Greensboro woman and son join suit against DC police

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DC police deploy tear-gas during protests against President Trump's inauguration. (courtesy photo)

A Greensboro woman and her 10-year-old son, who was knocked over and pepper-sprayed during protests at President Trump’s inauguration in the nation’s capital, have signed on to a lawsuit against the Washington, DC police. 

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, a nonprofit administrator and writer who lives in Greensboro, and her son have joined a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of District of Columbia alleging wide-ranging constitutional violations by the DC Metropolitan Police Department during protests against President Trump’s 2016 inauguration.

Frisbie-Fulton wrote in a Medium article explaining her decision to join the suit that her son, identified as AS, took a keen interest in the 2016 election and that his concerns about Trump, “rooted in his personal values of kindness and respect,” motivated her decision to take him to protest the inauguration. After protesting for a few hours, Frisbie-Fulton received a text in the early afternoon indicating that a friend from Greensboro had been detained by police at the corner of 12th and L streets, and they walked three blocks to check on the situation.

The police were holding about 200 protesters through a detention tactic known as “kettling” that has been used periodically by the DC police to deal with large protests over the past 18 years, according to the lawsuit. Frisbie-Fulton said that AS boosted himself up on a street sign to wave at the friend trapped inside the kettle and chanted along with others: “Let them go!”

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that at about 1:45 p.m., “suddenly and without warning or a dispersal order,” 11 police officers who are listed as defendants “began to pepper-spray the people outside the kettle,” including Judah Ariel, a legal observer.

“When the pepper-spraying began, there was no threat to public or officer safety, and none of the individuals in the crowd outside the kettle — including Mr. Ariel, Ms. Frisbie-Fulton and AS — was disobeying police orders,” the lawsuit states. Frisbie-Fulton said she told her son it was time to go, and he hopped down from the street sign and they hurried westward down L Street to get away from the intersection where the police were pepper-spraying the crowd.

The lawsuit alleges that without warning or provocation, a line of police officers rushed forward, and Officers Joseph Masci and Aulio Angulo knocked AS to the ground. Frisbie-Fulton wrote that she instinctively jumped on top of her son, rounding her back to create pocket to prevent him from being crushed.

Frisbie-Fulton said she picked up her son, who was by then sobbing, and looked for an escape route. Seeing that L Street to the west was clear except for a line of police officers, she said she asked if she could leave in that direction, but an officer rebuffed her by saying, “You shouldn’t have come here with your child.”

Another officer tapped Frisbie-Fulton and told her to follow him, according to her account and the lawsuit, but they became separated. The pair then joined other protesters trying to flee as the police continued to use pepper spray on the crowd. Overcome by pepper spray, Frisbie-Fulton said she was unable to carry her son and another protester picked him up and carried him, until they eventually reached safety.

“When we heard Gwen’s story we were quite moved by what had happened to her and thought it would be important to have her and her son as plaintiffs in the case to show the wantonness of the police conduct,” said Scott Michelman, the lead attorney in the case, which was originally filed in June 2017. “The fact that the police were so out of control that they would knock over and expose to pepper spray a 10-year-old child is remarkable.”

The suit accuses the DC police of Fourth Amendment violations for excessive force, as well as assault and battery for knocking down AS. The suit also alleges Fourth Amendment violations for arresting freelance photojournalist Shay Horse and protester Elizabeth Lagesse without probable cause and First Amendment violations for arresting them for protected speech along with false arrest and false imprisonment. In addition, the suit accuses the police of negligence for detaining protesters without differentiating between those engaging in protected free speech and those committing unlawful acts, as well as for failing to give dispersal orders before deploying pepper spray.

A spokesperson said the police could not comment on the allegations because the matter is under litigation but referred Triad City Beat to an earlier statement: “During the 58th presidential inauguration, there were thousands of individuals who exercised their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and speak out for their cause. Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers. Over 200 rioters were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions, and the bulk of them are pending prosecution after being indicted by a grand jury.”

Frisbie-Fulton, who was not arrested or charged, also declined to comment for this story.

She explained her decision to bring her son to the inauguration protest in her Medium article.

“All of a mother’s breath revolves around keeping her child safe,” Frisbie-Fulton wrote. “If I had known the police would attack the crowd like that I never would have gone. But if we live in a time when we expect police to attack us, then we need to be having a very different conversation. We don’t need to talk about what we should or shouldn’t do; we need to talk about how we are going to change.

“Protest is not just a protected liberty; it is essential to community life,” she continued. “For me, protest is a logical continuation of the everyday community change work that I engage in; for nearly 20 years, I have made my career working for anti-violence and anti-poverty nonprofits. Likewise, for parents, protest is a logical continuation of the values we teach our children (stand up to bullies, speak out, befriend the kid who has been treated unfairly).”

More than 200 protesters were indicted on charges of rioting, property destruction and assault in federal court in April. In late December, a jury acquitted six defendants who faced the most serious felony charges.

The federal indictment alleges that 200 individuals participating in a black bloc — a protest tactic in which people dress in black with scarves and masks covering their faces — committed acts of violence and vandalism for a little over 30 minutes over the span of 16 blocks. Prosecutors argue that protesters charged the police line at 12th and L streets “in an attempt to avoid arrest by law enforcement.” The alleged offense took place at the location where police eventually kettled the protesters about two hours before Frisbie-Fulton and her son arrived.

The ACLU lawsuit charges that police failed to distinguish between individuals who were peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights and those who were committing unlawful acts, and even attacked bystanders like Shay Horse, a photojournalist who has sold images to the Associated Press and Getty Images. The suit says that Horse was photographing demonstrators in hoods and masks who were breaking a storefront window and a police officer who was pepper-spraying demonstrators when the same officer turned on Horse without warning and sprayed him. The suit alleges that the police chased Horse and several protesters into Franklin Square with pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, concussion grenades, stingballs, smoke flares and long-range acoustic devices — a device that emits “an excruciatingly loud tone.”

The suit alleges that officers deployed pepper spray and stingballs — described as “explosive devices that release smoke, rubber pellets and a chemical irritant within a radius of approximately 50 feet” — against Horse and others, including co-plaintiff Elizabeth Lagesse, “without warning or a dispersal order, often in circumstances where the officers faced no threat to themselves or to public safety or disobedience of any commands they had given.”

Far from trying to disperse the protesters, the ACLU suit alleges the police intentionally corralled them.

“Because of defendants’ intentional and coordinated action in chasing individuals north on 14th Street NW, then east on L Street NW, while driving them on by using pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, concussion grenades and stingballs, and blocking their egress via alternative routes, the individuals who were trapped in the kettle at 12th and L streets NW were not there by virtue of having acted unlawfully but merely because they were present on particular downtown DC streets on the morning of January 20 and then tried to flee when police chased and assaulted them.”

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