President Trump leads a group of aides on a now-infamous walk across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020.
Patrick Semansky / AP

Anatomy of a Photograph: Authoritarianism in America

When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shows up at a peaceful protest in battle fatigues, it’s time to pay attention.

“Anatomy of a Photograph” is an occasional series in which we assess visual meaning in a hyper-recorded world.

“God, forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system.”

— Mary Chesnut’s Diary, on the eve of the Civil War, March 1861

Pick almost any recent event. In all likelihood, an extraordinary amount of visual evidence of it will exist. Body cameras, cellphone cameras, news cameras, traffic cameras. Cameras everywhere. Thousands upon thousands of cameras. But has this overabundance of visual evidence produced any sort of clarity? We have an extensive record of the events around Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020. But do we know what General Mark Milley and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr were doing? What they were thinking?

The pictures of the president and his advisers walking to St. John’s Church have become famous, even iconic. (Perhaps an iconic picture of white supremacism? It’s not just that the photographs feature only white men and women. It’s what their presence apparently required—the dispersal of a Black Lives Matter protest in Lafayette Square.) They’re meaningful enough, revealing enough, that we must dissect them closely before the episode recedes too far into history. Look at these photographs and ask a series of simple questions: Why is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wearing combat fatigues? Why is he there at all? What is Barr, the attorney general, doing there?

Context is important here.

Six days before the Lafayette Square incident, George Floyd’s life was snuffed out by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. As Floyd pleaded for his life, Chauvin, for close to nine minutes, and surrounded by other uniformed police officers, cut off the supply of blood to Floyd’s brain. Chauvin didn’t bother to take his hands out of his pockets. It was a gesture of arrogance. As if he were supremely indifferent. And maybe he was.

All hell broke loose. Protests and violent confrontations erupted across America and, significantly, around the White House. Trump was outraged. He announced that he is “the law and order president.” He told the American people that he’d advised every governor to “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” And he retreated to a presidential bunker underground.

In a conference call the morning of June 1, Trump warned governors and various civic leaders: “We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before, but you got to have total domination, and then you have to put them in jail.” It was a declaration of war against Black people and their allies. Trump was getting ready to fight the Civil War all over again, and he was on the side of the Confederacy. This was not conservatism. It was atavism. And Barr, Milley, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were all part of the war party. In his call with the governors, Trump said something that sounded like a threat: There are “people here that you’ll be seeing a lot of. General Milley is here. He’s head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a fighter, a war hero, a lot of victories and no losses, and he hates to see the way it’s being handled in the various states, and I just put him in charge. The attorney general is here, Bill Barr, and we will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly … The secretary of defense is here.”

We learn in elementary school that the president is the commander of the U.S. armed forces. What we don’t learn is how that role is limited by statutes and laws. What we see in this case (and in many others besides) is that the president is ignorant of and unconcerned about any laws or principles that might contradict or call into question whatever rash action he’s considering. He will fire and humiliate anyone who attempts to defy or circumvent him. His advisers, knowing his intractability, are forced to skirt the law and offer bad excuses and ex post facto justifications, lest they lose what little control they might have—lest he go really and truly berserk.

Trump was scheduled to deliver an address to the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:15 on the evening of June 1. The question of who decided to clear Lafayette Square, and when that decision was made, remains shrouded in ambiguity and prevarication to this day. To the astonishment of the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Adam Smith, Esper and Milley had this to say when later asked about it in a public hearing:

