Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal demanded Attorney General William Barr answer why the administration deployed federal officers to target Black Lives Matter protests but failed to respond to right-wing threats at demonstrations over state-level quarantine measures during the coronavirus pandemic.
During a heated exchange at the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, she accused the attorney general of a uneven, politically motivated response motivated by Donald Trump, who called on his supporters to “liberate” states from Democratic governors at the height of the public health crisis.
“When white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the president to ‘activate’ you, because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done,” she said. “But when black people and people of colour protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers and pepper bombs because they are considered terrorists by the president.”
Ms Jayapal’s district encompasses Seattle, where federal agents have been deployed alongside local law enforcement to combat demonstrations that, like similar protest in Portland, the administration has cast as violent riots requiring federal force. The attorney general defended their deployment to protect federal properties.
Right-wing protests organised by “Operation Gridlock” against Michigan targeting governor Gretchen Whitmer‘s shelter-in-place measure attracted militia members and armed demonstrators, though investigations revealed that the makeup of the protesters was motivated by both genuine anger among conservatives as well as coordinated “astroturf” campaigns.
The president urged his supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” to undermine preventative stay-at-home mandates as his administration faced intense scrutiny over the Covid-19 response.
Attorney General Barr said he was “not aware” of calls for Governor Whitmer to be “lynched, shot and beheaded”.
“There are a lot of protests around the United States,” he said.
The attorney general said the lockdown protests fell out of his jurisdiction because they didn’t encroach on federal properties, though protests in Michigan were near the Chamberlain Federal Building.
“With certain protests, you’re very aware of those,” Ms Jayapal responded. “But in Michigan, when protesters carried guns and Confederate flags and swastikas called for the governor to be beheaded and hot and lynched, somehow you’re not aware of that … You didn’t send federal agents in to do to the president’s supporters what you did to the president’s protesters.”
Attorney General Barr endured several hours of punishing criticism from Democrats on the committee, as he refused to recognise that most of the thousands of people protesting in Portland are not the violent disruptors that the administration and Republican allies have portrayed them to be, and insisted that the federal courthouse that is the scene of nightly demonstrations would be engulfed in flames without federal support.
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California said that ”most of the protesters are nonviolent” and that the presence of the federal troops has precipitated more violence.
“The reaction has actually been in reverse proportion,” Ms Lofgren said. “People are showing up because the troops are there.”
A “surge” in federal support across a swath of law enforcement agencies has sent officers into several American cities where protests have persisted for more than two months following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which galvanised an international protest movement to condemn police brutality and call for significant reforms.
Federal officers have been accused of indiscriminate arrests on Portland streets and firing tear gas and pepper spray as well as other “less-lethal” projectiles at point-blank range.
In his opening statement, committee chairman Jerry Nadler said that the attorney general’s Justice Department has “endangered Americans and violated their constitutional rights by flooding federal law enforcement into the streets of American cities, against the wishes of the state and local leaders of those cities, to forcefully and unconstitutionally suppress dissent”.