by Karen Houppert and Brandon Soderberg
On Inauguration Day in Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department arrested 235 people involved in protests, including a number of legal observers and six reporters (one of the reporters' charges has since been dropped). Everybody who was arrested faces felony riot charges, up to 10 years in prison, and significant fines.
During the extended stand-offs with protesters, which kicked off after a series of well-coordinated, property-damage actions from black bloc (read more about that in last week's Democracy In Crisis column), the police used a number of different weapons. For now, the list of what was used has not been released, though in an email sent shortly after the protests, the District's Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham said one would be forthcoming. He did not say when exactly: "A full accounting of the control devices deployed will be made available when we have it."
When we followed up nearly a week later, Newsham said, "HSEMA [Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency] is coordinating the City's after action report." HSEMA did not respond to requests for additional information.
Newsham reiterated what he said in a press conference not long after the Inauguration Day stand-off.
"Officers did not deploy tear gas and did deploy pepper spray and other armaments," he wrote in an email. He also said that despite what some newspapers and websites had claimed, the MPD did not use any "flashbang" grenades. "I know we utilized some stingballs," he said.
Stingballs are rubber grenades that explode and shoot out small rubber pellets, and depending on the type of grenade, sometimes, a chemical agent. Stingball grenades are still pyrotechnic devices and have the potential to cause injury or death, though they are generally understood as less lethal than "flashbang" grenades.
"Stingballs are designed to move aggressive groups back without causing any injuries," Newsham said. "We don't normally deploy flashbangs for this purpose."
Here is what we observed: what seemed to be rubber projectiles of some sort fired out of guns (perhaps rubber bullets or rubber-coated bullets); what seemed to be some kind of chemical agent, that if not precisely tear gas, then something that smelled like tear gas and hung in the air and hurt the face and eyes far worse than pepper spray; something police threw at protesters that exploded in a cloud of smoke and sent shards flying; and something launched into the group of police the corner at 12th Street NW and Massachusetts Avenue NW that emitted pink smoke and also smelled pungent—presumably thrown by protesters, though police formations were at times ring-like, with protesters surrounded by police who were facing more protesters who then were faced with another outline of police, so who knows.
It was very clear however, that protesters threw bricks, concrete, and bottles. What was also clear was that police doused people in pepper spray and went after protesters with batons and aimed at people's necks. Police appeared disorganized, shouting at one another in confusion—and it was often difficult to tell who was in charge or giving orders. Videos from the day show police spraying pepper spray while chasing protesters or spraying the same protester or group over and over again. One video shows an elderly woman being sprayed and then sprayed some more, which is clearly making it harder for her to move away. Finally, other protesters—including those in black bloc—help her get away.
In a video recorded at 13th St. and K streets NW by Baltimore City Paper and posted at the top of this piece, you see two different police officers tossing what seem to be the stingball grenades confirmed by Newsham, as well as officers pointing some kind of weapon around—Newsham would not clarify what the weapon is. What's striking is the nonchalance with which the stingballs are tossed and how reactive the police are—when someone throws a brick, a stingball is thrown back quickly.
In the chaos, lines of police in riot gear marched toward protesters and press alike—reporters scrambled out of the way of the small explosions and pepper spray and waved their press passes to avoid being targeted; some in the international press held their hands high in the air as they fled the approaching police. Though the crowd of protesters had moved back, some continued to fling bottles and bricks toward police. The police, at the least, hurled stingballs toward the retreating crowds.
Newsham has developed a reputation for being savvy at what protesters call "copaganda." After the D.C. police shot Terrence Sterling, a 31-year-old unarmed black man, Newsham posted a video on the MPD Facebook that seemed as though it was a news interview—complete with an interviewer—though it was constructed by the police. Julianne Escobedo-Shepherd's "Regarding the Pain of Terrence Sterling" in Jezebel addresses this video and quotes Jennifer Grygiel, an Assistant Professor of Communications at Newhouse/Syracuse University, who studies police, social media, and propaganda. Grygiel refers to videos like the Newsham "interview" as "state-sponsored media," though some may mistake it for proper news.
Meanwhile, over at Alternet, in "The D.C. Police Chief Behind the Inauguration Crackdown Has a Disgraceful History," Sarah Lazare notes that what happened on Inauguration Day "echoes another mass arrest [in Pershing Park in D.C.] that Newsham ordered as assistant police chief in 2002, in which hundreds of people were indiscriminately kettled and hogtied, forcing the government to eventually pay out millions of dollars in settlements."
Newsham has been slow to confirm what weapons and crowd control devices police used, but said "that there were reports from officers indicating that the demonstrators also deployed devices." How Newsham knows what protestors used and not what his own department used is confusing and troubling. While Newsham was surprisingly accessible over email and quick to respond, his answers obfuscate: a "list" of what was used on protesters on Inauguration Day is not the same as a more in-depth HSEMA after action report; Newsham is debating the kind of weapon used on protesters while the press just wants a confirmation that a weapon was used.
To get meta for a moment: It's often hard when you're talking to police to tell if you're getting the run-around or just communicating with someone firmly entrenched in cop speak and the logic of militarization.
No matter, when the police do not give reporters crucial information or claim they will get it to you soon and then do not, clear facts are delayed. The story by Friday evening, after Newsham would only go so far as to deny what they didn't use (tear gas, flashbang grenades) was that reporters and protesters saw, heard, and some even got hit by something tossed by police that flashes and makes a bang and sends some kind of shards flying. To most—or OK, everybody other than military wonks—whether it was a stingball or a flashbang grenade or a concussion bomb was not important. What is obvious: Cops used military-style weapons on protesters on Inauguration Day.
Additional reporting by Baynard Woods