It was Barr who on Monday evening ordered authorities — clad in military-grade guard and head shields, using some of the SWAT-like policing tactics generally considered to have been developed within the Los Angeles Police Department — to clear a crowd of protesters that had gathered near the White House, according to a Justice Department official.
The similar incidents — and country’s top law enforcement officer at the heart of both — illustrate, in some ways, how little has changed in the intervening decades. The videotape of King’s treatment highlighted the racial divide both in LA and the country — and it spoke to the systemic racism between people of color — specifically black men — and law enforcement. And those same wounds are clearly driving continued — mostly peaceful — protests across the United States following Floyd’s death.
But compared to the riots of 1992, the current faces of some police units and demonstrators protesting Floyd’s death today are more diverse and multi-ethnic. And during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Justice Department tried to hold some police departments accountable. Some departments were investigated and, when they were found to have violated constitutional rights, put under consent decrees. But in Trump’s Justice Department, some of the previous efforts to hold police accountable, including the consent decrees, were dismantled.
The Justice Department declined to comment on this story.
In 1992, Barr largely blamed gangs for the violence in LA.
“Some people would probably disagree with what I told him, but I did lay a lot of it on gang activity,” Barr said in 2001.
“My basic take was that this was not civil unrest or the product of some festering injustice. This was gang activity, basically opportunistic,” he later said in the interview.
Perhaps there is one difference for Barr — who unlike in 1992 — seemed to acknowledge in late May of this year that there were festering injustices.
The current protests, Barr and the Trump administration say, are being derailed by the Antifa and what Trump calls the “radical Left.” And unlike in 1992, Barr took the blame a step further, attempting to designate the self-described anti-fascists, Antifa, as a terrorist organization, despite having no apparent legal authority to do so.
“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” Barr said in his statement.
Back in 1992, Barr counseled Bush on how he could deploy federal forces to LA to assist what he said was the city’s “very small police force.”
Faced with issues deploying the National Guard to the area, Barr offered two other choices: deploying some 2,000 non-military federal forces to the area with the logistical help of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell or to activate the US Army.
“We had just gone through an exercise two years earlier in St. Croix, so I was very familiar with how to use regular Army in a domestic situation,” Barr told the Miller Center, apparently referring to the invocation of the Insurrection Act, in 1989, when it was used to confront looting on St. Croix following Hurricane Hugo.
“I understood all the code sections and what you had to do. … Basically the President has to issue a proclamation telling people to cease and desist and go to their homes. It’s sort of an antiquated statute. And then if they don’t cease and desist, you’re allowed to use regular Army,” Barr said.
The riots left an indelible mark on Los Angeles and the LAPD. The city’s mayor commissioned an investigation into the department in what was called the Christopher Commission. The commission’s 228-page report found a pervasive pattern of excessive force by officers. Ten years after the riots, the LAPD began what Harvard researchers would later call “one of the most ambitious attempts at police reform ever attempted in an American city.”
Despite the lessons learned from the riots, which took place nearly 30 years ago, Barr has maintained a similar plan to police crowds of demonstrators protesting police brutality in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles and a slew of other American cities.
And in at least one major way, the Trump administration has attempted to up the ante.
Bush was reluctant to invoke the Insurrection Act until it was a last resort, but Trump hovered the threat of it above the heads of city and state leaders.
“If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said Monday in the White House Rose Garden.
Despite the threat, the act has limits. One section of the law suggests that states must first request help, but other portions of the Insurrection Act do not require a governor or state legislature’s okay, such as when the President determines the situation in a state makes it impossible to enforce US laws or when citizens’ rights are abridged.
Different approaches to protesters
Bush and Trump have also taken a different approach to direct engagement with protesters and the civil rights community.
But so far, neither Trump nor Barr have publicly interacted with demonstrators, activists or civil rights leaders since the start of demonstrations. And there’s no word yet on whether Trump would visit Minneapolis.
Security forces cleared out peaceful protesters with deterrents, such as pepper balls. Minutes later, Trump would walk across the area previously occupied by security forces and demonstrators to a nearby historic church, flanked by advisers and Secret Service, to pose for a photo with the Bible. The church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, had been damaged and set on fire the night before.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on the tactics used around of Lafayette Square, but said that if officers faced resistance in clearing the area they could use crowd control measures.
Barr was also seen walking around downtown Washington, DC, Monday night flanked by aides, security and Trump administration officials, speaking to forces on the streets of the nation’s capital.
And the demonstrations in 2020 are taking place across the country. But it’s unclear if or when Trump will visit the site of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf and Evan Perez contributed to this report.