During yesterday’s congressional hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal delivered a scalding indictment of Attorney General William Barr’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests, pinpointing the disparity in treatment between those protesters and the mostly white protesters who demonstrated against the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year.
Jayapal first contextualized the nationwide social unrest that was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, saying, “Let us not be distracted by you or my GOP colleagues as to what these protests were actually about. They were about the persistent killing of black bodies by law enforcement and—finally, finally—an awakening in America of the conscience of our country.”
She then referred to the treatment of protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer. Those demonstrating were aggressively cleared out of the area to make way for President Donald Trump and others on their way to a photo op at St. John’s Church. The congresswoman asked Barr if he believes directing federal officers to use “tear gas, pepper balls, irritants, explosive devices, batons, and horses” against these protesters was an “appropriate” response.
Barr answered by saying that tear gas was not used on that day, to which Jayapal quickly shot back, “Mr. Barr, that is a semantic distinction that has been proven false by many fact-checkers.”
Barr responded, “I don’t accept your characterization of what happened.”
“Mr. Barr, I just asked for a yes or no,” Jayapal countered. “I am starting to lose my temper.”
She then began to quote Trump’s directives on how to treat those rising up against police brutality and systemic racism, in which the president encouraged governors to “dominate” protesters, whom he also called “terrorists.” Trump also invoked Barr’s name, saying, “We will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly.”
As Barr’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests has been criticized as brutal, Jayapal pointed out that his treatment of another group of demonstrators was completely different.
Earlier this year, mostly white demonstrators stormed the Michigan State Capitol to defy the lockdown orders that were implemented amid the coronavirus pandemic. Armed with guns, nooses, and Confederate flags, and deploying racist imagery like swastikas, this group reportedly called for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to be lynched, shot, and beheaded, Jayapal said.
Barr replied that he was not aware of the threats against the governor, as there are “a lot of protests around the United States.”
Jayapal said, “Attorney General Barr, you seem to be engaging in protests in certain parts of the country. You’re very aware of those.” As Barr attempted to interrupt the congresswoman, she reminded him pointedly that this was her time to speak. “Excuse me, Mr. Barr, this is my time and I control it,” she declared.
“The point I am trying to make here, Mr. Barr, that I think is very important for the country to understand is that there is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general—the top cop in this country—when white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the president to ‘activate’ you because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done,” she continued. “But when Black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers [and] pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the president.”
She succinctly concluded, “You take an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests but not to right-wing extremists threatening to lynch a governor if it’s for the president’s benefit. Did I get it right, Mr. Barr?”
Barr replied that his job entails a “responsibility” for the federal government and the White House.
To that, Jayapal reminded him of what his job description actually is. “You are supposed to represent the people of the United States of America, not violate people’s First Amendment rights,” she told him. “You are supposed to uphold democracy and secure equal justice under the law, not violently dismantle certain protesters based on the president’s personal agenda.”
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