US Attorney General William Barr defended the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Park in Washington DC through the use of “pepper balls” and denied that the use of force had anything to do with President Donald Trump‘s photo-op with a Bible outside St John’s Church that day.
Speaking with CBS News on Sunday, Mr Barr also said that he did not believe that systemic racism is an issue in police forces.
The Trump administration has been heavily criticised for its response to protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, in particular the aggressive tactics of law enforcement outside the White House last Monday to clear Lafayette Park.
Mr Barr said that he had no idea the president planned to visit St John’s Church last Monday.
“I gave the green light at two o’clock. Obviously, I didn’t know that the president was going to be speaking later that day,” Mr Barr said.
He said the order was given as a way to push the perimeter for the protest further back from the White House.
He claimed that the protesters at Lafayette Park weren’t peaceful. “They were not peaceful protesters. And that’s one of the big lies that the- the media is- seems to be perpetuating at this point,” Mr Barr said.
When journalist Margaret Brennan pushed back on Mr Barr’s claim – stating that three CBS News reporters were on scene and that protesters weren’t acting out – the attorney general rejected the notion.
He then said that the park was cleared following “violent protests” on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where “officers were pummelled with bricks” and also said that on Monday he had witnessed “projectiles” thrown.
According to the attorney general, police issued the protesters in Lafayette Park with three warnings before firing on them with “pepper balls” in an effort to move the perimeter back. He denied the use of chemical irritants.
“No, there were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It’s not chemical,” Mr Barr said.
He went on to claim the media was misrepresenting the events and that 150 law enforcement officers were injured and hospitalised with concussions in the days prior to the confrontation at Lafayette Park.
A reporter from WUSA9 who was at the park during the aggressive effort collected spent cannisters from the site and had an explosives disposal expert analyse the shells.
The expert concluded that stinger ball grenades – which fire small rubber balls when detonated and can include pepper spray or tear gas – were among the casings recovered.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that the use of pepper spray and tear gas – which often causes people to cough – can help spur the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in large crowds.
In addition to defending the attacks, Mr Barr also claimed that systemic racism is not an issue in US law enforcement agencies.
“I think there’s racism in the United States still but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist. I understand the- the distrust, however, of the African-American community given the history in this country,” Mr Barr said.
He said that US institutions have been explicitly racist for most of the country’s history, and that the US has been in a period of reform since the 1960s which he believes has been working.
“I think the reform is a difficult task, but I think it is working and progress has been made. I think one of the best examples is the military. The military used to be explicitly racist institution,” Mr Barr said. “And now I think it’s in the vanguard of bringing the races together and providing equal opportunity. I think law enforcement has been going through the same process.”
He disagreed with calls for eliminating qualified immunity protections that shield police when they’re accused of crimes, and suggested that the “overwhelming majority of police are good people.”
Mr Barr did agree that there were “instances” of bad cops but said it shouldn’t make people assume that entire organisations are bad.
He advocated for cases of police misconduct to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. However, the well-documented “blue wall of silence” – police covering up the misconduct of their colleagues – often prevents effective investigation of criminal activity by the police.