President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed to stamp out any protesters seeking to establish a so-called “autonomous zone” in the nation’s capital, echoing conservative outrage over the prospect of police-free enclaves cropping up in major American cities.
“There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “If they try they will be met with serious force!”
The president’s social media post comes after U.S. Park Police officers on Monday thwarted efforts by protesters to tear down the statue of former President Andrew Jackson located at the center of Lafayette Square, just across Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side of the White House.
The violent clash came exactly three weeks after a similar confrontation in the historic public park, when police officers and National Guard troops deployed flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse apparently peaceful protesters from the area — allowing Trump to stage a political photo opportunity in front of a nearby church.
Amid the protests Monday, the phrase “BHAZ: Black House Autonomous Zone” was spray-painted on a piece of plywood on H Street, and “BHAZ” was also graffitied on the columns of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the president posed earlier this month.
“Numerous people arrested in D.C. for the disgraceful vandalism, in Lafayette Park, of the magnificent Statue of Andrew Jackson, in addition to the exterior defacing of St. John’s Church across the street,” Trump tweeted Monday evening. “10 years in prison under the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act. Beware!”
As protests against police brutality and racial injustice continue to unfold across the country, the White House’s allies and conservative media outlets have highlighted incidents of looting and rioting that have accompanied some of the mass demonstrations.
Republicans have particularly homed in on the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle, where local law enforcement essentially abandoned a police station two weeks ago and ceded several blocks in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to protesters.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Monday she would move to dispel the “occupied” protest zone following two weekend shootings. Trump has criticized Durkan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Twitter and repeatedly argued that the “CHAZ” is run by “anarchists.”
The president employed more harsh rhetoric Tuesday to condemn the protesters in Lafayette Square, threatening to prosecute them under a 2003 federal statute that imposed criminal penalties for the destruction of monuments commemorating U.S. military service.
“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent,” Trump tweeted.
“This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused,” he added. “There will be no exceptions!”
Speaking to reporters outside the White House later Tuesday morning, Trump said administration officials “are looking at long-term jail sentences for these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators,” calling them “bad people” who “don’t love our country.”
Trump also announced he would be issuing an executive order having to do with monuments “very shortly,” but offered few details on the potential measure. “All it’s really going to do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.