Lawsuits filed by protesters who were forcefully removed from a park near the White House before a photo op for Donald Trump last June should be dismissed because the new administration is not likely to repeat such behavior, federal lawyers said on Friday.
Protests erupted nationwide following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis on 25 May last year. Federal officials warned of an aggressive response in the District of Columbia after fires, shattered windows, looting and injuries to police officers.
On 1 June, in Lafayette Square outside the White House, law enforcement officers forced protesters back, firing smoke bombs and pepper balls. After the park was cleared, Trump, flanked by officials, walked to a church and stood holding a Bible.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued on behalf of individuals and Black Lives Matter, arguing that Trump, former attorney general William Barr and others “unlawfully conspired to violate” protesters’ rights.
On Friday, US district court judge Dabney L Friedrich heard arguments on whether to dismiss the cases.
“These lawsuits seek to prevent a recurrence of the 1 June events in Lafayette Square,” said a Department of Justice attorney, Christopher Hair, adding: “The change in administration” to Democrat Joe Biden makes their claims moot.
An attorney for the protesters said they were doing nothing illegal and posed no threat. Some suffered injuries – burns, bruising and breathing problems – and psychological trauma that “lingers to this day”, attorney Randy Mastro said.
The protesters’ lawyers argued that it is important to get to the bottom of how the official response happened.
“Why did it happen?” Mastro asked. “Was it the curfew? The park was cleared before the curfew. Was it to stop violence? The attorney general himself has said there was no violence there that day.”
Mastro said the justification for the action has constantly shifted, but it was clear from Trump’s own tweets that “these protesters were targeted because of their viewpoint, their message, their speech”.
“Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination,” Trump wrote a day later. He also shared a letter that called the protesters “terrorists”.
“The conduct here was so flagrantly unlawful and so obviously unconstitutional that it requires a remedy,” Mastro said. “And we are here today, your honor, to do everything we can to see that nothing like this ever happens again in our country.”
Lawyers for the administration and the former officials said their clients had immunity because they were performing necessary functions to secure a space for the president. The judge asked why it would be unreasonable to clear the park for the president, noting that the large crowd would present a security risk.
“To me, it seems quite obvious that you need to clear the square that he needs to walk through before he reaches the church. Why is that not reasonable for the defendants to do?” she asked, though she said she understood concerns about the force that was used.