “ensure hat any person or group that destroys or vandalizes a monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent”.

Later, he shared “wanted” posters for 15 people to his nearly 83 million Twitter followers, followed by individual posts for each person wanted by the FBI’s violent crimes task force. Most of the people in the posters are people of colour.

While the president has attacked “antifa“ and “left-wing extremists” protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, he has not mentioned threats from far-right groups, whose alleged members have been arrested by federal law enforcement following the killing of a federal officer and armed attempts to infiltrate protests.

“The President of the United States is tweeting out ‘Wanted’ posters of people suspected of property vandalism,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defence Fund. “This is an abuse of power. Perhaps some have forgotten what that means. ... Can you imagine the sheer terror this is designed to create? For suspected vandalism?”

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and systemic racism, the president has amplified his “law and order” rhetoric, signalling in his first campaign rally in months a hard shift away from police reform and towards criminalising demonstrators that he has cast as “vicious” and “thugs”.

Despite charging dozens of protesters in recent weeks, the Justice Department has not linked any to “antifa” — a term loosely identifying antifascist demonstrators against right-wing violence, but one that the White House has sought to designate as a “terrorist” group. Attorney General William Barr has announced a task force to broadly counter “anti-government extremists” including right-wing ”Boogaloo“ conspiracy supporters to provoke civil war, which the Justice Department has put on an even field alongside antiracist demonstrators.

Statues of former president Andrew Jackson, one of the president’s favourite commanders in chief, have been targeted by demonstrations for his history as a slaveholder and architect of the Trail of Tears, in which the federal government forcefully removed thousands of Native Americans from their homes following the passage of the Indian Removal Act.

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