Some 230 people are being charged with felony rioting after being arrested in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. It’s an extremely severe charge that a class-action lawsuit alleges was applied indiscriminately to a huge group of people, many of whom weren’t “rioting” at all. We’ve spoken to one of the demonstrators arrested on January 20, who describes a mass of people being kettled by police, held for many hours on the street without explanation or charge. The man says the detainment went on for so long, in such a cramped quarters, that people were forced to urinate in bottles and women had to change their tampons on the street.
“If you were there on the corner you were trapped,” the man told us, requesting anonymity due to the ongoing, sensitive legal situation. “It was indiscriminate.”
The demonstrators in the class-action suit were arrested at 12th and L Streets NW around the time of Trump’s swearing-in. The suit alleges that the police indiscriminately rounded up everyone in the area, pepper-spraying and throwing flash-bang grenades at them. The suit alleges that the police made little effort to focus on people who were actually breaking windows or engaged in any other conduct that could be called rioting, and that the crowd contained “members of the media, attorneys, legal observers, and medics.”
Reports on the arrests of five of the six journalists contain identical language alleging that “numerous crimes were occurring in police presence”. They state that windows were broken, fires were lit and vehicles were damaged. “The crowd was observed enticing a riot by organizing, promoting, encouraging and participating in acts of violence in furtherance of the riot,” the police reports said.
The demonstrator we spoke to told us several things that corroborate with the allegations made in the lawsuit. He said he’d been walking with a peaceful group, who rounded a corner and saw a number of “black bloc” protesters wearing balaclavas and bandanas. Instantly, he said, he heard sirens and police closed in on not just the members of the bloc, but everyone, including elderly people and those in hats identifying them as legal observers.
“They blocked off both sides of a street—nobody had any exit,” the man told us. “Then they pushed a large group of people towards one corner” and told them to leave. “Anyone who wasn’t on the wrong side of that line could just walk away. It was totally random.”
The man we spoke to wasn’t so lucky, ending up on the wrong side of the line.
“Within 15 minutes, I was completely trapped,” he told us. “In the first minute, there was already pepper spray being sprayed towards the crowd and police pushing us with riot shields.” Police forced everyone into the tightest possible confines, he adds: “They jammed us up so hard I couldn’t lift my arms. It was like a crowded New York subway. Not a lot of room for movement. And we stayed like that for hours. And another thing is we were never told to disperse. The only things the cop ever said was, ‘Move move move’ as he pushed us away from him.”
It took, the demonstrator says, five hours before members of the crowd even started being arrested, and eight before he was himself taken into custody. Throughout it all, the police “weren’t talking,” he says. “They were being completely unresponsive. We were just there.” At that point, he said, while the crowd stayed calm, people had to deal with urgent biological needs: “At least one or two women had to change their tampons right there on the street. There were a ton of piss bottles. And yet they never told us why we were there.”
At one point, the man says maybe six hours in, a police officer gave a group of 50 people one water bottle, to share.
The detainment began around 11:30 a.m., the man says; he wasn’t put in a police van until after 7:30 p.m. The group of arrested men he was with then sat in a van for nearly three and a half hours. They were eventually taken to a facility to be processed, but first had to sit in the van, watching their arresting officers eat dinner. At that point, it had been well over nine hours since anyone had been able to eat, drink, or use a bathroom, unless they’d chosen to relieve themselves on the street.
“So we just sat in these vans and watched them eat, like 50 yards away from where we were supposed to be,” he says. “They’re eating in front of a bunch of hungry, trapped people.”
In a surreal twist, the man says many of the demonstrators were processed in a training facility decorated to look like a town. The first thing he saw when the door swung open, he said, was a sign that read something like “Redwood Elementary” on a building.
“It was this funny little mini world,” he says. “Fake roads and fake curbs and fake buildings. It was pretty strange.”
After being detained for two more hours at the training facility, around midnight or a little later, the demonstrators were given boloney and cheese sandwiches and cups of water. They were not, he said, ever read their rights or formally informed what charges they were facing: “No one read us our rights, not ever, not once during that whole process.” One person figured it out by reading, upside down, a book that was open in front of one of the arresting officers, which contained a massive list of names and an identical charge next to each of them.
“Every single one said ‘felony rioting,’” the man says. “Someone in front of me said, ‘Is that what we’re being charged with?’”
The officer, he says, replied with something like, “Yeah I guess so. Don’t be mad at the arresting officer, someone said they wanted this many arrests.”
The man we spoke to spent nearly 35 hours being detained and in custody. “I didn’t feel extreme hostility” from the police after he was put in the police van, he says. “But the way they were doing it was so inhumane. The whole system really fucked us.”
Most of the demonstrators are due back in court in March or April, where, if convicted, they face a maximum of ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine. We contacted the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. for comment; they responded, “MPD cannot comment on pending litigation.”