- Washington, DC, appeared to take a breather Thursday following days of unrest and clashes between protesters and law-enforcement officials in demonstrations against police brutality.
- Though the nation’s capital remained peaceful, protesters outside the White House said the increased security made them uneasy.
- “I’m really concerned that military has been brought in and the National Guard – I think that’s a really radical step,” said Lia Cheek, 32, who took the day off work to protest. “Part of me feels like it’s turning into a military state.”
- A firestorm is also brewing over the sudden appearance of unmarked federal law-enforcement officials in the area, some of whom were later identified as being from the Bureau of Prisons.
- A law-enforcement veteran said that it’s “incredibly unusual” for such officials to be deployed to Washington and that it’s “deeply troubling” that some tried to conceal their identities.
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For a moment, Washington, DC, on Thursday appeared to take a breather following days of unrest and clashes between protesters and law-enforcement officials during demonstrations against police brutality.
The biggest resistance these forces encountered Thursday was the heat. Temperatures climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the looming threat of thunderstorms in the nation’s capital seemed to bring at least some measure of calm.
But another storm is brewing across the country, with protests continuing from coast to coast connected to the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. His memorial service Thursday in Minnesota drew the Rev. Al Sharpton for a eulogy, while growing anger over President Donald Trump’s response to the protests have added fresh doubts about his own reelection prospects.
Washington had been a ghost town since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it resembles a police state following the recent appearance of unmarked federal law-enforcement officers patrolling the streets and guarding important government landmarks.
Against that larger backdrop, about a hundred demonstrators gathered for a peaceful protest outside the White House shortly after noon while a smattering of Secret Service and US Park Police patrolled Lafayette Square on the other side of a tall new fence erected to block the area off from protesters.
Reporters gathered outside the boarded-up St. John’s Church, which Trump used Monday as the setting for his widely criticised photo op in which he held aloft a Bible after federal agents cleared protesters from the scene with gas and rubber bullets. A few park police officers lounged on shady benches, which were theirs for the taking after tourists and locals were barred from the area.
South of the White House, members of the District of Columbia and South Carolina National Guard waited in their vehicles outside the headquarters of the US Customs and Border Protection agency.
About 500 South Carolina guardsmen arrived in Washington on Tuesday to assist with protests, but on Thursday afternoon several sat in a parked convoy as the downtown streets that were already abandoned from the coronavirus pandemic remained mostly empty. Some huddled together, while one appeared to take a midday nap in the cab of his vehicle.
One serviceman remarked that he’d been about to go on vacation, until he was called up to the nation’s capital.
“We were out last night, and it was very calm, just people wanting to be heard,” a staff sergeant from South Carolina told Insider. She didn’t know how long they’d remain in Washington.
Around the corner, a platoon of about 30 Washington metropolitan police officers guarded the Trump International Hotel from behind a ring of metal barricades. The building hosted no guests but remains a popular site for protesters.
Up the street, eight FBI agents strolled in a tight pack past the boarded-up fast-casual restaurants and shuttered office buildings that lined 12th Street, with their agency’s abbreviation beaming from bright yellow letters on their vests.
‘Part of me feels like it’s turning into a military state’
Though Thursday afternoon remained peaceful, some protesters outside the White House said the increased security made them uneasy.
“I’m really concerned that military has been brought in and the National Guard – I think that’s a really radical step,” said Lia Cheek, 32, who took the day off to protest. “Part of me feels like it’s turning into a military state.”
“It’s a sign of who our president is – he likes to control, he likes to bully, and he’s using our military and our people and our tax dollars to bully us and control us, and that’s not OK,” she added. “We need to keep protesting and using our voices.”
Nikki Goodwin, a 45-year-old bartender from Maryland, said she was protesting outside the White House on Tuesday “just ’cause he said not to,” referring to the president.
Goodwin said she took issue with Trump’s command that governors and law-enforcement officials “dominate” protesters. She said she went to her first demonstration on Tuesday after seeing images the day before of police officers firing rubber bullets and chemical irritants at protesters.
“If he hadn’t been talking reckless, I probably would have stayed home,” Goodwin said. She added that she wanted to see more transparency from police departments about officers’ backgrounds, as well as policy changes to stop officers with previous records of complaints or abuse from transferring between departments.
Not everyone was concerned about the increased security. Rahsann Soumas, a Washington resident in his 40s, pointed to the fence around Lafayette Square and told Business Insider, “The guys on the other side of that fence aren’t bad. They’re doing their job.”
“You see the National Guard often in times of civil unrest, crisis, everything from a natural disaster to protests,” he said. “The average person in the Guard is just doing their job – they’re not here to bust heads.”
But, Soumas added, “I think it could be misused.”
Trump criticised for emulating dictators and authoritarians
Indeed, the president has been harshly criticised in recent days for acting in ways that experts say emulate the behaviour of dictators and authoritarians: cracking down on demonstrations, labelling opponents “thugs” and terrorists, and calling for the use of military force against protesters.
Then there’s the unidentified federal agents. Reporters started noticing them early this week. According to Defence One, some carried rifles and others had body armour, riot shields, and pepper spray.
