Campus Progress Reporter: I Was Caught in Police Violence at Occupy DC
Over the weekend, as I was at the Occupy DC encampment to cover the eviction of protesters from McPherson Square, I was shoved to the ground with a baton by Sgt. Todd Reid of the U.S. Park Police while I was trying to back away from him.
Reid was the commanding officer on the scene, and is featured in a viral YouTube video of an Occupy DC protester who was tased in the back last week. [Clarification: Reid was the commanding officer on the tasing scene, not one of the officers who tased the protester.]
I was just one of many on the scene who were knocked into a thronging crowd of people when the riot cops’ dispersal orders stopped agreeing with the laws of physics and the Park Police’s orderly quasi-eviction of the Occupy encampment took a shockingly violent turn.
Around 4:30 on Feb. 4, a number of occupiers decided to sit down in front of their camp’s library to prevent police from seizing it. Park Police’s Public Information Officer David Schlosser had previously issued a statement that the library would be spared—it had a flap open and didn’t contain sleeping paraphernalia, which gave it the OK under the no-camping regulations police and hazardous materials teams had been enforcing since dawn.
There had been a few clashes and arrests earlier in the day as officers cordoned off the park section by section, but occupiers seemed resigned by the afternoon as cleanup crews carefully bagged personal property for later retrieval and threw away what they deemed to be trash or a biohazard.
When Park Police officers prepared to inspect the library and ensure its compliance, though, occupiers weren’t ready to trust them. The officers had betrayed them too often that day, occupiers said, claiming that some empty tents that complied with the department’s rules were still confiscated.
No one was prepared for what followed. A line of Park Police officers in full riot gear encroached upon the crowd.
“Mooove back!” came the rhythmic call from one officer, though the directions weren’t clear. Who was he talking to? How far back was far back enough? I intended to stay as long as I lawfully could to film what happened, and I wasn’t alone.
Then officers said people who weren’t planning to sit down should leave. “Are you sitting or leaving?” they said. “Turn and move, turn and move.”
Except for one problem—a lot of people had nowhere to turn or move.
I had virtually no options. To my left was a metal barricade with police on the other side of it. Behind me was a crowd of people and the camp’s information tent. On the right, a perpendicular phalanx of officers was boxing in the crowd. A narrow sidewalk was the only route way possible, but most of that was also being blocked by officers or other occupiers.
“We’re trying to exit,” one photographer said repeatedly in response to dispersal orders who was blocked from doing so by two merging police lines.
Still, the demands to “turn and move” continued. To emphasize this point, officers began shoving demonstrators and onlookers with their riot shields. And shoving. And shoving.
You’ll see in my video footage below that the young women next to me were pushing back against a cop’s riot shield after he started pushing. That wasn’t smart, and it certainly didn’t help the situation. Still, a couple of unarmed, 5-foot-tall girls are hardly a match for a cop in full riot gear, and I’d at least question whether using batons on them, as this officer did, was the best way to de-escalate things and get them to disperse.
When the shoving match next to me became more intense, I realized I should try harder to get out of there—but Sgt. Reid didn’t give me the chance. He and another officer came towards me, seemingly out of nowhere, sticking batons in my face and yelling “Back up!”
I had about two seconds to back away and try to comply before Reid jabbed me backwards with his baton, and another few seconds to get jostled around in the crowd and scream for help before Reid sent me sprawling into the mass of people behind me with another baton-aided shove to my back.
I panicked. People die in crowds like this, I thought. I screamed, and flailed, and screamed some more, until some kind person pulled me up and some others calmed me down and helped me move away from the scene.
(I filed an official complaint against Sgt. Reid with the Park Police’s Internal Affairs department, and they have been responsive to my request. However, officials said they cannot provide any official information on this incident.)
Below is my video footage of what happened.
There’s another view of my tumble—and a better picture of the general disarray that kept people who wanted to leave from doing so—in Eddie Becker’s video, which accompanied Jefferson Morley’s excellent Salon article about what happened on Feb. 4 (the crackdown begins around 4:30). Morley also reported being shoved and sent sprawling by officers with riot shields. It turns out that I was standing right next to the two of them—indeed, I fell on top of poor Eddie.
My encounter was just the beginning of the mayhem.
Horse-mounted police joined the fray and terrified those in their path. Dozens of other people were knocked back, domino-style, with riot shields into crowds behind them or beaten with batons. People tripped over debris. Others cursed the cops and resisted moving back. One protester was knocked unconscious before being arrested. Another threw a full Coke bottle—not a brick, as previously reported—and seriously injured a police officer. Sgt. Reid had another shining moment trying to grab someone’s camera and push that person back when he was stuck against a fence, seen at 0:38 in this video.
Walking down the middle of K Street after all the occupiers had finally been pushed out of McPherson Square, you’d think a bomb had just gone off inside the park. People were screaming, crying, cursing, walking around in a daze, and hugging each other for comfort.
I passed one young man who was weeping after he’d been knocked down by police, another who had been hit in the head and was leaning on his friends, another in hysterics after having witnessed, he said, a 14-year-old girl being trampled by police. I heard similar accounts about the girl from half a dozen people, but haven’t yet found any reports of what happened.
Eleven people were arrested that day, including Jeremiah DeSousa, who was charged with assault with a deadly weapon for the Coke bottle incident. Protester Nathan Gorecky sustained head injuries and a broken arm before being arrested.
Without question, as at other encampments, there were protesters who acted out of line and deliberately failed to comply with police orders.
Still, the show of force by officers in this situation was sudden and shocking and executed with seemingly little concern for efficient de-escalation or peaceful dispersal.
Did police really take the word of one occupier, as seen in Becker’s video at Salon, who said people were unlikely to leave the camp peacefully, and then act under the assumption that everyone assembled there would refuse to disperse without force? Did the two dozen cops bussed in from New York City have anything to do with these stepped-up tactics? (Schlosser, the public information officer, hasn’t returned my calls about these questions.)
The incident is especially shocking because the Park Police have been the good guys. They were portrayed in the media as the easygoing officers used to enforcing First Amendment issues, the ones sticking up for the rights of demonstrators. And from what I’ve observed while covering this movement, that picture seemed pretty accurate.
“These guys [DC Park Police], for four months, didn’t write us any tickets,” said occupier Brian Eister on a live video stream last week, before the police action. “I fucking hate the cops—Oakland, LA, NYPD. But these are not those guys.”
A lot of occupiers I talked to might grumble about the “pigs,” as they’re sometimes called at encampments, but they’d still give the Park Police credit for treating demonstrators with respect and protecting their rights.
The tasing incident, which Sgt. Reid oversaw, caused that mutual respect to start to crumble. And after this forceful eviction, it will be much harder to repair.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.