The use of federal law enforcement agents for the policing of protests following the death of George Floyd has resulted in incidents of police violence and violates protesters’ rights to peaceful assembly.
On June 1, 2020, at approximately 5pm, a crowd of people gathered along the edge of Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., which lies in front of the White House. At approximately 6pm, personnel from multiple law enforcement agencies including the D.C. National Guard, the Secret Service, the U.S. Park Police and the Federal Bureau of Prisons Special Operations Response Team, gathered along the edge of Lafayette Square dressed in riot gear and with shields and batons. Three orders to disperse were given within minutes of each other; even at the front of the crowd, the orders were not entirely audible as evidenced on multiple recordings from the incident. At approximately 6.30pm, law enforcement officers, including police on horses, advanced, forcefully pushing the crowd west away from the square. One U.S. Park Police officer told a member of the crowd: “You better back up, or you’re going down.” Park Police officers struck a news camera operator with a shield and beat a reporter in the back with a baton as they ran away from police. The officers misused a variety of crowd control agents and threw U.S.-manufactured Stinger Ball grenades, which contain pepper spray and explode in a concussive “flash-bang” effect, throwing rubber pellets indiscriminately in all directions. Bureau of Prisons personnel also deployed pepper balls against retreating protesters. This clearing of Lafayette Square was not in response to any threat or violence by the protesters, but rather for a photo op by the President in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church following a public statement he made about the protests at the White House.
Under “Operation Diligent Valor”, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) deployed teams to Portland, Oregon, comprised of approximately 114 federal law enforcement officers from several DHS agencies, including Custom and Border Protection’s (“CBP”) Border Patrol Tactical unit, a paramilitary unit which DHS has deployed in the past to surveil, police, and arrest undocumented immigrants in cities declining to cooperate with anti-immigration policies. These DHS officers were deployed to Portland following President Trump’s June 26 executive order to protect monuments and statues from protesters until they were withdrawn in early August. Multiple media reports documented federal agents using excessive force in defense of the federal courthouse in Portland and collectively punishing protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly through the use of batons, the indiscriminate use of kinetic impact projectiles, and the excessive use of tear gas and other chemical irritants. In some instances, journalists, legal observers and street medics were specifically targeted. Camouflage-clad officers with generic “POLICE” patches on their clothing were caught using force to arrest and whisk away protesters in unmarked vehicles far away from the protests at the courthouse.
While covering the protests in Portland, James Krane, a freelance photojournalist, kept his press badge visible at all times, was wearing a helmet with “Press” labeled across it, and was carrying professional gear. He was also grouped with other similarly identifiable members of the media. However, federal agents singled out and targeted these journalists in their attacks:
“I frequently saw them pointing at me and other journalists, pointing us out. There was some very obvious visual targeting of journalists. As chaos would unravel, they would fire into a group of press. A lot of us would have to huddle together. There were several times they aimed into a press huddle that I was in and started firing off rounds. I was not hit with any large rounds, but I was frequently hit with tear gas and rubber and pepper balls. I’d say every night I was hit with rapid fire pepper rounds. They would shoot them like it was an Uzi, there’d be a ratatatatat.”
None of these federal agencies, with the exception of the D.C. Park Police, have any experience in crowd control maneuvers and the policing of protests. National Guard troops, federal agents and federal law enforcement officers and military personnel should not be deployed for the policing of protests unless their deployment is to serve a legitimate objective, such as guarding infrastructure so that local law enforcement can be redeployed for policing of demonstrations and other law enforcement duties.
- Federal agents without proper training should have no role in the policing of demonstrations.
- Sending federal agents to cities in response to protests only inflames the situation, as we have seen in Portland and Washington, D.C.
- It is the legitimate right of people to carry their opinion to the streets. Public assemblies should not be considered as the “enemy.”
- All law enforcement and security personnel engaged in the policing of protests must protect, respect and facilitate the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
- The President should instruct DHS and DOJ to immediately withdraw any federal agents, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and units, still deployed to localities in response to the Presidential Executive Order issued on June 26, 2020 and under “Operation Diligent Valor”, and refrain from sending such units to other cities in the future.
- The President should ensure that the future deployment of any federal agents, military or National Guard troops to protests sites are there only for a specific objective, such as providing security at specific facilities or infrastructure in order to allow local law enforcement to be redeployed for the policing of demonstrations.
- The President should urge the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the misuse of federal agents and the violations committed by federal agents during protests that occurred in 2020.
- The World Is Watching: Mass violations by U.S. police of Black Lives Matter protesters’ rights (2020) (available here)
- Amnesty International Documents Widespread Police Violence Against Protesters for Black Lives Interactive Map (2020) (available here)
- Letter to DHS Secretary Re CBP Use of Force Against Portland Protesters (July 24, 2020) (available here)
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Deputy Director, Research