From an FBI command center in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood, Attorney General William P. Barr has orchestrated a stunning show of force on the streets of the nation’s capital — a battalion of federal agents, troops and police designed to restore order, but one that critics say carries grim parallels to heavy-handed foreign regimes.
Barr was tapped by President Trump to direct the national response to protests and riots over police misconduct since the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The attorney general has focused much of his attention on the District, where unrest and arrests swelled over the weekend before a jarring clash Monday to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House — an order Barr issued personally. By Tuesday night, as he sat in the FBI command center until nearly midnight, the city’s mood seemed to have calmed.
Barr personally ordered removal of protesters near White House, leading to use of force against largely peaceful crowd
One Justice Department official said Barr’s strategy is to “flood the zone” by putting “the maximum amount of law enforcement out on the street. . . . The peacefulness is in large part due to the large law enforcement presence.” Like others, this official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
While large protests Tuesday night included thousands of people breaking the city’s curfew, Barr and his advisers reason that as long as such activities are peaceful, they are not going to be challenged by federal enforcers.
Still, while Barr may be restoring order, his outsize role in the administration has made many uncomfortable. Monday’s episode outside the White House has proven especially galling for some, including Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, who on Wednesday issued a pointed rebuke.
“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,” the retired general wrote. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
The display of federal might — in the District and other restive cities where protests have turned destructive — includes military vehicles at many intersections, helicopter flyovers, federal law enforcement agents assigned to patrol and investigate possible crimes, street closures and checkpoints. Troubling to some has been the presence of personnel, some heavily armed, clad in tactical attire bearing no identifiable insignia. The Justice Department itself has in the past criticized such a lack of transparency, saying it foments mistrust.
On the night he took charge of the effort, Barr walked the streets to see for himself how personnel were deployed.
Some law enforcement experts contend the dramatic scenes are counterproductive in the long run, affirming the very criticism leveled by protesters — that police and government officials treat citizens unjustly.
“The heavy hand is a smack in the face, and the danger is that it may make things worse,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York with expertise in police response to protests. “It really does communicate something about where those who are in charge think our society sits right now. We’re in the process of demonstrating to the people who are out in the streets that they are right to be there.” [Continue reading…]