The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Officer running for state Senate drops out after punching opponent

Jennifer Rourke was allegedly punched by an off-duty Providence police officer she says was running as a Republican against her for a state Senate seat. Jeann Lugo is now under investigation and has dropped out of the race following the incident at an abortion protest on Friday. (Video still/Twitter)
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An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of Lindsay Lague, a Rhode Island Public Safety spokeswoman.

A Providence police officer who was running for state office as a Republican dropped out of the race on Saturday amid a criminal investigation for allegedly punching his Democratic opponent in the face during an abortion protest.

Rhode Island Political Cooperative Chairwoman Jennifer Rourke was among those who spoke at a Friday night protest outside the State House following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end the right to abortion. As tensions escalated among protesters and counterprotesters, Rourke, who is running as a Democrat for a state Senate seat in Warwick, R.I., found herself not far from her Republican opponent, Jeann Lugo, a Providence police officer who was off-duty.

Video posted to social media shows people exchanging punches in a chaotic scene. During the fighting, a man who Rourke says is Lugo is seen punching her in the face.

“Last night, after speaking at our Roe rally, my Republican opponent — a police officer — violently attacked me,” Rourke wrote on Twitter. “This is what it is to be a Black woman running for office. I won’t give up.”

Lugo, a three-year veteran of the department, has been placed on administrative leave and is now under a criminal investigation, Lindsay Lague, a Rhode Island Public Safety spokeswoman, told The Washington Post. Rourke told the Providence Journal that she is seeking to press charges for assault.

“The Providence Police Department is criminally investigating the behavior of an off duty Providence Police Officer last evening during a protest at the Rhode Island State House where a female subject was assaulted,” Lague said in a statement.

As video of the incident went viral Saturday, Lugo announced that he was suspending his campaign for the state Senate.

“I will not be running for any office this fall,” he tweeted.

Lugo appeared to close his Twitter account on Saturday afternoon.

Rourke did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Before Lugo announced he was dropping out from the race, he told The Post that he, as an officer, found himself “in a situation that no individual should see themselves.”

“I stepped in to protect someone that a group of agitators was attacking,” he wrote in an email. “At this moment, there’s a pending internal investigation, and as the facts of the incident come to light, I request that my family and I have privacy.”

The incident happened as Washington and cities coast to coast were bracing for a second day of huge street demonstrations Saturday after the ruling was met with an outpouring of joy and rage Friday night. Demonstrations that began Friday were largely peaceful, although tensions at some protests escalated.

Abortion protests continue after Supreme Court ends Roe v. Wade

In Phoenix, police fired tear gas at abortions rights supporters who demonstrated outside the Arizona Capitol, video showed. The Arizona Department of Public Safety said protesters were banging on the windows of the state Senate, with some attempting to break the glass. While the protest was mostly peaceful, police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly, according to the Arizona Republic.

Police in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are investigating a Friday night incident in which a pickup truck started driving toward protesters and struck a woman.

As protesters were crossing the street in downtown Cedar Rapids, a verbal confrontation unfolded between a protester and the driver of a Ford truck, police said. Video showed that protesters were in front of the truck when the vehicle accelerated and hit a demonstrator. The vehicle then drove away.

Authorities said it is unclear whether the act was intentional, but protesters told KCRG that the driver ran a red light and approached a group of people. No criminal charges had been filed as of Saturday. The person struck was taken to a hospital for evaluation, KCRG reported.

After the Supreme Court’s decision was announced, Rourke, a women’s reproductive rights organizer, wrote on Facebook that she would be speaking at a protest outside the State House in Providence with other people who were angry and crushed by the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

“We cannot sit back and watch as the clock is turned back on our rights,” she wrote Friday. “So, tonight will you join us at 8 p.m. at the [State] House to stand together and show that we will not be defeated?”

Video posted by journalist Bill Bartholomew shows abortion rights supporters and opponents arguing in front of the State House late Friday. Rourke appears to be trying to de-escalate the tense situation, video shows.

But as a counterprotester walks away, a fight breaks out among the group, according to the video.

Rourke posted a clip of Bartholomew’s video in slow-motion to social media that shows her getting punched in the face. She told the Journal that she was hit at least two times by Lugo.

Lugo did not deny hitting Rourke to the Journal. He said Rourke had become physical with him, which she has denied.

“To me, this feels like an act of political violence similar to the acts of violence that we have seen across the U.S.,” Rourke told the outlet.

Lugo has faced criticism from local leaders, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza (D). Elorza noted in a statement that he was limited in what he could say publicly because of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which offers protections for police when they’re faced with disciplinary review.

“With that said, I’ve seen the video and it’s immensely disturbing,” Elorza said. “Those responsible will be held fully accountable.”

Less than 24 hours after the incident at the abortion protest, Rourke expressed disappointment to the Boston Globe that the violence she’s seen plague other past demonstrations happened in Providence.

“It’s frustrating when you are trying to have something peaceful and it turns into something like that,” she said. “I’ve seen things happen across the country, and I never thought that would happen here or to me.”