Où est Lafayette?

For want of a photo-op for the President, the U.S. Attorney General ordered the forceful clearing of Lafayette Square last night ahead of curfew. This was all apparently so the President could awkwardly clutch a Bible and stand in front of a church. [1] Setting aside all the obvious things that are wrong with this (which have been well-covered in today’s commentary), I have been reflecting on the sickness of doing this in Lafayette Square.

Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier, the square honors this foreign hero of the American Revolution. Lafayette commanded troops in the Revolutionary War, was wounded at least once and nonetheless managed an orderly evacuation of his troops, and became fast and lifelong friends with the founders of this nation, including George Washington. He had a rich and complex life, one which became interwoven with some of the most famous American abolitionists; the subtle disgrace of the atrocity committed in his square last evening was to affront his legacy on the liberation of slaves.

Lafayette opposed slavery. For example, in addition to speaking to the new Congress on the subject, he personally encouraged Washington (without strong effect, it seems) to find models in his own life, and for the nation, that allowed the new Republic to abandon slave-holding as a practice. Part of me wonders, if they had found a courageous way to follow his wisdom so early in the Republic, if the systemic horrors inherent in policing (with its clear and ingrained biases against people of color[2]) might be very different today. But history is too complicated for such simple wishes.

Nonetheless, last evening’s gassing and assaulting of peaceful citizens gathered in Lafayette Square, at a church, in protest to the horrors of systemic racism is disgraceful. It disrespects the disenfranchised Americans protesting an unjust system. It disrespects the right of citizenry to gather in public and peaceably demonstrate. And in addition to all these awful things, it is disrespectful to the memory and progressive vision of Lafayette himself, who would not live to see the Civil War, nor the real beginning of the emancipation he so eagerly and vocally encouraged.

21:02 June 2, 2020: This post was updated to indicate that U.S. Attorney General William Barr is reported [3] to have personally ordered the clearing of Lafayette Square. That said, I am a firm believer in the addage “The buck stops here,” referring to the office of the President… even if the President does not.

References

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-push-to-tear-gas-protesters-ahead-of-a-trump-photo-op/2020/06/01/4b0f7b50-a46c-11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html

[2] For a single example, one of countless, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/minneapolis-struggled-with-police-violence-and-adopted-reforms-and-yet-george-floyd-is-still-dead/2020/05/29/fe3ba110-a1e0-11ea-9590-1858a893bd59_story.html and especially note the ACLU study that found that African Americans, despite making up a fifth of the population of Minneapolis, were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses.

[3] https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500736-barr-personally-ordered-law-enforcement-to-push-back-lafayette-square

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