Police remove protesters' tents near White House

The US Secret Service told members of the White House press corps to immediately leave the White House grounds, a highly unusual decision that did not immediately come with an explanation. By Devan Cole and Paul LeBlanc, CNN

(CNN) -- Lines of law enforcement abruptly cleared streets at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, removing several tents near the White House in which protesters were encamped and leading to a tense confrontation between police and demonstrators.

As riot-gear clad police officers pushed the crowd back from Lafayette Square, they ordered people to remove tents that were occupied by some of the demonstrators nearby. The park, located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has been the site of largely peaceful protests that have been ongoing following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police last month.

Street-cleaning crews and trucks swept away and cleared out tents from the plaza on 16th Street NW, a block away from Lafayette Square, where protesters attempted to pull down a statue of former President Andrew Jackson Monday night. Police then responded with pepper spray and batons, and some protesters threw objects at the police officers, The Washington Post reported.

After pushing back protesters and chanting "move back, move back" Tuesday morning, police appeared to enter a standoff with the protesters, not allowing demonstrators or bystanders through. A police line could be seen surrounding the plaza on three surrounding streets.

"Unacceptable. We could've said any other name but 'Black Lives Matter' and y'all wouldn't be doing this," one man could be heard shouting as he stood feet away from the line of officers on the plaza.

The crowd began to disperse around noon and had largely subsided by 2 p.m. By 5:15 p.m., crews were once again erecting the 10-foot fence around Lafayette Square that stood earlier this month after clashes between protesters and police.

An apparent effort to clear the area Monday night touched off the physical confrontation between police and protesters, who had spray-painted "BHAZ" on the pillars of St. John's Episcopal Church, which sits across the street from Lafayette Square. The acronym stands for "Black House Autonomous Zone," the Post reported, an apparent reference to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle where protesters have taken over a six-square-block area of the city and kept out police in order to set up their own self-governing space. The letters "BHAZ" were no longer visible Tuesday morning, and police were standing guard near the pillars.

Alaina Gertz, a Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman, said two people were arrested for assaulting a police officer Monday but did not immediately provide additional information about the clashes. Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, acknowledged to CNN that US Park Police worked with local police officers and the Secret Service to "prevent the destruction on the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Park" and said the park was temporarily closed.

Officers had used pepper spray Monday evening during the confrontation with protesters, Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Brianna Johnson told CNN in a statement later Tuesday.

"MPD will always protect the rights of those engaged in peaceful First Amendment assemblies, however, those who engage in criminal behavior will be held accountable," Johnson said.

During Monday night's unrest, several journalists, including two CNN employees, were told they had to leave the White House grounds immediately via the south side of the complex, which is not the normal entrance/exit for the press. Typically in security situations at the White House, the press corps is locked down inside the complex.

"On Monday evening, in response to the increasingly violent demonstrations in Lafayette Park, four members of the media were misdirected by the Secret Service to leave the White House grounds. The members of the press were rerouted to exits on the south side of the complex for their own safety," a Secret Service spokesperson told CNN.

Trump again threatens protesters

St. John's Church was the site of President Donald Trump's controversial photo-op earlier this month, when authorities forcefully removed protesters from Lafayette Square to clear a path for Trump to momentarily stand in front of the historic church to hold a Bible.

Trump, who has pointed to isolated incidents of violence and looting that have occasionally accompanied the Floyd protests to characterize his progressive opponents as radicals and proclaim himself "your president of law and order," employed similarly tough rhetoric in response to Monday night's tensions, threatening "serious force" against protesters if an "autonomous zone" is created in DC.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Trump said he would sign an executive order punishing those who desecrate monuments to US veterans, though he acknowledged that federal law already prohibits such vandalism with up to 10 years' prison time.

"All it's really going to do is reinforce what's already there, but in a more uniform way," Trump said.

The President also tweeted Tuesday, "There will never be an 'Autonomous Zone' in Washington, D.C., as long as I'm your President," and, "If they try they will be met with serious force!" The tweet was flagged by Twitter as a violation of the website's rules about "abusive behavior."

Twitter said in a statement they specifically flagged Trump's tweet because of "the presence of a threat of harm against an identifiable group."

In the nation's capital, tensions between groups of protesters and law enforcement outside the White House have been a focal point for the nation in recent weeks as protests continue to play out over the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

Last month, CNN reported that Trump was briefly taken to the underground bunker for a period of time as protesters gathered outside the White House. Following that episode, the White House cautioned staffers who must go to work to hide their passes until they reach a Secret Service entry point and to hide them as they leave, according to an email which was viewed by CNN.

The Floyd protests, which have renewed national discussions of racial inequality and police brutality, have also led to the removal of Confederate monuments nationwide. Jackson, whom Trump has openly admired, was a slave owner.

In an interview with Fox News that was given before Monday night's attempt to pull down the Jackson monument, Trump criticized efforts to pull such statues down, specifically citing calls to remove one of Jackson in Louisiana.

"So you have to understand history and you have to understand the culture and so many other aspects of our country," Trump said in a clip of the interview released Tuesday morning.

"And people can study that and they can hate it and let's all hate it. But you can't take down George Washington's statue, and half of our country is named after Washington. You can't do it. You have to remember the heritage that -- the culture of our country," Trump continued.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

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