Attorney General William Barr said on Thursday authorities have made 51 arrests for federal crimes related to violent rioting amid days of protests over the death of George Floyd.
Barr said the Justice Department and other federal agencies are working around the clock to restore order, adding that resources have been deployed to quell outbreaks of violence in several places.
“While many have peacefully expressed their anger and grief, others have hijacked protests to engage in lawlessness—violent rioting and arson, looting of businesses and public property, assaults on law enforcement officers and innocent people, and even the murder of a federal agent,” he said during a press conference, alongside FBI Director Chris Wray.
“Such senseless acts of anarchy are not exercises of First Amendment rights; they are crimes designed to terrify fellow citizens and intimidate communities.”
The death of Floyd, a black man who died while former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has ignited widespread outrage triggering protests and riots across the country. Chauvin was arrested and has been charged with second-degree murder. The three other officers involved in the arrest were also charged in relation to the incident.
Barr said authorities are seeing “three different sets of actors” at the demonstrations—peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, groups exploiting the opportunity to engage in looting, and extremists agitators who have “hijacked” the protests to pursue their own agendas. He said that there is evidence that the last group is to be blamed for the violent activity.
“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,” he said. “We are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
The attorney general also weighed in on concerns expressed by protesters about police misconduct and injustices of the criminal justice system, adding that he will meet with the department’s commission on law enforcement and community leaders later this month to “find constructive solutions.”
“While the vast majority of police officers do their job bravely and righteously, it is undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in the American criminal justice system. That must change,” Barr said. “Our Constitution mandates equal protection of the laws, and nothing less is acceptable.”
During the press conference, the attorney general also addressed criticisms over President Donald Trump’s visit to the historic St. John’s Church near the White House to pose for photos with his aides after protesters were cleared from the nearby Lafayette Park.
He said his decision to expand the perimeter wrap by one block away from the White House had “no correlation” with the President’s decision to go over to the church.
“I did not know that, that he was going to do that until later in the day after our plans were well underway to move the perimeter,” Barr said.
He added that he thought the president’s decision to walk to the church was “entirely appropriate” and he did not think it was a “political act.”
“I think the President is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street to the church of presidents. I don’t necessarily view that as a political act,” he said.