“Our office prosecutes all acts of violence, regardless of political motivation, the same.”
So said U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves—under oath, mind you, and with a straight face—during a hearing of the House Oversight Committee earlier this month.
Representative Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) questioned Graves’ disparate treatment of Black Lives Matters rioters who terrorized Washington, D.C., in 2020 versus Trump supporters involved in the events of January 6, 2021.
Although the start of both incidents was a mere seven months apart, they are a world away in terms of accountability.
In what Graves calls the “Capitol Siege” investigation, more than 1,000 Trump supporters have been criminally charged. Graves, a Biden appointee, has promised to double that caseload before he’s finished. His office announces new arrests every week.
That, however, is not the case for rioters who caused far more violence and inflicted far more damage in the nation’s capital in 2020. The rioting that began on May 29, 2020 at Lafayette Square prompted the lockdown of the White House; Donald Trump, his wife, and teenage son were ushered to an underground bunker for their safety as looters and arsonists repeatedly tried to scale the fence and break through police barricades erected outside the White House.
And what started that night in 2020 didn’t just last a few hours, as was the case with the Capitol protest. On June 1, rioters burned part of St. John’s Church, an historical landmark across from the White House, and set ablaze other areas of the public park.
Chaos continued throughout the summer with the president, his family, and White House staff under constant threat. Police arrested 11 people at Lafayette Square in July 2020 for various offenses including assault of a police officer. “The Tuesday night incidents that stretched over hours are the latest confrontations to transpire near the White House, where protesters have been gathering daily for more than a month to protest for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police,” the Washington Post reported on July 8, 2020.
After Trump accepted the GOP nomination for president on White House grounds in August 2020, rioters chased Republican lawmakers, including Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his wife, leaving the event. Some assaulted police in an attempt to get near members of Congress; Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who lost both legs and a finger in Afghanistan, was surrounded and shouted down by Black Lives Matter protesters as he tried to get home.
Elected officials weren’t the only targets of rage-filled activists occupying the heart of the nation’s capital that year. Trump supporters, including young families with children, were attacked by BLM and Antifa rioters during pro-Trump rallies in November and December 2020.
But the violent demonstrations at Lafayette Square represent the closest comparison to January 6: clashes between federal police and protesters on federal property. An Interior Department inspector general report detailed the turbulent situation at Lafayette Square that endangered police and the president for days
[The] Treasury Annex building was vandalized; officers were assaulted with projectiles, such as bottles and bricks; and a brick struck a [U.S. Park Police] officer in the head, resulting in the officer’s hospitalization. USPP officers reported that some protesters threw projectiles, such as bricks, rocks, caustic liquids, frozen water bottles, glass bottles, lit flares, rental scooters, and fireworks, at law enforcement officials. Overall, 49 USPP officers were injured during the protests from May 29 to May 31, including one who underwent surgery for his injuries. The Secret Service—also reported injuries to their personnel during this time. On the evening of May 30, individuals at the protests threw projectiles at the officers and ultimately breached the first row of bike-rack fencing, thereby eliminating the buffer between the protesters and law enforcement officers.
Dozens of people were arrested, including a man who jumped over two barriers in an attempt to enter the White House. Yet only a handful of protesters faced federal charges—in sharp contrast to January 6 protesters who all face federal counts even for low-level offenses such as “parading” in the Capitol. Nearly all the charges initially filed by the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office were dropped. (Graves did not take over the office until November 2021.)
Despite his claim his office is “prosecuting a number of individuals in connection with the incidents of the summer of 2020,” that simply does not appear to be the case, particularly since Graves further confirmed to Gosar that the office “declined a number of arrests presented to it under the leadership of the prior administration.”
But a change in political leadership does not absolve Graves from failing to bring federal charges against violent criminals who tried to destroy the nation’s capital in 2020. If Graves can indict nonviolent individuals for “seditious conspiracy” who did little more than make travel plans to attend political rallies on January 6, he could easily find more damning evidence against deep-pocketed organizers who encouraged thousands of rioters to occupy D.C. for months, threaten the president, traumatize residents and businesses, assault federal police, and intimidate Republican lawmakers and voters in the seat of American government—a legitimate “insurrection.”
Not only has Graves not charged any suspects involved in the 2020 riots under his watch, but his office also helped negotiate a settlement between the Justice Department and Lafayette Square rioters, who sued the government for violating their civil rights during what Graves called “racial justice demonstrations in Lafayette Square.” The settlement with Black Lives Matter D.C. required Park Police and Secret Service to update their policies to protect those who “peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”
First Amendment rights these days are in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, the lead government prosecutor who decided to turn a blind eye to a six-month campaign of terror in the nation’s capital in 2020 so he could keep his sights on people who participated in a mostly nonviolent, comparatively brief protest on January 6.
Clearly, all “sieges” are not created equal.