SMITH:  Do either of you know who specifically gave the order to clear the protesters out of Lafayette Square ahead of the President’s visit to the church on June 1? You said the Guard was in support; who gave the order (and to whom, I guess) to clear the protesters out of that square?
ESPER:  We’ve had that discussion a few times. We had it the other day with Secretary [of the Army Ryan] McCarthy and Major General Walker, and it’s still unclear to me who gave the direction to clear the park at that moment in time.
SMITH:  See, I find that hard to believe. I’m sorry. But it’s like a pretty big decision. A lot of people there—everyone’s there—and it just sort of happened?
ESPER:  No, I’m not saying—I’m just saying I don’t know. I’ve never inquired. I’ve never pursued it with anybody, because we get caught up in other things more relevant to—
SMITH:  Well, how did you know to have the Guard hold back? Because I think there’s a lot of testimony that says the Guard did not participate in the clearing of the Square. Why did they not participate?
ESPER:  I think, congressman, we could actually get something from General Walker. I want to say—I don’t want to quote him; I don’t want to get it wrong. But I want to say that he was on the ground with the Park Police, and what they had asked him to do was to stay static, not move. And that was what he was operating from. I don’t know, in that moment, when they decided to move forward, but he was on the ground. I know he told me that yesterday or the day before and was clear on that piece. But beyond that, maybe we get something from him to share with you.
SMITH:  Chairman Milley, do you have anything to add?
MILLEY:  I don’t know with certainty, but I’m pretty sure that there was a planning session down at the FBI building in the late morning—around noonish or early afternoon—where they divided up who was going to do what to whom. Major General Walker was there, Secretary McCarthy was there, and there were some others there. And I think that’s where the agreement was as to where they would be. As to who gave the order, I don’t know. I know Attorney General Barr spoke to that publicly. I know that it’s been mentioned—the Park Police captain, etc. I do not have personal knowledge as to who gave that actual order to clear the park.

More than a month after the events in Lafayette Square, more than a month after Esper and Milley were first called to appear before the House Armed Services Committee, they still can’t or won’t answer this basic question.

Bill Barr confers with U.S. Secret Service and other officials in the center of Lafayette Square shortly before riot police cleared the park. (Ken Cedeno / Reuters)

Milley and Barr were separately spotted in Lafayette Square before Trump started his remarks in the Rose Garden—right around the time the address was scheduled to begin and just a few minutes before police began clearing the square. The Washington Post assembled a fabulously rich and detailed timeline of the June 1 protest and its dispersal. It’s an invaluable resource, but fails to tell you what anything means. In news footage, we see Barr engaged in a conversation with a representative of the Park Police. He makes a shoving gesture with his arm in the direction of St. John’s Church. A Park Police officer hangs his head and receives an encouraging pat on the back from one of the suits accompanying him. The hand gesture was, according to Barr, not a tactical command, but rather a nonverbal  “get it done” command.

A few minutes later, at 6:15, Milley can be seen behind the barricade in the park. Troops kneel at 6:16 and protesters cheer, thinking it’s a gesture of solidarity—a sad misunderstanding. It rapidly becomes evident (at least to those near the front of the crowd) that the police forces are kneeling to put on gas masks. This is no gesture of solidarity. At 6:22, Milley and Barr leave Lafayette Square and return to the White House. Why? Presumably to prepare for the president’s march to St. John’s. At the same time, a voice on a loudspeaker warns protesters to clear the square. It is all but impossible to hear over the clamor. The assembled police forces start pushing back protesters at 6:27.

Left: Riot police chase a man as they rush protesters to clear Lafayette Square ahead of President Donald Trump’s photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020.
Right: Riot police detain a man during the scramble to clear protesters out of the square. (Ken Cedeno / Reuters)

Trump begins speaking in the Rose Garden at 6:43. Could the delay have been caused by the need to clear the park of protesters to prepare for the president’s photo op? The intervening 28 minutes is when most of the police action against protesters takes place. In light of this, Barr’s subsequent denials are almost impossible to believe: “There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president’s going over to the church.” Liar, liar, pants on fire.

So what was Milley doing in Lafayette Square at 6:15? As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he is legally prohibited from commanding forces—his role is limited to advising the president and the secretary of defense. Was Milley coincidentally on the scene before the protesters were cleared?

And why did he return to Lafayette Square with Trump after Trump’s speech in the Rose Garden? Essentially, he made two trips to Lafayette Square. Was he unaware that Trump had listed him, the attorney general, and the secretary of defense as part of his plan to show everybody who’s boss? Why dress up if you have no place to go? Milley said he didn’t know where he was going when he followed the president across the square. He was wearing combat fatigues, his aides later said, because he had been on his way to an FBI operation center when the White House summoned him. Esper, too, claimed that he and Milley did not know where they were going as they strode along with the president, that they did not know their junket was only a photo opportunity for Trump—they thought they’d have a chance to meet and thank members of the National Guard on duty. I found this to be a pathetic, almost laughable defense.

