Officials Back Off on Removing Temporary White House Fence

Fencing around Lafayette Square near the White House has become a collage of protest signs and memorials to George Floyd. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

(Editor’s note. Courthouse News reported at 1 p.m. E.S.T. Tuesday that the National Park Service said it would remove the new fence around the White House by Wednesday. It retracted that statement later Tuesday. The original Courthouse News story is posted underneath this Wednesday update, in its entirety, including the original headline.)


(AP) — The Trump administration appears to be retreating from its commitment to quickly remove most of a new fence blocking demonstrators and other members of the public from in front of the White House.

National Park Service spokeswoman Katie Liming said that her agency is in “continuing discussions” with the Secret Service about what Liming called the temporary security fencing at the front of the White House.

Officials abruptly erected the high, black metal fence last week to block demonstrators from Lafayette Square outside the White House. That was as massive crowds rallied in Washington and around the country to protest the killing of George Floyd in police custody, and other deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.

Members of the park service’s U.S. Park Police and other security forces lobbed chemical weapons and punched and clubbed demonstrators and journalists in clearing Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, just before crews raised the new fence. Trump then staged a 3-minute photo-op holding a Bible in front of a church.

Lafayette Square has historically been one of the country’s most prominent spots for demonstrations and other public advocacy,

Liming had said at the start of this week that officials would remove “most” of the fence at Lafayette Square on Wednesday. In her latest update, however, she said only that fencing elsewhere, on the south side of the White House, would be removed “on or about” Wednesday.

She did not respond to a question about why the Park Service appeared to be moving away from its commitment to take down most of the Lafayette Square fence by Wednesday.

Separately, three Democratic lawmakers asked federal watchdogs to investigate whether the Park Police broke any laws in routing demonstrators from the square.

The request was made in a letter, released Tuesday, to Interior Department Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt, whose department oversees the National Park Service. Officials were in the early stages of reviewing the request, IG spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo said.

The request for an investigation was made by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and Committee Vice Chair Rep. Debra Haaland of New Mexico.

“The First Amendment rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, and free press are the building blocks of all other rights,” the three lawmakers said. “Any actions by the Park Police to muzzle these rights is an affront to all Americans and should be swiftly addressed.”

A force of several hundred officers, the Park Police are charged with law enforcement at Lafayette Square, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and a small number of other heavily visited federal sites.

Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson called the lawmaker’s accusations “an insult to the fine men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our citizens and defend America’s national treasures.”

“The suggestion that the United States Park Police would ‘muzzle’ Americans’ rights is outrageous,” Swanson said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Grijalva in a letter last week that the Park Police had been in a “state of siege” from violent attacks in the square.

Democratic lawmakers say witness and journalist accounts and photos and videos made public do not support allegations of that scale of protester violence.

The three lawmakers’ letter, sent Monday, asks Interior’s internal watchdog whether the force used by Park Police was lawful and in line with rules, policies and training standards for the force.

They also asked the investigators to determine who was giving orders to the Interior Department in the clearing the square.

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER


(Here is the early afternoon Tuesday story by Courthouse News.)


Park Service to Take Down Fencing Near White House

By JACK RODGERS

WASHINGTON (CN) — Steel fencing around Lafayette Square installed by the National Park Service amid anti-racism protests is expected to be mostly removed by Wednesday. 

Now a canvass of protest signs, art and memorials to George Floyd – a 46-year-old black man who died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on Memorial Day – the barrier was first erected June 1, after President Donald Trump ordered peaceful protesters cleared from the square with chemical agents so he could visit a church for a photo op.

The U.S. Park Police said at the time that the fencing was a response to “the acts of destruction and violence over the course of the weekend in order to protect citizens and property.” Lafayette Square is a seven-acre park located just north of the White House.

According to reports Tuesday by news outlets including NBC and the Washington Post, the National Park Service said the fencing around Lafayette Square is temporary and parts of the park are expected to reopen Wednesday.

A demonstrator listens to calming music in front of fencing around Lafayette Square on Monday. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

Some fencing will remain so workers can fix damage and protect demonstrators from safety hazards. There is no timeline for when the remainder of the park will open.

Katie Liming, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, wrote in an email Tuesday, fencing on the White House’s South side, including fencing around the Ellipse – a large park in view of the Oval Office – “will be removed on or about June 10.”

“The Secret Service is in continuing discussions with the U.S. Park Police regarding the temporary security fencing in and around Lafayette [Square,]” she wrote.

Vela said Park Service “fundamentally rejects behaviors, beliefs, and judgements that erode the rights and freedom of all people,” and noted the agency has always facilitated the exercise of First Amendment freedoms. The National Mall, first created in 1791, is an example of these efforts taking place on national lands, he said.  

“Freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly are Constitutional rights,” Vela said. “However, the courts have recognized that activities associated with the exercise of these rights may be reasonably regulated to protect park resources.”

Additional fencing was constructed after protests in the nation’s capital continued, with barriers being placed in front of the Department of the Treasury building and the Ellipse.

A large Black Lives Matter sign is draped across fencing in front of Lafayette Square on Monday. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, sent a letter to Trump Monday calling for the Lafayette Square fencing to be removed.

Writing that the steel fencing has converted the public park to “what looks like a militarized zone,” the Democratic lawmakers noted the security perimeter of the White House was expanded dramatically in 1995 after the closure of sections of E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.  

That action has sufficiently protected the White House complex from a wide range of threats for a quarter of a century, they said.  

“Lafayette Square should be a symbol of freedom and openness, not a place behind which the leader of our Executive Branch cowers in fear of protesters who are crying out for justice,” the letter states. “It is simply not credible to claim that the current protests justify the oppressive walls you have erected in response.”

As protests against police brutality in Washington entered their 12th day Tuesday, House Democrats have unveiled legislative steps towards police reform that includes a federal ban on police chokeholds and a provision requiring state and local police departments to undergo racial bias training.

The legislation is also expected to require the use of dashcam and body cameras for officers, address qualified immunity standards and ban no-knock warrants.

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