Attorney General William Barr defended the shocking use of force on peaceful protesters outside the White House Monday, saying at a news conference on Thursday that difficulties with relocating authorities earlier in the day had forced the clash.
Flanked by federal law enforcement leaders at the Justice Department in his first public remarks since the extraordinary episode, Barr maintained that his decision to disperse the crowd followed signs that the crowd was “becoming increasingly unruly” and had nothing to do with a photo-op staged by President Donald Trump at a nearby church that took place minutes later.
“There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the President’s going over to the church,” Barr said.
The explanation came after criticism had mounted over the situation, with lawmakers and public figures, including the President’s first defense chief, Jim Mattis, decrying the violent spectacle.
Barr said that officials had decided on Monday morning that they would expand a protective barrier around the White House north by one block to create “more of a buffer,” after instances of “very serious rioting” over the weekend.
At 2 p.m. that day, Barr said, he met with officials to set a tactical plan to move the perimeter.
“It was our hope to be able to do that relatively quickly before many demonstrators appeared that day. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty in getting appropriate forces – units – into place, by the time they were able to move a perimeter up to us there had been a large number of protesters had assembled,” Barr said.
Floyd’s death ‘exposes concerns’ in justice system
Barr also said Thursday that George Floyd’s death had “driven home” a longstanding breakdown in the criminal justice system, acknowledging in his starkest remarks on the topic yet that many African Americans face unfair scrutiny by police.
“George Floyd’s death was not the first of its kind and it exposes concerns that reach far beyond this particular case. While the vast majority of police officers do their job bravely and righteously, it is undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in our American criminal justice system. This must change,” Barr said.
Barr said he had been talking with law enforcement leaders across the country in recent days and vowed to “find constructive solutions” in the weeks and months ahead “so that Mr. Floyd’s death will not be in vain.”
“Our Constitution mandates equal protection of the laws and nothing less is acceptable,” Barr said. “We will work hard to bring good out of bad.”
A federal civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death is “moving quickly,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the news conference.
Singles out Antifa
Barr again singled out Antifa on Thursday and said extremist groups are “hijacking” mainly peaceful protests “to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”
The Justice Department has claimed since protests first turned violent late last week that extremist groups were behind the mayhem, and Barr has largely sided with Trump to lay the blame squarely on far-left groups, like Antifa. The first set of federal charges out of the nationwide protests to include extremist ties, however, were levied on Wednesday against three Nevada men allegedly connected to the anti-government and far-right Boogaloo movement.
Throughout the hour-long news conference Thursday, Barr mentioned Antifa several times, but only mentioned one other extremist movement by name – the Boogaloos – after being prompted by a reporter referencing the federal charges related to the group.
Barr said the Justice Department had evidence that “Antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity.”
He added that there are cases being built by prosecutors against extremists, including some from Antifa.
Asked why he did not point out other extremist groups also involved in the violent activity, Barr denied that he was giving outsized attention to Antifa, saying, “I do think it’s important to point out the witch’s brew that we have of extremist individuals and groups that are involved and that’s why in my prepared statement I specifically said in addition to Antifa and other extremist groups like Antifa, there are a variety of groups and people of a variety of ideological persuasions, so I did make that point.”