Milley later apologized and said, “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” Indeed. But it’s more than just a perception. It is the reality of mixing the military and politics. And not just any sort of politics. Racist politics. The real problem with Milley’s presence on the walk to St. John’s Church (and Esper’s too) is not that he’s there giving orders; it’s that he allowed himself, the principal military adviser to the president, to be depicted as part of this administration’s campaign against constitutionally protected assembly and protest, part of its White Panic.

The president was telling the world two things that infamous June evening: that he has the military power and the moral authority to do whatever he wants. He has the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the various units of the National Guard—the full apparatus of the American military—and, most important, the moral authority of the Bible. These are the trappings of a despot. The imagery of a Bible held in front of a church has never seemed quite so vacuous. What does it mean? Trump is telling us that civic protests against police killings represent an existential threat to his administration. The Bible does little to mitigate this worldview.

Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St. John's Episcopal church. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

I could leave it at that. After all, Milley apologized. All is well in America? Not quite. We, the citizens of this country, might ask what Milley’s apology and Esper’s equivocations amount to in the end. That is, other than an acknowledgment that, faced with a rogue president, both men were willing to follow his orders and appear to have come to their senses only after the fact. Attorney General Barr, for example, is still committed to disrupting peaceful protests by any means necessary, dependably interested in turning peaceful constitutional assemblies into violent confrontations. All that remained was another opportunity to use the Lafayette Square strategy. And so we have Portland.

No more military, per se. We don’t see National Guard forces beating up protesters. This is the military in a different guise: the Department of Homeland Security—with its series of ominous acronyms, such as BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Unit) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)—plus U.S. Marshals and the Federal Protective Service. Many are under the control of the attorney general or Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security. His qualifications are suspect. A former lobbyist and toady to Trump, he was in charge of family separations at the border with Mexico. He has clearly grown in the job. In a July 16 press release, he managed to use the phrase “violent anarchists” 70 times. (A new take on the Bellman’s rule in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark”: For the Bellman, saying a thing three times makes it true; Wolf needed 69 repetitions.) He also managed to confuse dispersal with disbursal, as if he couldn’t decide whether he was dispersing crowds or reimbursing them. It reminds me of when Donald Rumsfeld argued with me about meretricious and meritorious. He thought they were synonyms, and seemed unconvinced when I explained to him nicely that they were not. It’s like a bad joke, except it isn’t.

Police respond to a protest in Portland, Oregon, on July 4, 2020. (Nathan Howard)

Portland offers an endless parade of disturbing images. Donavan La Bella is shot with a “less lethal” munition. He is standing with his hands in the air, holding a speaker over his head, when he is shot in the face. Blood splatters on the sidewalk and he is taken off to the hospital with skull fractures. A woman who has become known as the “Naked Athena,” wearing only a face mask and a stocking cap, confronts federal troops. Is this what is needed to show a disproportionate use of force? And Christopher David, 53, a Navy veteran, is brutally beaten and pepper-sprayed. He had been dismayed by reports of unidentified federal marshals herding demonstrators into unmarked vans: “I wanted to ask them why they were no longer honoring their oath of office to the Constitution.” David is shown stoically taking baton blow after baton blow to his hands and body, and pepper spray to his face. He, too, ended up in an emergency room, with several broken bones in his hand. Clearly, it is not the protester who is rioting, but the federal officers. And it goes on. The Wall of Moms and the Wall of Veterans confronting federal troops. The mayor of Portland is tear-gassed and says, “This is an egregious overreaction on the part of the federal officers. This is not a de-escalation strategy. This is flat-out, open urban warfare.”

Hundreds of moms, wearing yellow, joined in the protest in Portland on July 20, 2020. (Photo by Alisha Jucevic)
Left: A demonstrator is pepper-sprayed shortly before being arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland on July 29. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)
Right: Federal officers used chemical irritants and crowd-control munitions on July 22 to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the same courthouse. (AP / Noah Berger)

The next presidential election is now 73 days away. President Trump, seeking four more years, claims that the opposition—the mayor of Portland, the governor of Oregon, an Oregon senator—are operating out of fear. Because they’re afraid. One of Trump’s persistent habits is to project his own deep inadequacies onto others. Some may argue that this is a strategy. I don’t think so. It’s merely a character flaw. Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump was asked whether he was “considering sending federal troops to these cities to help local law enforcement.”

