On Monday, President Trump left the White House, walked across Lafayette Park—where rioters burned a public restroom the night before—and posed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a Bible. This photo op was made possible by U.S. Park Police, who cleared overwhelmingly peaceful protesters from the area using aggressive crowd control tactics.
People are now debating whether those tactics included the use of tear gas, which swiftly became central to the mainstream media coverage of the incident, and a focal point of criticism from former Vice President Joe Biden. Multiple on-the-ground reporters said they suffered the effects of tear-gassing—burning in the throat and eyes—but Park Police have emphatically denied this, claiming that officers fired canisters of smoke rather than tear gas. It’s hard to know for sure what happened, but it seems plausible that the protesters directly in front of Lafayette Park were, in fact, hit with smoke.
Whether the Park Police used tear gas or smoke matters because the truth always matters. If media reporting on that detail was wrong, they should correct their reporting. But whatever kind of canister was fired into the peaceful crowd, the most important point is that the entire episode was completely unacceptable. Law enforcement officers who harass peaceably assembled citizens are violating the First Amendment, whether or not they use tear gas.
Park Police have claimed they didn’t know of Trump’s plans to walk to the church, and that they began clearing the area prior to the curfew going into effect because protesters were throwing water bottles at them. Reports on the ground suggest some throwing of objects, but also tons of protesters instructing the throwers to stop it immediately. Multiple things could be true here, of course: The police might not have known precisely why they were instructed to push the protesters back, but if Trump had his heart set on walking to St. John’s, the cops were going to have to move the protesters to accommodate him. That the scene on ground was more complicated than it may have appeared is not an excuse for voiding the right to protest.
The same is true of Washington, D.C.’s curfew, which was slated to begin at 7:00 p.m. Vox described the authorities’ decision to drive people away from Lafayette Park half an hour early as “the most chilling aspect of Trump’s Monday night crackdown on law-abiding protesters.” This is nonsense: It was morally wrong to disperse protesters at 6:30 p.m., and it would have been wrong to disperse them at 7:05 p.m.—curfew or not. Public officials at every level of government are making arbitrary decisions about whether such-and-such activity should stop being practiced in such-and-such manner and at such-and-such time. These excuses for violating civil liberties are just not compelling.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) was exactly right in observing this morning that “there is a fundamental—a Constitutional—right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
By all means, let’s pursue the truth of exactly what happened outside Lafayette Park. But let’s not get lost in the weeds along the way. The government’s rough handling of protesters—not rioters and looters, but citizens engaged in constitutionally protected demonstrations against police violence—is unlawful. It’s immoral. And it’s making things worse.