Dan Friedman, a Mother Jones reporter, encountered some of the federal officers on Tuesday who replied that they were with “the Department of Justice” when asked to identify themselves.
NBC News’ Garrett Haake had a similar experience, writing that federal officers outside the White House refused to identify themselves and that all insignias and name plates had been removed.
Two security personnel identified themselves to Defence One on Tuesday as being part of the Special Operations Response Team, an emergency unit from the Bureau of Prisons that’s tasked with maintaining order at correctional facilities.
NPR reported on Monday that Attorney General William Barr had ordered the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Department of Justice, to send its riot-response teams to help local law-enforcement officials in Washington.
‘Incredibly unusual’ for BOP officials to be deployed to Washington
Numerous Democratic lawmakers are levelling harsh criticism at Trump for ordering what they characterise as a disproportionate use of force by law-enforcement officials against protesters exercising their right to peacefully assemble.
“It is alarming that here in our nation’s capital, the thousands who have turned out peacefully have been confronted with the deployment of various security officers from multiple jurisdictions, including unidentified federal law enforcement personnel,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to the president on Thursday.
“We are concerned about the increased militarization and lack of clarity that may increase chaos,” the California Democrat added. Pelosi requested a “full list of the agencies involved and clarifications of the roles and responsibilities of the troops and federal law enforcement resources operating in the city.”
“Congress and the American people need to know who is in charge, what is the chain of command, what is the mission, and by what authority is the National Guard from other states operating in the capital,” the letter said.
Asked about the unidentified officers on Washington’s streets, the city’s police chief, Peter Newsham, said local police officers were required by law to identify themselves. Their helmets even have numbers on them so they can be tracked.
Newsham said he would ask that any federal officials who come to the Washington area moving forward be “clearly identifiable as to who they are” so that people feel more comfortable.
Law-enforcement veterans also expressed concern on the matter.
“It would be incredibly unusual for BOP officers to be deployed in this manner,” said John Sandweg, the Obama-era acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who also served as the general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security.
“While I understand that the federal government needs to pull from as many resources as possible, and while some BOP officers have training in handling protest and unrest inside federal prisons, those situations are dramatically different from protests on city streets,” Sandweg added.
Matt Chandler, a deputy chief of staff at DHS during the Obama administration who is now a managing director at the Democratic consulting agency Bully Pulpit Interactive, echoed that view. The officers’ refusal to identify themselves is “only exacerbating tensions” and sends “a chilling message of unaccountability in a time where law enforcement should be seeking ways to deescalate and listen,” he told Business Insider.
While some federal investigators may have to conceal their identity in the course of their enforcement duties, “it’s implausible to think there is any operational reason why a law enforcement official in a patrol or crowd-control capacity would be unwilling or unable to identify themselves,” Chandler said.
And whether BOP officials were ordered to conceal their identities, he added, “It would be deeply troubling and beg the question: Why?”
The DOJ can mobilize officers across the federal government so they have ‘authority in all 50 states’
The Bureau of Prisons’ director, Michael Carvajal, addressed the controversy during a press briefing Thursday, telling reporters he was not aware of “any specific Bureau of Prisons personnel being told not to identify themselves.”
“What I attribute that to is probably the fact that we normally operate within the confines of our institution and we don’t need to identify ourselves,” Carvajal said. “Most of our identification is institution-specific and probably wouldn’t mean a whole lot to people in DC.”
That said, he conceded that he “probably should have done a better job of marking them nationally as the agency.” He continued: “Point is well taken, but I assure you that no one was specifically told, to my knowledge, not to identify themselves.”
Bill Pickle, who served for more than two decades in the Secret Service, also told Business Insider he wasn’t surprised to see BOP officials in unmarked attire in the region.
As the chief law-enforcement agency, the Department of Justice consists of multiple smaller arms like the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and others. Each agency’s individual authority is spelled out under Title 18 of the US code.
But “what happens when you get a situation like this where there’s a lack of manpower, what you’d do is bring in officers from other agencies, like the BOP, and place them under DOJ supervision,” Pickle said. “And all you do is deputize them as deputy US marshals, so they then have authority in all 50 states. That’s how the government gets around this. So that’s what you probably saw with the Bureau of Prisons guys and others, they were probably all deputized.”
In this case, Barr most likely decided to bring in BOP officials for expediency and because they’re familiar with crowd control, Pickle said. And as far as the officials not wearing clearly marked uniforms, he added, “it’s probably not so much that they removed their insignias, it’s just that they didn’t wear their prison uniforms here.”
“My sense is there are lots of different federal law enforcement agents and officers who were brought in here,” Pickle said. “In situations like these where you see cops, they’re usually wearing all black or all green. They don’t really wear name tags or patches on their shoulders. It’s more of a functional uniform. So I don’t know if there’s a lot to this.”
But even Pickle said that he found it odd that the security personnel didn’t clearly identify themselves when asked.
“When someone asks you who you are, you tell them, ‘Yes, I’m with the Department of Justice,’ or, ‘I’m with the Bureau of Prisons,'” he said. “That’s all you have to say. I don’t know the circumstances under which someone would say, ‘Maybe,’ when asked if they’re with DOJ or decline to identify themselves.”