Cellphone footage of the incident showed officers rushing out of black SUVs and surrounding a silver Toyota minivan belonging to the nonprofit near a Speedway gas station. One officer aimed a gun at the van while another bashed through the passenger-side window. Officers could be seen pulling two people out of the vehicle and handcuffing them.
Off-camera, officers arrested a half-dozen other members, Riot Kitchen board member Jennifer Scheurle told The Washington Post.
It was not initially clear which agencies the officers came from. In the video, some appeared in plainclothes while others wore vests with “police” and “gang unit” printed on them. At one point in the footage, an officer wearing an olive green uniform and a U.S. Marshals Service vest could be seen approaching the area.
The Kenosha Police Department later acknowledged that its officers led the operation, saying in a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday evening that they started tracking the group after receiving a tip about “suspicious vehicles” meeting on the edge of town. Assisted by U.S. marshals, they followed the group to a gas station in the northern part of Kenosha. There they watched the occupants fill up multiple fuel cans, according to the statement.
“Suspecting that the occupants of these vehicles were preparing for criminal activity related to the unrest, officers attempted to make contact and investigate,” police said. The statement added that the officers “identified themselves” and were “wearing appropriate identification.”
Police said they recovered helmets, gas masks, protective vests, illegal fireworks and “suspected controlled substances” from the vehicles. Nine people were arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Police did not immediately release their names.
Scheurle, the Riot Kitchen board member, said the group was putting gas in the organization’s bus and food truck when officers stormed them. She said it was “pure craziness” to suggest they were using the gas for criminal activity.
“It’s two giant vehicles and generators,” Scheurle said. “We don’t have guns, we don’t have weapons. We’re there to feed people. That’s it.”
A Marshals Service spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Kenosha police called the agency to assist but that no marshals participated in the arrests.
The Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday.
Scheurle, who is based in Seattle, described the Riot Kitchen members who were arrested as friends who helped run the group. She said three were released Thursday but others were still in jail. She and other Riot Kitchen leaders didn’t know where they were or who had taken them into custody until Thursday afternoon, she said.
Riot Kitchen was founded amid the racial justice protests in the Pacific Northwest earlier in the summer to provide free meals to activists taking part in the demonstrations and to people experiencing homelessness. Members passed out water, sandwiches and other dishes during protests in Seattle and Portland. A GoFundMe drive raised more than $44,000 to pay for the group’s food truck.
According to Scheurle, some of the members were driving in a caravan to D.C. when they decided to make a detour to Kenosha and join the demonstrations sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Officer Rusten Sheskey shot the 29-year-old Black man seven times in the back while trying to arrest him, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and sparking another wave of protests and riots against police violence and systemic racism.
Scheurle said she lost contact with the group Wednesday afternoon and started to worry. After checking police reports in the area, she noticed a social media user’s video of the arrests. The footage was viewed more than 800,000 times on Twitter.
The tactic used in the arrests bore some similarities to tactics law enforcement agencies have deployed against activists in other cities where racial justice protests and riots have unfolded in recent months. President Trump has dispatched federal officers to suppress actions in cities around the country, prompting outcry from officials who accuse the administration of using “secret police” to crush lawful demonstrations.
In Portland, federal officers in generic military garb have rolled up in unmarked vehicles and grabbed demonstrators suspected of wrongdoing. In D.C., protesters confronted unidentified law enforcement with no tags or affiliation who were later revealed to be police from the Bureau of Prisons.
City police have also faced criticism for such tactics. In New York last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio scolded the city’s police force after plainclothes officers driving an unmarked van arrested a protester, in an incident that went viral on social media.