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Lafayette Park near White House: A soapbox for social unrest

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration's use of smoke bombs and pepper balls to rout civil rights demonstrators from Lafayette Park near the White House has emboldened protesters and added a new chapter to the site's storied history as soapbox for social and political unrest.

“Gas us. Shoot us. Beat us. We're still here,” said a sign hung on the tall black fence erected to wall off the park after law enforcement officers clashed with demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.

Lia Poteet, a 28-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., who was injured during the demonstration, has already returned to the area to demonstrate again.

“I’m still going back to Lafayette Square because it is the epicenter of our democracy,” Poteet said.

She said an officer knocked her down with his riot shield, kicked her in the stomach and hit her with his baton, causing bruising on her torso and personal areas. As she and the other protesters were coughing from the smoke, two flash bangs exploded at her feet, she said.

The park, just steps from Trump's front yard, was where an enslaved woman named Alethia Browning Tanner used $1,400 she earned from selling vegetables in the park to buy her freedom in 1810. Back then, the 7-acre plot was called the President’s Park. In 1824, it was landscaped and named for Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who was friends with George Washington and fought in the Revolutionary War.

Civil War soldiers camped there and hung their laundry to dry on the park's statue of Andrew Jackson. Women protested for the right to vote in the 1910s. In the 1940s, women in dresses and hats peacefully protested against lynchings. “Lynching in America is a disgrace. Must it Continue?” said one sign.

In past decades, the park has been the stage for protesters decrying wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Demonstrators have rallied for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, and fought for gay and lesbian rights.

On any given day individuals or small groups set up shop in Lafayette Park to protest anything from Russian interference in the presidential election to visiting foreign leaders to China’s persecution of the Falun Gong religious movement.

In 1981, William Thomas began an anti-nuclear vigil on the park sidewalk, believed to be the longest continuous anti-war protest in U.S. history. When he died in 2009, other protesters manned the tiny tent and banner that said: “Live by the bomb, die by the bomb.”

Civil rights is again the topic of the day, but skirmishes between police and protesters over the issue haven't been common.

“I do not know of any clashes in Lafayette Park during civil rights protests,” said Peter Levy, history professor at York College of Pennsylvania and author of “The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America During the 1960s.”

In 1968, police clashed with protesters at a march for economic justice for the poor, held after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., but that was closer to the Lincoln Memorial, he said. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators clashed with troops outside the Pentagon in 1967, 1969 and 1970. Police action didn’t deter demonstrators from returning, and Levy said he doesn’t think it will keep protesters away from Lafayette Park either.

“In fact, the opposite might take place, with President Trump’s clearing of the park making it somewhat sacred ground for protesters in the future, who will see it as a new symbol of dissent,” Levy said.

Law enforcement officials say dozens of officers were injured during protests in the park on Monday, June 1, and the previous weekend. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of protesters and the Black Lives Matter organization in Washington against Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and other law enforcement officials. The suit calls the action to shut down the Lafayette Square demonstration a “manifestation of the very despotism against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.”

Park protesters have gotten different receptions from previous occupants of the Oval Office.

White House butler John H. Johnson served up hot coffee, not smoke bombs, to protesters in the park in February 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy, according to the White House Historical Association.

During the Gulf War, anti-war demonstrators gathered in the park and protesters beat drums and buckets well into the night, reportedly keeping President George H.W. Bush awake. Police tried to outlaw the drums by deeming them “structures,” which are banned in the park.

“By keeping their toes under the buckets, the drummers persuaded police their instruments could not be so classified,” according to a story in the American Bar Association Journal in April 1991. “Police then arrived with decibel meters to enforce noise limits.”

Garrett Bond of Mount Rainier, Maryland, said he had no inkling that the police would turn on protesters at the recent demonstration. As he fled, Bond, 26, saw a man leaning against a pillar in the front of St. John's Church. He was bleeding from the face with what Bond believed was a rubber bullet lodged in his chin.

“It got him right under his bottom lip,” Bond said, describing the police action as“unprovoked” and “unnecessary.” As he tried to help the injured man, Bond said, he saw a law enforcement officer in full riot gear jumping over hedges and sprinting toward them. Bond and others led the man away to seek medical attention.

On Wednesday, Lakeisha Dames, who also lives in nearby Maryland, brought her 7-year-old daughter to see the posters and artwork posted on fences that had prevented people from exercising their First Amendment rights at the doorstep of the White House. The park was reopened to the public Thursday, and National Park Service crews were power-washing graffiti off buildings and statues and using blow torches and paint to touch up bronze busts.

“I had to come down because I wanted my daughter to see history in the making,” Dames said, adding that she hoped the posters posted on the fences would someday be displayed at a national museum. “Definitely needs to be commemorated and memorialized there.”

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Associated Press writer Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.