Protesters say police exposed them to coronavirus risk

Ghost was making his way back to his car after his first protest when police blocked off streets in north-west Washington DC. The African-American music manager had driven in from Virginia to attend peaceful demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd despite the coronavirus risk because “it’s time for true equality”, he said.

Witnesses said hundreds of protesters had been social distancing when, an hour or so after a 7pm curfew on Monday June 1, police hemmed them in from both ends of a side street and pushed with shields, batons and other non-lethal weapons.

“All we saw was a barrel,” said Ghost, describing a weapon he could not identify. Eyewitnesses said police fired pepper spray at point-blank range and yanked people from the crowd to arrest them. “It was a bad scene,” said the 29-year-old, who gave only his music industry name.

Police ziptied Ghost’s hands behind his back, cut off his mask and put him into the back of a hot police wagon packed with 10 other men, he said. Nearly a dozen of the 194 protesters police say they arrested from Swann Street that night recounted a similar experience. One fainted and fell out of the police van after telling officers “I can’t breathe”, according to reports from multiple eyewitnesses.

“The way we were treated that night is the reason why we we’re marching,” said Amala Iyanla, a 22-year-old African-American rap artist whose mask was also taken by police following her arrest, adding that a white woman in the crowd kept calling out to police: “Why aren’t I being arrested just like them?”

Footage of law enforcement officials attacking unarmed and peaceful protesters at demonstrations across the country has provoked outrage. Police, federal agents and more than 26,000 National Guard troops were deployed across the country to restore law and order in the wake of vandalism, arson and looting following the killing of Floyd. But some officers have fired rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and stingray grenades at peaceful protesters and journalists, in some cases leading to hospitalisation.

Those arrested in Washington told the Financial Times that several had asked for masks, food, water, blankets, bathroom breaks and a telephone call but were denied. “They were being so slow and cruel about letting people use the bathroom that several people urinated in their pants because they couldn’t hold it any more,” said Sebi Medina-Tayac, a 25-year-old hotel worker of native American and Latino descent who was among those held overnight.

The mass arrest on Swann St occurred soon after federal agents violently cleared protesters from outside the White House on the orders of William Barr, the US attorney-general, before the newly imposed 7pm DC-wide curfew. The order to clear Lafayette Square, which enabled a photo shoot of President Donald Trump with a Bible, prompted such criticism that US military leaders stepped in to defend the first amendment right to peaceful protest and to argue that troops should be kept off the streets. Civil rights groups have sued the Trump administration over the action.

Several lawyers’ groups said the treatment of those arrested at Swann St may constitute a violation of their constitutional rights and are investigating whether to bring a case against the police.

“We have seen overwhelming overreaction if there is an excuse for the police to go after the folks demonstrating based on the actions of some, or a relatively small thing like a curfew violation,” said Scott Michelman, legal director at the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He added that police actions appeared to have “multiplied the risk associated with detention in a . . . setting where people are kept in close quarters and coronavirus has the most chance to spread”. 

Protesters face off with police outside the White House on May 30 © Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty

Mr Michelman said he was investigating whether there was a case to be brought, adding: “It looks like a giant blunder in constitutional terms and a violation of these folks’ rights.”

Police chief Peter Newsham last week conceded he had heard “disturbing” details about police beating protesters during the Swann St mass arrest. He added that the internal affairs bureau would investigate the use of pepper spray, allegations of excessive force and “get to the bottom of exactly what happened”. 

The Metropolitan Police Department, which reports to Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser who has increased police funding, did not respond to allegations that police removed masks from protesters. The MPD said that masks and hand sanitiser were given out — claims denied by protesters — and that those arrested were kept in a large room with areas designated for social distancing. But it did not say how many people were held in those rooms and whether designated areas were observed. “It was nowhere near social distancing. You couldn’t move,” said Ghost.

Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the state had a legal duty to take steps to prevent those arrested from contracting a virus. “Mayor Muriel Bowser has spoken out on the role of federal agents but she has been less willing to call out her own police department,” she said.

“The reason that so many protesters and demonstrators are out protesting what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, is because those things — excessive use of force — happen in DC all the time by the MPD,” she said.

African-Americans are also disproportionately affected by coronavirus; making up 46 per cent of Washington DC’s population but 74 per cent of the district’s Covid-19 deaths. In the 11 days since the first weekend of protests following the killing of George Floyd, an additional 736 people of a total 9,537 in the district have tested positive for coronavirus and 33 have died. Symptoms can take two weeks to develop.

Several of those whose masks were taken during the Swann St arrests and held overnight are self-quarantining and monitoring for Covid symptoms. Police and National Guard did not comment on whether Covid cases had increased among their own ranks. To date, 142 members of the MPD have tested positive for Covid and one has died. Wearing a mask is voluntary.

Ron Waldman, professor of global health at George Washington University, said reports that police removed masks were “totally reprehensible” and would constitute a clear example of police putting people in danger.

“Any coercion or force used on people to prevent them from complying with good public health practice is on a par with police brutality and should be punished to the maximum extent possible,” said Prof Waldman.

The same day the protesters were released, district voters elected Janeese Lewis George, a democratic socialist who campaigned on a platform to redistribute police budgets into social welfare programming, as a DC councillor. It was an unexpected victory that ousted a contender close to Mayor Bowser, who belongs to a more moderate Democratic faction that controls the council. Other reform efforts, such as undoing “qualified immunity” that exempts police officers from some abuse charges, are gaining steam. Lawyers said police removing coronavirus masks could potentially fall under such a revamped definition.

For rap artist Amala, the answer is clear: police need to start playing fair. “This is the justice we want; this is what we are fighting for.”