NPR Sues FBI over Lafayette Square Protest Documents
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NPR Lawsuit Accuses FBI of Withholding Information About Whether Lafayette Square Protesters Were Teargassed After George Floyd’s Death

 
Law enforcement authorities gathered at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images.)

Law enforcement authorities gathered at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images.)

National Public Radio (NPR) filed a federal lawsuit in California Wednesday against the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Army National Guard, and the U.S. Park Police for allegedly wrongfully withholding information about police behavior during protests following George Floyd’s death.

The seven-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland demands that the government turn over records related to protests in Washington D.C. in late May 2020. Over two nights, demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square, a park that sits directly across from the White House. Fires blazed near St. John’s Church as crowds became increasingly unruly.

Reporters on the scene said law enforcement used tear gas to subdue protesters — a claim that was later corroborated by an attorney for Washington D.C.’s local police. By contrast, a spokesperson for the Park Police, said officers had not used tear gas.

On June 1, then-President Donald Trump posed for a widely-criticized photo standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a Bible aloft.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. Trump was due to make a televised address to the nation after days of anti-racism protests against police brutality that erupted into violence.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John’s Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. Trump was due to make a televised address to the nation after days of anti-racism protests against police brutality that erupted into violence. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images.)

NPR’s complaint, filed jointly with NPR journalist Eric Westervelt, seeks to compel the federal government to sort out just what happened during and after these protests.

The complaint asserts that to facilitate Trump’s photo-op, “a large crowd of protesters in Lafayette Square (which abuts St. John’s Church) were forcibly removed from the area.” The complaint further alleges that these groups of peaceful protesters were cleared from the park without first being warned to disperse. NPR says that various law enforcement groups used riot shields, batons, pepper spray, and tear gas on the crowds.

The complaint details some significant discrepancies among the accounts of the clearing of the area. According to NPR’s claim, the U.S. Park Police said the area was cleared to allow a contractor to install anti-scale fencing after protests had destroyed property on May 30 and 31. That fencing, says the complaint, did not arrive until hours after the park was cleared. However, the complaint alleges that former attorney general William Barr was seen in the park late in the afternoon of June 1, and he expressed surprise that the protesters were still present.

Two years later, the plaintiffs are seeking to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ascertain when, how, and why the area around the park was cleared. They say that the government is withholding records about what the FBI, the National Guard and the U.S. Park Police did during the Lafayette Square protests in 2020.

Westervelt made his first FOIA request for information in June 2021. The FBI denied the request, the U.S. Park Service sent an incomplete response, and the National Guard ignored it altogether, the lawsuit says.

“Through its FOIA requests, plaintiffs seek to fulfill their journalistic function and to shine a public light on information about the clearing of Lafayette Square,” the complaint asserts.

The parties did not immediately respond to request for comment.

A copy of the lawsuit is below:

 

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos