In a viral video captured by bystanders, the protesters screamed and jumped out of the way. Several were struck, according to organizers of the Wednesday night demonstration at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I. Some were treated at a hospital, though none were severely injured.
“It was terrifying because we didn’t know what exactly his intention was,” Amy Anthony, a spokesperson for Never Again Action, a Jewish activist group that planned the protest, told The Washington Post. “It certainly appeared he was trying to hit us.”
The driver was Captain Thomas Woodworth, a correctional officer employed by the privately run facility, the Wyatt Detention Facity confirmed on Friday. Central Falls police working at the protest did not intervene, Anthony said, and the driver eventually walked into the prison after other guards pepper-sprayed the protesters.
“It’s obvious that there was an assault that took place,” Anthony said. “We’re not sure what we can do now.”
The Rhode Island attorney general’s office and the Rhode Island State Police are investigating the incident, the attorney general’s office said in a statement. Maj. Craig Horton of the Central Falls Police Department told The Post his agency was assisting.
“Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed,” the attorney general’s office said in the statement. “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night’s situation unfolded as it did. We urge all to exercise restraint as our investigation proceeds.”
Woodworth has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation, said Chris Hunter, a spokesman for the prison, in a statement. The detention facility is also conducting an internal review, he said.
The confrontation took place during a wave of protests around the country by Jewish groups against ICE, including a demonstration that shut down part of Manhattan’s West Side Highway on Saturday, leading police to arrest nearly 100 protesters.
Anthony’s group, which ties its activism to preventing future atrocities like the Holocaust, arrived at the prison around 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The Wyatt Detention Facility, which describes itself as a “quasi-public corporation,” the Providence Journal reported, has contracts with ICE to house immigration detainees. The facility is operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corp. and is overseen by a board appointed by the mayor of Central Falls, located about seven miles north of Providence.
About 30 protesters first shut down the main entrance to the prison by linking arms and sitting on the ground, Anthony said. Around 9 p.m., they moved to block the driveways into the staff parking lot. About 45 minutes later, the black pickup showed up.
“The truck kind of swerved to sort of pick up speed,” Anthony said. “It felt unreal to see this happening and to see that someone was actively driving into a group of people who, as I say, were peacefully sitting.”
The group included children and one protester in a wheelchair, Anthony said.
Before the truck could get through to the parking lot, though, protesters gathered on the other side of the gate, shouting “Shame!” Moments later, other guards from the prison rushed across the street to surround the protesters and then fired pepper spray.
After the demonstrators fled the pepper spray, the driver parked in the lot and then walked into the prison, Anthony said.
Although Central Falls police were on the scene, they did not get involved, Anthony said, and officers later refused to take statements from protesters. Organizers are discussing what legal recourse they might have now.
Anthony said the incident hardened her group’s resolve to continue protesting ICE and prisons that work with the federal agency.
“If this is the way this correctional officer is behaving in public when people are recording, it’s not hard to imagine the behavior is much worse behind the walls in the facility where no one can see what is happening,” she said.
Marisa Iati contributed to this report.
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