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'Scared, Confused And Angry': Protester Testifies About Lafayette Park Removal

Law enforcement gathered to remove demonstrators from the area around Lafayette Park and the White House ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church on June 1.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Law enforcement gathered to remove demonstrators from the area around Lafayette Park and the White House ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church on June 1.

Updated at 4:07 p.m. ET

Members of Congress held a hearing Monday to examine the forced removal of peaceful protesters by U.S. Park Police near the White House in early June.

The incident took place following a speech President Trump gave where he threatened to deploy the military to cities that weren't suppressing violence during protests. Police — which also included other elements of federal law enforcement, the Washington, D.C., National Guard and the Arlington County Police — then cleared a crowd of demonstrators protesting white supremacy and police brutality in order for Trump to have a clear path to walk across Lafayette Square to pose for a photo-op holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church.

"Peaceful protesters, church and press all fell victim to this administration's violent and senseless operation," Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Raúl M. Grijalva said in his opening statement. "Remarkably, these victims also embody our three main freedoms protected by the First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press."

Kishon McDonald, a 39-year-old Washington resident and Navy veteran who was present at the protest, testified before the committee.

"They got very close to us in a threatening kind of way," McDonald said of the Park Police. "They gave no instructions and [it was just] a show of force. We stood our ground. We told them we were peaceful we wanted no trouble. We were met with silence. At no time did I hear any instructions to move, and if we did hear instructions, I would have moved."

McDonald recounted the panic that took over the demonstrators as police began to advance and deploy the use of tear gas and batons.

"We [were] in front of the most powerful governing house in the world. Its citizens who are being attacked by their own government, were just asking and protesting for change. I was scared, confused and angry," he said.

"I served this country, so that everyone could enjoy the freedoms granted to us under this constitution. If anyone had the right to be there, it was me," McDonald said.

Also testifying were Amelia Brace, an Australian journalist who reported on the scene, Right Rev. Mariann Budde Bishop, who oversees St. John's, and George Washington Law School professor Jonathan Turley.

Brace told members that she and her cameraman, Tim Myers, were hit with projectiles and chemical irritants as the police began to surge, despite shouting "media" to identify themselves.

"We were clearly a news crew. Most notably, Tim was holding a large television camera," Brace said. "As I began reporting live, the line of police suddenly and without warning began charging forward at a sprinting pace, knocking protesters to the ground. A Park Police officer who was passing us stopped, turned towards Tim and rammed him in the chest and stomach with the edge of his riot shield, causing Tim to keel over and drop down."

Brace said she expected to be able to cover the protest without fear of police assault.

"As Australian journalists, we are the eyes and ears of our people. In this case, witnessing civil unrest in the capital of our most powerful and closest ally. It is crucial to democracy that journalists be allowed to do their job freely and safely. And that is certainly something we should expect in the world's greatest democracy."

Bishop Budde has been vocal about what she calls the responsibility of the church to fight against injustice. She testified that she was "outraged" by the president's photo-op at St. John's.

"I felt it was a misuse of both the space and the bible for [Trump] to claim in that moment, having just said what was just said in the Rose Garden and witness what we witnessed in the park, I felt as if he was putting on a mantle of spiritual authority to justify those actions," she said.

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, who testified against Trump's impeachment in the House, suggested that while the government had the right to clear the Lafayette Park, further investigation is needed to determine whether the means used to disperse protesters was lawful.

"If Attorney General Barr cleared that area for the purpose of a photo-op...I would immediately call for him to step down," Turley said. "If this was done to intimidate people, this would be a serious problem."

Republicans criticized Democrats for holding the hearing without a representative from the Park Police, who couldn't join due to the fact that they'd be testifying alongside McDonald, who is in active litigation against them. McDonald joined a lawsuit with other demonstrators against the Trump administration for allegedly violating their constitutional rights.

Ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, referred to the hearing as "political theater."

"The Democrats here have now produced something that's not going to be substantive, that is not going to be historical, that is really a distraction," Bishop said.

Trump's presumptive opponent in the general election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has condemned Trump's response to the protests, saying, "When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people's house, the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades — in order to stage a photo-op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.