Their babies were in the back seat, Mother Goose Club was singing through the car speakers, and the mothers were digging around in diaper bags when they heard the crash and felt the jolt.
Johnson and Winston looked up. A Secret Service cruiser had driven into their front left bumper, Winston told The Washington Post. Within seconds, Winston recalled, a uniformed Secret Service officer was pointing a rifle at them, yelling “Get out!” and “Put your hands in the air!” More officers surrounded them with guns pulled, the women said.
Over the next hour, Winston and Johnson said, they were handcuffed without reason, separated from their crying babies, and handled by police who, at first, did not wear masks to protect against the novel coronavirus.
The women are now demanding that the Secret Service investigate the encounter and publicly release details of the incident that, they said, made them fear for their lives and the safety of their children.
“This incident took place near our national monuments across from the White House,” their attorney, Timothy Maloney, wrote in the letter demanding an investigation to Secret Service Director James Murray over the weekend. “It occurred after eight weeks of unprecedented national demonstrations about excessive police conduct, some of which took place right there on Constitution Avenue. Has the Secret Service learned nothing this summer?”
Initially, the women said, an officer told them the vehicle had been reported stolen and that the suspects were two Black men. But the women, both African American, said no men were with them and provided proof that Johnson was the owner. She told the Secret Service she had never reported the car stolen. Eventually, the women were released — without an apology or answers to their questions, Winston said.
Days later, they said they still don’t know why the Secret Service targeted them.
“I could have been another Breonna Taylor,” Winston said. “I could have been another innocent woman who has no record and got shot.”
In a statement, a Secret Service spokesperson confirmed they had received a “query requesting the agency investigate an alleged interaction between Uniformed Division Officers and two members of the public.” The Secret Service said it is “looking into the matter” and “has no further comment at this time.”
Maloney said the Secret Service has not acknowledged receipt of their letter, which demands answers to 16 questions in addition to an investigation.
“These were two young African American mothers with their babies sitting lawfully in a car with D.C. tags,” Maloney wrote in his letter. “Can the Secret Service honestly say it would have treated white out-of-town tourists and their babies, sitting there without District tags, the same way?”
The women grew up in Reston, Va., and later moved to the District. They had sons within months of each other. Winston’s son, G’esus, is 6 months old. Johnson’s son, Sir Quincy, is 13 months.
Winston said she and Johnson were in “full mommy mode” in the parked Ford Focus when, based on the angle of the collision, they believe the Secret Service car drove across the centerline of Constitution Avenue near 17th Street and plowed into the front bumper on the driver’s side.
The babies — scared from the crash — were wailing, and the officers were yelling with guns drawn, Winston said.
“It felt like a dream. It was so unreal,” she said. “We’re trying to understand what [the officer] was saying, because we didn’t want to make the wrong move and accidentally get shot up.”
Johnson, barefoot, got out of the car first and immediately asked why they were being detained, according to Winston’s account to The Post and Maloney’s letter. Johnson told the officer where to find her documents.
Winston, still in the passenger seat, held her hands to the roof of the car, she said. The officer with the rifle pointed it at her head. She said she pleaded with him not to shoot her baby.
Both women were handcuffed, according to the letter. Neither woman was read her Miranda rights, they said.
For about 45 minutes, according to the letter, the babies wailed in the back seat of the car while the women were in handcuffs. The doors to the car were open, which made the mothers worry about their children overheating. Winston asked if she could breastfeed her son, but was ignored, she said.
“No one wants to hear their kid cry,” Winston said.
At some point, an officer on the scene called an ambulance to check on the children, and the women were released from the cuffs and reunited with the babies. After the women finished with the ambulance, a bystander told them officers searched Johnson’s car without her permission, according to the letter.
Winston said she asked the officers for their business cards, but they said they did not carry them. So instead, she got a pad of paper and a pen and went down the line, asking for their names and badge numbers.
“I had to stay strong, somebody had to be strong. I wanted to cry, but I’m not going to let them see me cry,” Winston said. “The fact that our kids had to witness this? Nobody wants to introduce their kids to this.”
Winston said she and Johnson want answers to why this happened to them.
“For this to randomly just happen,” she said. “It’s really traumatizing.”
Maloney said he and his clients are prepared to ask for a congressional inquiry if they don’t get answers soon. He called on the Secret Service to publicly release details of the incident, including why it started and who was involved. He said they want to see the incident report and body camera footage if it exists. They’re also calling for the Secret Service to suspend the responsible officers.
Winston said she and Johnson have spent the days since the incident paranoid and traumatized. She is seeking therapy. Johnson is afraid to drive alone and avoids leaving the house.
“We don’t get in trouble. Nothing like this has ever happened to us,” Winston said. “I thought the police was here to serve and protect us, and now it’s really uncomfortable.”