WASHINGTON — President Trump threatened protesters who topple statues with arrest and lengthy prison sentences after a night of protests in front of the White House, in which some demonstrators attempted to tear down a statue of President Andrew Jackson.
“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent.....” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.
The statue of Andrew Jackson stands in Lafayette Square, which is located directly across from the White House complex.
According to federal law, damage to federal property that exceeds $100 could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000, though it would be rare for a judge to impose the full term. Cases involving graffiti are usually prosecuted as misdemeanors, and many of the statues being targeted by protesters in recent weeks belong to the states and would not be covered under the federal statute.
The area around Lafayette Square has been a focal point of the protests in Washington, D.C., following the death of George Floyd on May 25. Protesters there have clashed with law enforcement from a slew of federal and local agencies, which on June 1 cleared the crowds with aggressive methods including tear gas to allow Trump to have a photo op in front of St. John’s Church.
In the weeks since the initial demonstrations spread around the country, protesters have increasingly focused on removing monuments of figures in American history associated with racism.
Protesters who clashed with officers from the U.S. Park Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department on Monday night told Yahoo News that law enforcement used pepper spray and batons when they tried to clear tents erected in the middle of H Street near 16th Street, at the edge of Lafayette Square.
The Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For the past few weeks, traffic through the area has been disrupted, and protesters have been allowed to congregate on H Street and some surrounding blocks by Lafayette Square. On June 5, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser even renamed a two-block stretch that included space near Lafayette Square as Black Lives Matter Plaza.
On Monday evening, protesters attempted to topple the statue of Jackson, a president with a record of owning slaves and oppressing Native Americans who has nevertheless been celebrated by Trump. Graffiti sprayed by some of the protesters labeled the area “BHAZ,” or “Black House Autonomous Zone,” in a clear echo of demonstrators in Seattle.
Amid the Monday evening protests, the Secret Service in an unusual move told reporters to leave the White House complex. A spokesperson for the Secret Service said that “four members of the media were misdirected” during the demonstrations.
“The members of the press were rerouted to exits on the south side of the complex for their own safety,” the spokesperson said.
Typically, the press corps is locked inside the facility during security incidents.
Demonstrators who spoke to Yahoo News on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning said they were focused on preventing police from removing them from the streets on the edge of Lafayette Square. They spent hours facing off with Park Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police who were clad in riot gear.
“We ain’t about to let them take back this street,” said a woman wearing a gas mask who said her name was Zeus X. “This is our headquarters for protesting.”
As they attempted to hold their ground, the protesters used equipment many had brought, apparently prepared for skirmishes with the police, including helmets, goggles, gas masks, respirators and large wooden shields that were being distributed through the crowds. As demonstrators chanted and shouted at the lines of police officers, one young Black woman with closely cropped hair used a megaphone to criticize them for protecting Jackson’s statue.
“You weren’t even protecting us,” the woman said. “You’re protecting metal marble s*** that don’t matter.”
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