On Wednesday night, immigration activists gathered at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to protest the private facility’s working relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The coalition of advocacy groups was organized by Never Again Action, the same Jewish activist group that led protests against ICE and the government’s treatment of migrants at detention centers across the country Sunday.
Dozens of people had showed up to protest the contract between ICE and the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, the activists’ news release said. As of Thursday morning there were 129 ICE detainees housed at the facility, ICE told CNN.
Protesters, who were sitting at the entry to the facility’s parking lot, knew they were risking arrest by blocking staff attempts to enter the prison, as a tweet from the organizers indicated at the start of the protest. They didn’t expect that anyone would try to run them over.
According to reporting from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the incident started about 9:45 p.m. Wednesday night, when a black pickup truck driving at a speed of about 10 to 15 miles per hour swerved toward a group of about 30 protesters. The Washington Post reports that “the protesters shouted as the driver laid on the horn, and the truck briefly stopped. … And then, the driver hit the gas.”
“It was terrifying because we didn’t know what exactly his intention was,” Amy Anthony, a spokesperson for Never Again Action, told the Post.
The Post reports that several protesters were treated at a local hospital, but no one was seriously injured. According to Never Again Action, five demonstrators were hospitalized from the event.
Video shows the scene
Around 10 p.m., a dark pickup truck “intentionally swerved into a line of protesters, including at least three minors, who were seated across from the entrance” to the facility, the group said in its statement.
Never Again Action shared a video of the incident, shot by one of its volunteers, Sam Eilertsen. The video begins by showing protesters, some seated and others crouching, blocking the entrance to an employee parking lot across the street from the Wyatt facility. On the sidewalks, protesters are standing and waving signs.
A pickup truck suddenly enters the frame and honks, coming right up to the line of protesters.
Protesters spring up and scream, gathering around the truck, the video shows. Some shout, “Shame!”
The truck continues rolling forward slowly as protesters scramble to get out of its way, until it reaches the lowered arm of the parking lot gate a few feet ahead. The crowd chants, “The whole world is watching.”
With protesters still surrounding the truck, the camera zooms in to show the driver, who speaks into his walkie-talkie. The crowd chants, “You support genocide — Nazi, Nazi, you can’t hide.”
The group said two people were hospitalized after being hit by the truck, but the video does not show those injuries.
“Two people were treated for injuries from the truck, including 64-year-old Jerry Belair, who suffered a fractured leg and internal bleeding,” organizer Amy Anthony told CNN in an email.
Crowd is pepper-sprayed
Less than two minutes after the driver uses the walkie-talkie, a group of at least nine people in uniforms jogs from the facility across the street to the truck, which is still surrounded by protesters.
Nobody disperses, and the crowd begins to chant again, “The whole world is watching.”
The video is shot from the rear right side of the truck. On the other side of the vehicle, the arm of the parking lot gate goes up, and a moment later something is sprayed and people scream and move away.
Eilertsen and a photographer for CNN affiliate WPRI, who was there, said it was pepper spray. Members of the group rubbed their eyes.
Never Again Action said three people were hospitalized for “severe pepper spray exposure.”
The truck driver
WPRI said “law enforcement sources” confirmed that Woodworth was the truck driver.
CNN was unable to reach Woodworth for comment Thursday, despite multiple attempts to do so. It was unclear Thursday night whether he has legal representation.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said she was outraged by the incident depicted in the video.
“Our state and our nation were built on the idea that everyone has a right to express their opinion publicly and peacefully,” Raimondo tweeted.
The governor said she is in communication with State Police Col. Jim Manni about the incident.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) called the video “very disturbing” and said the state police “must swiftly investigate.”
Anthony said in the wake of the incident that it is the detainees inside the Wyatt Detention Facility that she is most concerned about. She told the Post, “If this is the way this correctional officer is behaving in public when people are recording, it’s not hard to imagine the behavior is much worse behind the walls in the facility where no one can see what is happening,”
According to protesters, the driver was a correctional officer and employee of Wyatt. Video of the incident backs up their statement, and the driver was wearing a badge and uniform.
“The truck came in and people ran,” Lex Rofeberg, a protester who was not in the car’s path told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, adding, “It was shocking, it was unexpected. …There’s some amount of risk when you go to an action like this. You don’t expect it to unfold like this.”
Anthony also told the Post that no other law enforcement officials intervened or attempted to stop the driver, who then walked into the prison and continued going about his day at work. Other guards continued the assault on the protesters by dispersing pepper spray into the crowd, a group that she says included children and one person in a wheelchair.
Other protesters and eyewitnesses tweeted about their fear:
LATEST UPDATE: Police pepper sprayed the demonstrators after ICE truck drives into Jewish protesters at Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island. Multiple injuries reported, few people in the hospital. (NEW VIDEO) Check @NeverAgainActn for more updates.
— Max Howroute▫️ (@howroute) August 15, 2019
Never Again Action organizers emphasized that despite the incident, they remain more committed than ever to fighting ICE, and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, a goal they connect to a history of Jewish activism against injustice.
Rhode Island attorney general’s office said in a statement that they are “investigating what transpired last night at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls” and reiterated its support for peaceful protest.
UPDATE: Friday, August 16, 2019 9:45 a.m.
The detention facility said Capt. Thomas Woodworth has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of two investigations: an independent investigation being conducted by the Rhode Island State Police and an internal investigation being conducted by the facility.
ICE said its personnel were not involved in the incident.
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