WASHINGTON – District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday defended police using force to quell unrest in the city the past several nights and blamed the more recent clashes on “outside agitators” who she said came “armed for battle” and “looking for police to confront.”
Officials said that more than two-thirds of the 29 people arrested since last week in connection with protests are not from D.C. and that some have ties to other areas experiencing unrest, including Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wis.
Bowser, a Democrat, said “we’re seeing a shift of those involved” in demonstrations “and a shift in the types of tactics used.”
The mayor drew distinctions between the tens of thousands of people who on Friday peacefully marched and spoke for racial justice in policing and those she holds responsible for the near nightly clashes that began Thursday.
Bowser told reporters that she is worried about “this country descending into a race war” and the “continued incitement of violence from leadership,” an apparent reference to President Donald Trump. While unrest in the District has involved relatively few people and minor incidents, some other cities are contending with mass protests that have turned deadly. A White teenager is charged with fatally shooting two people protesting police violence in Kenosha, Wis., and a White man linked to a right-wing group was killed over the weekend in Portland.
Bowser also responded to a tweet from Trump, who on Sunday urged her to “clean up D.C.,” or “the Federal Government will do it for you. Enough!!!”
Bowser responded by rebuking Trump’s federal prosecutor assigned to the District for what she said was a failure in recent months to pursue dozens of cases of people facing charges including rioting and assaulting officers. She said prosecutors are pursuing only a handful of cases involving protest-related arrests made since August.
The mayor said that police have identified more people they want to arrest on felonies related to the unrest but that prosecutors have declined or have yet to take action on most of those cases.
“We call on the federal government to assist us the best way that they can, by supporting our officers,” Bowser said at a news conference. “When we make an arrest for violent protests, we need those violent agitators prosecuted. . . . There hasn’t been a willingness from the U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute them.”
Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, also took a swipe at the president after the press event, saying, “You can tweet fast but can’t actually make your prosecutors prosecute fast.”
The U.S. attorney’s office, now headed by acting U.S. attorney Michael Sherwin, pushed back in a statement, saying it has “aggressively charged 121 criminal cases” related to protests between late May and August. The statement also noted five cases filed over the weekend that it was pursuing, including of people charged with assaulting police.
“Since the protests began, this Office has never turned down a single case for prosecution in which there was sufficient evidence to support probable cause,” the statement said.
Later Monday, Trump said Bowser “did a very poor job,” as he referenced an incident that occurred Thursday night when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was confronted by protesters as he left the White House following Trump’s Republican National Convention acceptance speech.
The sharp remarks between the president and the mayor come after several days of violent clashes between demonstrators and police in standoffs centered on Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, which also have extended to the U Street corridor and Adams Morgan.
Police said officers have been injured by bricks, fireworks and lasers pointed in their eyes. Police have responded with more than two dozen arrests and by using less-than-lethal munitions and chemical irritants to disperse crowds they say were causing riots and setting fire to newspaper boxes and trash cans.
Demonstrations, some violent, have been a fixture in the District and in many other cities since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May. New demonstrations in the District began on the final day of the Republican convention and after a police officer in Kenosha shot a Black man in the back.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, said he found the images of police using gas and tackling protesters “disturbing” but would withhold judgment on whether police acted appropriately until he sees after-action reports and body-camera footage.
“We also need to be thinking about what does a response look like and is it proportional,” said Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, with oversight of police.
The council passed emergency legislation in June to curb certain practices by police, including prohibiting the use of chemical irritants during First Amendment assemblies. Police say that once they declare a riot, the gathering ceases to be a lawful assembly and chemical irritants can be used.
Bowser’s support of police drew a sharp rebuke from Black Lives Matter DC, which said on Twitter on Monday that the mayor “gives the most pro-Police pro-repression of dissent speech of her life. Muriel Bowser has tried to crush DC’s BLM movement for years. She is asking Trump’s assistance in creating political prisoners.”
Early Monday, as police made arrests, Dominique Haralson, 31, questioned the level of force used. She described demonstrators as largely peaceful and said that police seemed to indiscriminately target anyone on Black Lives Matter Plaza.
She said the tactics police deployed are why demonstrators are protesting. “They create their own narrative. Everybody is a suspect,” she said. “During the day, Black Lives Matter Plaza is a photo op, and at night, it’s a war zone.”
But Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham said many people gathered at the plaza at night are far different from those demonstrating for justice and equal rights. They said they are trying to determine whether those people are part of an organized and funded group.
Newsham said a van stopped on the plaza has been identified through social media and law enforcement sources as being used in other violent demonstrations in Portland and Kenosha. The operator was arrested, Newsham said, and charged with reckless driving. He said the van was registered in Washington state.
An NBC4 reporter who interviewed the man said on Twitter that prosecutors had dropped the charge.
The latest skirmish occurred early Monday, when police moved in on dozens of demonstrators to clear Black Lives Matter Plaza. Police deployed a chemical irritant and tackled some people near 16th and H streets NW.
Officers were seen using their bikes to corral people and slamming others into parked vehicles. That followed a mostly peaceful demonstration outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, with protesters taunting and yelling at officers.
Newsham described demonstrators as getting “increasingly aggressive” and said one person tried to strike an officer on a motorcycle. He added that thrown objects included balloons filed with urine.
Those arrested, Newsham said, “appear to be people coming into our peaceful city with the intent of destroying property and hurting folks.”
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The Washington Post’s Marissa J. Lang, Emily Davies, Keith L. Alexander, Devlin Barrett and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.