The memories of the 2002 protests against the World Bank that resulted in the arrest of almost 400 protesters and bystanders at the District’s Pershing Park are still fresh in the minds of police, demonstrators and the city’s pocketbook.
It wasn’t until last April that the District and federal authorities settled the final lawsuit filed by demonstrators, bringing to $13.25 million the total payout for the arrests of the hundreds of protesters caught in a “trap and detain” policy.
On Friday, during Inauguration Day protests, D.C. police arrested 230 demonstrators after corralling them at 12th and L streets NW. Defense attorneys and some of those arrested are likening the treatment to the problematic mass arrests at Pershing Park nearly 15 years ago, saying these protesters, too, were “trapped and detained” and then arrested without being given dispersal orders.
But law enforcement authorities say there are key differences.
Unlike the Pershing Park demonstrators, police said, Friday’s protesters went on a well-planned, four-square-block rampage through downtown with hammers and crowbars, breaking store and car windows, setting a vehicle on fire and causing destruction estimated to be in excess of $100,000.
Interim D.C. police chief Peter Newsham said that officers strategically maneuvered to get in front of the demonstrators with the goal of trapping them, but only after property had been destroyed. Sgt. Matthew Mahl, the chairman of the police union, said that once violence occurs, “we don’t need to issue dispersal orders.”
Mahl said that in Pershing Park, “we blocked them in on four sides and told them they needed to leave. But we didn’t give them a place to go.” Those defendants were largely charged with failing to disperse.
During Friday’s demonstrations, Mahl said, officers corralled the protesters with the intent of arresting them. They were charged with rioting.
Prosecutors justified the felony charge based on the estimated damage. In court papers, police noted that the group DisruptJ20 was well organized, had publicly threatened to shut down the presidential inauguration using violent means, and had preselected a core group of people willing to be arrested. Six officers were injured. Demonstrators had lawyers on call, private medics to treat injuries and a media spokesman.
“We had very, very large demonstrations on Friday throughout the city, and the largest majority of those demonstrations were very peaceful,” Newsham said Sunday on WTOP radio (103.5 FM). However, near 13th and K streets, “we had a small of group of folks that had an intention of coming to Washington, D.C., and breaking the law. . . . And all the police officers were outstanding in the judgment that they used. They used the least amount of force necessary to bring those folks safely and respectfully into custody. I couldn’t be more proud of the way this department responded.”
On Friday afternoon, a lawyer who set up a legal hotline for demonstrators filed a lawsuit in federal court in the District against D.C. police and U.S. Park Police alleging that the arrests were improper. The lead plaintiff is a Colorado attorney who served as DisruptJ20’s legal observer and was swept up in the arrests. Newsham also was named in the suit.
The lawsuit alleges that police arrested demonstrators “without warning and without any dispersal order,” and it denies that any of those charged “rioted or in any way would have appeared to the police to have been breaking the law.”
Jason Flores-Williams, an attorney for 17 demonstrators who were arrested, called the felony charge unprecedented.
“The government is trying to crack down on dissent,” Flores-Williams said. “They are trying to intimidate everyone. Right now there’s been great solidarity with everybody.”
He accused prosecutors of trying to intimidate the arrestees into pleading guilty to lesser charges. “But the government can’t prove any of these cases,” he said. “So we’re going to take them all to trial. . . . There’s no evidence. I was there witnessing all of this. There is no way they can prove anything in particular.”
Protesters and other attorneys complained that the protesters responsible for the most serious damage eluded arrest. The people who got caught, they said, were bystanders, protesters not involved in violence and observers used by the groups to monitor police behavior and tactics.
Jeffrey Light, the Washington attorney who filed the federal suit, said he is alleging unlawful arrest and excessive force. He said police were making mass arrests “without individualized probable cause,” unable to link individuals to specific acts of violence.
Demonstrators and the lawsuit also complained about the use of police crowd-control devices, such as small explosives that make a loud noise and flash a bright light to disorient people.
Initially, D.C. police officials denied using such devices. Later Friday, they said they were investigating reports from witnesses, including Washington Post reporters, who saw officers throwing them. The police chief said officers reported that protesters were also using similar devices.
On Saturday, the union chairman, Mahl, said officers used “sting grenades,” also known as “sting balls.” They set off a loud noise and a flash, as well as plumes of smoke. Sting grenades also shoot out small rubber pellets that sting but aren’t supposed to embed in flesh.
Mahl said sting grenades are most effective in crowd-control situations; “flash-bangs,” which don’t project pellets but have a brighter, blinding flash, are more likely to be used by tactical officers making forced entries into homes.
In the WTOP interview Sunday, Newsham did not acknowledge that his officers had hurled grenades or sting balls. He indicated that the issue was still under investigation as part of his department’s “after-action” inquiry.
“We’re going to look into every detail,” he said on WTOP. “We’re going to do an after-action on everything we did, look into every instance where a use of force was made, look at the planning, look at the staging of our folks, see if that was the way to do it.
“The goal when you do an after-action is to make sure every single time we do something like this, that we learn.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, a Colorado attorney, served as DisruptJ20’s legal observer. He did not serve as a legal advisor.
Keith L. Alexander and Paul Duggan contributed to this report.