When it comes to the violence that has occurred in the streets of some American cities, authorities with different political bents are pointing to the same culprit: outside agitators.
Among them is Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, who said in a press conference Monday that violent encounters between police and protesters over the weekend were the result of people who came to the city prepared to battle police.
Bowser described a marked shift between the peacefulness of Friday, when thousands of people took part in the March on Washington, and the unrest that followed on Saturday and Sunday nights.
“What we saw were agitators who descended on the city,” the mayor said. “It sounds like many of them came on Wednesday and Thursday armed for battle with fireworks, baseball bats, laser pointers, and they were looking for the police to confront. They set fire to local newspaper boxes, accomplishing absolutely nothing.”
The agitators are a distraction, she said, from the systemic reforms the country needs.
“Those outside groups of people: We don’t know who they are, necessarily who funds them, who organizes them, but we know they came together to create havoc. And they are not the same as our residents who proudly say Black Lives Matter.”
Between Thursday afternoon and Monday morning, D.C. police made 27 arrests related to unrest. Police Chief Peter Newsham said 70% of the people arrested came from outside the District. Some of those came from the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, while others arrived from cities such as Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, Bowser said.
Among the arrests, Newsham said, was a person arrested for driving a van recklessly, endangering pedestrians and police officers. The van is registered in Washington state, and Newsham said videos on social media show what appears to be the same van present during violent activity in Portland and Kenosha, Wis.
Eleven officers were injured between Saturday night and Monday morning, Newsham said, including one who had vision difficulties resulting from a laser that was pointed in his eyes.
As WAMU’s Jenny Gathright reported, the response from police was aggressive at the weekend’s demonstrations:
“Locals who had been going to demonstrations in the District since the end of May said it was some of the most aggressive policing they had experienced at protests. Police deployed flash bangs and sprayed protesters with chemical irritants. Street medics with Medics for Justice, who have organized to provide medical assistance at protests throughout the summer, rushed to aid protesters who had chemical sprays in their eyes and were injured by what appeared to be nonlethal bullets and flash bangs.”
At Monday’s press conference, Bowser was asked if she was concerned that police tactics would exacerbate tensions with protesters.
“What I’m worried about is this country descending into race war,” the mayor replied.
President Trump has repeatedly criticized Bowser and other Democratic mayors for their handling of protests in their cities.
At a campaign rally Friday in New Hampshire, Trump labeled as “thugs” the protesters who gathered outside the White House as he accepted the Republican nomination for president last week.
He repeated the line in a tweet on Sunday: “@MayorBowser should arrest these agitators and thugs! Clean up D.C. or the Federal Government will do it for you. Enough!!!”
Bowser replied that the city’s police have indeed been making arrests for violent protest — but said that the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, which functions as the District’s local prosecutor, has not been prosecuting the cases. “When we arrest people with felony charges, we need the U.S. attorney for the District, who is a federal appointee of the president, to prosecute them,” Bowser said. “Right now, there’s no accountability for the people who came to these protests and attacked our police.”
The U.S. attorney’s office responded on Monday evening, saying that Bowser’s public statement “serves no purpose other than to pass blame and foster innuendo.” The office said it had “aggressively charged” 121 criminal cases between May 28 and Aug. 1. “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.”