June 4 (UPI) -- Protesters and the American Civil Liberties Union sued President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr and other top officials on Thursday, alleging their civil rights were violated when police used violent crowd control measures to disperse hundreds of peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square so Trump could pose for photos before a nearby church.
In the lawsuit filed on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and individual protesters in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the plaintiffs argue that their First Amendment rights to protest and their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when U.S. law enforcement agents fired tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash bombs to force them and other peaceful protesters to disperse Monday evening near the White House.
"Defendants had no legitimate basis to destroy the peaceable gathering," the court filing reads. "Defendants' professed purpose -- to clear the area to permit the President to walk to a photo opportunity at a nearby church -- was a wholly illegal reason for abridging the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and the others assembled in Lafayette Square."
The use of force to disperse the peaceful demonstrations and the subsequent photos of Trump brandishing a bible before the St. John's Episcopal Church, which had sustained damage from a fire lit in its basement during protests the night before, attracted widespread condemnation from the Democratic Party and the Washington Catholic Diocese as well as some Republicans.
The White House has compared the photo op to seminal images of American and world leaders showing bravery amid tragedy and said that critics were attempting to politicize the event.
Barr, during a press conference Thursday, said the use of force was not connected to Trump's movement to the church but due to the escalation of the protest in the area and was done to protect federal property and agents by expanding a "buffer zone," stating violent protesters were throwing projectiles amid the peaceful protesters.
"We could not continue to protect the federal property involved and protect our federal agents with such a tight perimeter and so our object was to move it out by one block," he said.
The ACLU argued in the lawsuit, which also names Defense Secretary Mark Esper and several others as defendants, that the actions by the Trump administration are "the manifestation of the very despotism against which the First Amendment was intended to protect."
According to the court filing, Trump and Barr directed the law enforcement agents to disperse the crowd, leaving several protesters injured, some severely.
"The President's shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked and frankly criminal attack on protesters because he disagreed with their views shakes the foundation of our nation's constitutional order," Scott Michelman, legal director at the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement. "And when the nation's top law enforcement officer becomes complicit in the tactics of an autocrat, it chills protected speech for all of us."
The ACLU said more lawsuits will be filed across the country in response to police attacks against protesters and journalists documenting nationwide protests that have rocked the country demanding justice for the police-involved death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died May 25 while in police custody.
The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, who was seen in video kneeling on a prostrate and handcuffed Floyd's neck for more than 8 minutes, has been fired and charged with murder. Three other officers involved in the arrest have been charged with aiding and abetting a murder.
"Across the country, law enforcement armed with military weaponry are responding with violence to people who are protesting police brutality," Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement. "The First Amendment right to protest is under attack, and we will not let this go unanswered. This is the first of many lawsuits the ACLU intends to file across the country in response to police brutality against protesters."