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Attorney General Updates On The Federal Government's Response To Nationwide Protests


And now let's turn to developments in Washington, where Attorney General William Barr today provided an update on the federal government's response to the unrest over George Floyd's death. He spoke about the aggressive clearing of protesters on Monday on the north side of Lafayette Park opposite the White House. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering the press conference and joins us now. Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: What did the attorney general have to say today?

LUCAS: Well, he said the country is facing two major challenges right now to the rule of law. One, he said, is a longstanding problem but one that was made clear yet again by George Floyd's killing, and that revolves around police misconduct and biased policing. Barr acknowledged that Floyd's death was not the first of its kind and that it puts a spotlight on concerns well beyond this specific case. Here's a bit of what he said.


WILLIAM BARR: While the vast majority of police officers do their job bravely and righteously, it is undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in our American criminal justice system. This must change.

LUCAS: Now, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into Floyd's death that is separate from the Minnesota state investigation. The DOJ is looking at whether Floyd's civil rights were violated. And Barr said in his remarks that the Justice Department will do its part more generally speaking to ensure equal protection under the law. Now, Barr's words, though, may ring hollow to a lot of activists because this Justice Department has walked away from the tools that it has to reform troubled police departments, such as court-enforced agreements to implement reforms.

SHAPIRO: So if Barr says there are two major challenges right now to the rule of law and one is the racial disparities in policing, what's the other one?

LUCAS: The other one he mentioned revolves around the unrest that we've seen over this past week and in particular some of the violence and rioting. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but Barr said there is what he described as a witch's brew of agitators and extremists who are hijacking the protests for their own separate agendas. Here's a bit of what he said.


BARR: We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity.

LUCAS: While Barr and President Trump have repeatedly singled out antifa, it's worth noting that federal prosecutors in Nevada yesterday charged three men there allegedly associated with a right-wing extremist group with planning violence, including the use of explosives at protests over Floyd's death. Now, interestingly, FBI director Christopher Wray was also at this news conference. He said who the agitators are and what's driving them varies from city to city and sometimes even from night to night.

SHAPIRO: As one would expect if there are protests in more than 100 cities with thousands of people.

LUCAS: Right.

SHAPIRO: Now, Barr and Wray also said that they've seen foreign actors trying to exacerbate the violence. Did they give any evidence or specific examples of that?

LUCAS: We didn't get a lot of detail on that front. What Wray said was that it's not unusual for actors - foreign actors - to try to use state media or social media as a bullhorn to really exacerbate divisions, sow discord, tensions in this country to add to the upheaval. We certainly saw examples of that in Russia's social media campaign during the 2016 election. Now, neither Wray nor Barr named any countries now. They didn't give specifics, but they said that this is something that they're very much keeping tabs on. An outside cyber analysis group, Graphika, though, I will say, put out a report that says in terms of state-controlled media outlets from China and Iran and Russia, those are using the unrest here to further their own narratives. But they don't see it really trying to stoke divisions at this point.

SHAPIRO: Now, this week Barr has come under a lot of criticism for his role in the decision to clear out Lafayette Square as President Trump walked to the church on the other side of the square. What did Barr have to say about that decision today?

LUCAS: Barr said he made the decision to expand the security perimeter around the White House before he knew that the president would visit St. John's Church on the other side of the square. Now, the timing of when law enforcement actually moved to clear Lafayette Square, of course, was right before the president's visit, and there are still questions about the force that officers used to get protesters out of the way to clear the way. Barr brushed aside any criticism of what took place. He said he thinks the president should be able to walk outside the White House and visit a church.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you for the update, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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