US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to protect monuments, memorials and statues facing new scrutiny amid fresh debate over the nation's racist beginnings.
Trump had promised to take action earlier this week after police thwarted an attempt by protesters to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson in a park across from the White House.
The order on Friday calls on the attorney general to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any person or group that destroys or vandalises a monument, memorial or statue. Federal law authorises a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for the "willful injury" of federal property.
The order also calls for maximum prosecution for anyone who incites violence and illegal activity, and it threatens state and local law enforcement agencies that fail to protect monuments with the loss of federal funding.
Trump announced earlier on Friday on Twitter that he had signed the order and called it "strong".
Earlier in the day, the President used Twitter to call for the arrest of protesters involved with the attempt to bring down the Jackson statue from Lafayette Park. He retweeted an FBI wanted poster showing pictures of 15 protesters who are wanted for "vandalization of federal property".
Trump wrote, "MANY people in custody, with many others being sought for Vandalization of Federal Property in Lafayette Park. 10 year prison sentences!"
He also said on Twitter that he had scrapped plans to spend the weekend at his central New Jersey home to stay in Washington "to make sure LAW & ORDER is enforced".
"These arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators have been largely stopped," Trump tweeted. "I am doing what is necessary to keep our communities safe — and these people will be brought to Justice!"
Protesters on Monday night attempted to drag the Jackson statue down with ropes and chains. Police repelled the protesters and sealed off Lafayette Park, which had been reopened to the public for more than a week after protests against the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minnesota.
On Tuesday, police cleared out the entire area around the corner of 16th and H streets — and pushed demonstrators away from the intersection, which had recently been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by the city.
Statistics released by the Metropolitan Police Department show that nine people were arrested Tuesday night and a total of 12 arrested between Monday and Wednesday. There were no protest-related arrests Thursday, according to the MPD data.
Demonstrators have grown increasingly emboldened about targeting statues deemed offensive or inappropriate.
On June 19, or Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery in the United States, cheering crowds puled down a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike. The statue stood on federal land and had withstood previous attempts by the Washington DC government to remove it.
According to participants, police officers were on the scene but did not attempt to interfere.
The targeting of the statues has become a rallying cry for Trump and other conservatives. Immediately after the Pike statue was toppled and set ablaze, Trump called the incident a "disgrace to our Country!" on Twitter.
On Tuesday he tweeted, "I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran's Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent."