After promising to deploy the U.S. military against protesters angry over the killing of unarmed Black people, President Donald Trump made his way to a historic Washington, D.C., church for a photo op where he held up a Bible and posed with members of his administration.
But moments before Trump’s journey to St. John’s Church, which lies right across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, police cleared a crowd of largely peaceful protesters by force — prompting outrage from religious leaders and politicians.
Trump visited the 200-year-old church a day after a small fire caused damage to its basement during ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, which have spread from Minneapolis across the country and beyond.
The president held up a Bible and posed for photos at the front entrance with Attorney General Bill Barr, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and other administration officials, all of them white.
He did not go inside the church, instead returning to the White House without further mention of Floyd or the protests.
“We have a great country,” Trump said as he posed for photos. “Greatest country in the world.”
The Associated Press reported that just before Trump’s remarks in the Rose Garden, a mass of law enforcement, including U.S. Secret Service agents, Park Police and National Guardsmen, began advancing toward the protesters in Lafayette Park as many held up their hands, saying, “Don’t shoot.”
Soon, law enforcement officers were aggressively forcing the protesters back, firing tear gas and deploying flash bangs into the crowd to disperse them, according to the report.
The sounds of exploding canisters could be heard while Trump spoke of law and order, declaring himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” before demanding that governors across the nation deploy the National Guard “in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.”
Trump concluded his remarks by saying he was leaving “to pay my respects to a very, very special place.”
Despite rarely attending church, Trump has prayed at St. John’s, as all sitting presidents have for decades.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of Washington that includes St. Johns, issued a statement that called the combination of Trump’s photo op and the actions of police “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.”
“I am outraged,” she said.
“The President did not pray when he came to St. Johns; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of system racism and white supremacy in our country.”
“In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation,” Budde added. Instead, she aligned herself and her diocese “with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd.”
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, issued his own statement decrying Trump’s use of the church and the Bible “for partisan political purposes.”
“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us,” said Curry, who is the first African American to hold that leadership post for U.S. Episcopalians.
Rabbi Jack Moline, the president of Interfaith Alliance, called the move “one of the most flagrant misuses of religion I have ever seen” in a statement.
“This only underscores the president’s complete lack of compassion for Black Americans and the lethal consequences of racism.”
Earlier Monday, Biden also posted pictures of himself talking with Black activists and community leaders. One, taken inside a church, was posted with the words, “Leaders listen.”
“Tear-gassing peaceful protesters without provocation just so that the President could pose for photos outside a church dishonours every value that faith teaches us,” they said.
“At this challenging time, our nation needs real leadership. The President’s continued fanning of the flames of discord, bigotry and violence is cowardly, weak and dangerous.”
Judd Deere, the White House’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement that law enforcement’s actions at Lafayette Park were lawful and intended to enforce the capital’s 7 p.m. curfew, which Trump announced during his remarks.
“The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the city’s 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before,” Deere said.
“Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.”
The U.S. Park Police said Tuesday that it never fired tear gas, but rather “smoke canisters and pepper balls” were used to clear the protesters.
A statement from the force called the demonstrators “violent” and accused them of “throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids” at police, while claiming “intelligence had revealed calls for violence against the police.”
“The USPP will always support peaceful assembly but cannot tolerate violence to citizens or officers or damage to our nation’s resources that we are entrusted to protect,” the statement read.
Budde told the Associated Press that the church’s “suffering was minimal” compared to the damage to businesses during the sometimes violent protests. Still, she said the goals of the protesters were worth hearing and taking seriously.
“We can rebuild the church. We can replace the furnishings of a nursery,” she said, referring to the damaged area. “We can’t bring a man’s life back.”
Floyd’s death while pinned under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee has sparked protests that have now enveloped the U.S. and several international cities for a week.
Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, the man seen on cellphone video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, has been charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, but activists are demanding charges against the other three officers involved, who were also fired.
Protesters have also denounced the police-involved fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in her Louisville, Ky., apartment on March 13; and the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white vigilantes in Georgia, who were only arrested and charged after video of the shooting surfaced in April.
— With files from the Associated Press