WASHINGTON – Civil rights organizations representing protesters who were attacked outside the White House with tear gas and other weapons while demonstrating to protect Black lives and against police brutality in June 2020 asked a federal judge today to authorize an appeal to revive their claims, dismissed last summer, seeking to hold federal officials financially accountable for the unconstitutional attack.
A federal judge previously dismissed constitutional claims against former attorney general William Barr and other federal officials who ordered or participated in the violent June 1, 2020, attack on civil rights protesters at Lafayette Square Park. That decision held that federal officials cannot be sued for monetary compensation for violating constitutional rights whenever they do so against a crowd near the White House.
The ruling permitted First Amendment claims to proceed against District of Columbia officers who deployed tear gas against demonstrators fleeing the federal attack, because the D.C. officers were local rather than federal. Because the court’s order did not dismiss the entire case, the plaintiffs need the court’s permission to appeal.
“We are deeply concerned that the dismissal of the constitutional claims against the federal officials will enable them to act with impunity, including using violence against demonstrators, as long as they are near the White House,” said Scott Michelman, Legal Director, ACLU of the District of Columbia. “The principles we are seeking to vindicate are simple: no official is above the Constitution and no part of the United States is beyond its protection. Given the historic importance of Lafayette Square Park as a forum in which ordinary people can exercise their First Amendment rights to make themselves heard by their President, the appeal we are seeking presents a matter of special public importance.”
Last week, as part of a settlement of a different portion of the case, the federal government agreed to change United States Park Police and the Secret Service policies relating to demonstrations. Those changes include (among others): raising the standard for Park Police to revoke demonstration permits; requiring Park Police to enable the safe withdrawal of demonstrators if a protest is being dispersed; requiring Park Police to provide audible warnings before dispersing a crowd; requiring Park Police to wear clearly visible identification; and reducing the opportunity for guilt-by-association policing by modifying Secret Service policy to make clear that uses of force and dispersals are not normally justified by the unlawful conduct of some individuals in a crowd.
“The policy changes the government has agreed to demonstrate how effective the people’s collective efforts to speak truth to power can be. We have fortified our ability to organize and resist police violence and murder”, said April Goggans, Core Organizer of Black Lives Matter D.C., the lead plaintiff in the case. “At the same time, we must be able to hold individual actors accountable for their role in trauma and violence against those who dissent, regardless of whether or not they are federal officials. That’s why this appeal is so significant.”
The class action lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of the District of Columbia, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and eight civil rights demonstrators who were attacked without warning by officers using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bang grenades. The protest occurred in the wake of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, and it called for an end to police brutality and racism. Additional information about the case, Black Lives Matter D.C. v. Trump, can be found here.