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, it depends on what your definition of “troops” is.  I mean, we’re sending law enforcement. Portland was totally out of control. The Democrats—the liberal Democrats—running the place had no idea what they were doing. They were ripping down, for 51 days, ripping down that city, destroying the city, looting it. The level of corruption and what was going on there is incredible. And then the governor comes out: “We don’t need any help.”

REPORTER:  So what are you planning on doing?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’m going to do something, that I can tell you.  Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these—Oakland is a mess—we’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.

REPORTER:  Send more federal law enforcement to some of these cities?

THE PRESIDENT:  We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you. In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job. They’ve been there three days, and they really have done a fantastic job in very short period of time. No problem. They grab them; a lot of people in jail.  They’re leaders. These are anarchists. These are not protesters. People say “protesters”; these people are anarchists. These are people that hate our country. And we’re not going to let it go forward. And I’ll tell you what: The governor and the mayor and the senators out there, they’re afraid of these people. That’s the reason they don’t want us to help them.  They’re afraid. I really believe they’re actually maybe even physically afraid of these people.

Is Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, afraid of his own citizenry? How about Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon? And Jeff Merkley, the junior senator from Oregon? Who is really afraid here? It can be none other than our president. Having utterly failed as a president, having done little or nothing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he can go back to doing what he does best: bloviating, bullying, and brutalizing marginalized people, and those who defend them.

On July 28, Adam DeMarco, a major in the D.C. National Guard, testified before Congress. His written statement was headed “Unanswered Questions About the U.S. Park Police’s June 1 Attack on Peaceful Protestors at Lafayette Square.” The written statement and his subsequent testimony contradicted elements of the government’s account. “I did not know what rules of engagement had been issued by the Park Police,” DeMarco said. “The Park Police liaison told me that tear gas would not be employed.” But it was, along with pepper balls, stinger ball grenades, and flash grenades. DeMarco testified, “At no time did I feel threatened by the protesters or assess them to be violent. In addition, considering the principles of proportionality of force and the fundamental strategy of graduated responses specific to civil disturbance operations, it was my observation that the use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was an unnecessary escalation of the use of force. From my observation, those demonstrators—our fellow American citizens—were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights. Yet they were subjected to an unprovoked escalation and excessive use of force.”

He explained Milley’s role: “As the senior National Guard officer at the scene at the time, I gave General Milley a quick briefing on our mission … General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.” However, DeMarco’s account and Barr’s account of what had transpired were clearly incompatible. Barr’s stated purpose for clearing the square was the installation of a new security barrier, but the fencing did not arrive until about 9 p.m., hours later. DeMarco, in conclusion, offered an explanation of why he had stepped forward. “The oath I swore as a military officer, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, is a bedrock guiding principle and, for me, constitutes an individual moral commitment and ethical instruction. It is the foundation of the trust safely placed in the armed forces by the American people. And it compels me to say something—and do something—about what I witnessed on June 1 at Lafayette Square.”

DeMarco’s testimony reminds us that these photographs are ambiguous. We don’t know what we’re looking at—what the people depicted are thinking, what they’re saying. DeMarco provides another perspective. History is Bayesian—it is constantly, endlessly being revised and re-revised based on the accumulation of evidence, because it’s based on implication, and implication is based on probability, and probabilities are constantly being changed. We’re at sea in a probabilistic universe.

Suddenly these pictures of Lafayette Square take on a new and different meaning. I suppose you could take a cynical view and say that DeMarco was defending Milley because Milley is his superior—or, to use an expression I despise and even decry, “virtue signaling.” (A truly Trumpian notion, it suggests that no one does anything except out of self-interest.) Reading about DeMarco’s history, I reject these interpretations. In his written statement, he cites not just his love of the U.S. Constitution, but also John Lewis: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.” The authoritarian-leaning president of the United States could be soon reelected and we’re only just beginning to see what he’s capable of. We’d better be paying close attention. Now tell me. What do you see?

Donald Trump’s photo op at St. John’s came after he was criticized for waiting nearly a week to publicly address the crisis of police violence against Black Americans following George Floyd’s death. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)