District Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Monday he was “absolutely aghast” when he saw the widely-circulated video showing police at the University of California at Davis using pepper spray on students, but has full confidence D.C. police will treat protesters in a respectful manner.
Speaking at a morning conference to announce his new communications team, Gray answered questions about the city’s relationship with Occupy DC protesters camped out in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.
On Saturday, police arrested 13 “Free Franklin” protesters affiliated with the movement after they entered the abandoned Franklin School on K Street to protest city plans to turn over the former homeless shelter to the private sector. Though Gray said the city will continue to support what he views as the protesters’ First Amendment rights, he reiterated he will not tolerate “law-breaking.”
“The act that occurred Saturday is illegal, and inappropriate and will not be tolerated,” said Gray, adding protesters appear to have damaged a door at the school.
Gray said city leaders are struggling to balance what they see as a growing divide within the Occupy DC movement over tactics.
On Saturday, Gray noted, he spoke to an Occupy DC protester at an AFL-CIO event who he said thanked him and the city for being supportive of their effort. Less than an hour after that meeting, Gray said, he received word that some protesters had broken into the Franklin School, a city-owned building.
“One thing I am concerned about is making sure the occupy leadership itself is involved and has a consistent message,” Gray said. “One thing I wonder about is the internal communication of the Occupy movement itself …We will be continuing to work with the folks involved in the movement to try to assure that.”
But when arrests are needed, Gray said, he’s confident that city police will show restraint to avoid a high-profile incident. Gray said he was stunned when he watched the video over the the weekend that appears to show UC Davis police using pepper spray on a group of seated students apparently peacefully resisting an order to clear the sidewalk.
“I saw people, who I think were on their knees, and they were being sprayed by pepper,” said Gray, who was arrested in April for sitting on Constitutional Avenue as part of a voting rights protest.
Although Gray has not discussed the use of pepper spray with D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, he said, “he knows” the chief understands what constitutes an appropriate use of force.
“I think we have a police chief who is an outstanding leader in the first place,” Gray said. “She is somebody who truly understands how to work with the community, and she is going to take the steps necessary to preserve public safety, but she is going to do it in a way that protects the First Amendment rights of the people involved.”