CENTRAL FALLS — What started out as an evening for people to voice their concern for the treatment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility became a dangerous confrontation Wednesday when a guard attempted to drive through demonstrators blocking the entrance to an employee parking lot, injuring people in the process.
Wyatt guards, responding to a radio call from the guard seen driving a black pickup, attempted to disperse the crowd by then blocking and stopping the pickup at the parking lot entrance and ultimately used pepper spray on the demonstrators to push them back from the vehicle, injuring additional protesters.
Central Falls Police investigating the incident Wednesday night reported four people had been transported to the hospital with unspecified injuries either from the pickup contacting demonstrators or from the pepper spray. People were also treated at the scene for lesser impacts from the pepper spraying, and it was not known if they later sought medical treatment.
The events at the protest outside Wyatt also prompted investigations by the R.I. Attorney General’s Office and the Rhode Island State Police on Thursday and a statement from the Wyatt announcing that the guard involved in the incident at the parking lot entrance, Captain Thomas Woodworth, had been placed on administrative leave.
“The incident which occurred last night is currently being investigated by the Rhode Island State Police,” the statement said.
“Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility Warden Daniel Martin is also conducting a top-to-bottom review of the incident, Wyatt correctional officers’ response, and the Wyatt’s protocols regarding protest activities outside of the facility,” it stated.
“Captain Thomas Woodworth has been place on administrative leave pending the results of the independent investigation being conducted by the Rhode Island State Police, and the Wyatt’s internal investigation,” it noted.
The statement concluded with “The Wyatt supports the First Amendment right of citizens to peacefully protest on public property surrounding the facility, and the First Amendment right of journalists to report on the facility.”
The ICE protest was organized by Never Again Action Rhode Island, a group drawing support from Jewish organizations and residents and others in the state who fear that the draconian measures ICE has been using to curb illegal immigration, including the detention of those seeking political asylum at the southern border and the separation of families, bode a growing disregard of human rights by the agency.
As Wednesday’s protest group, appearing to number more than 300 people, organized in Jenks Park near City Hall for a march to Wyatt, Lex Rofeberg, a Never Again member, explained the event was intended to call attention to the change in federal policies toward immigrants, one that is alarming to Jews given the lessons of the past.
“We are seeing in this country what concentration camps can be in our collective memory and we are not going to let that happen again,” Rofeberg, a Providence resident, said.
The group’s concerns were for both the people held in detention at the southern border and those reported to be held at the privately operated Wyatt under its contracts with the federal government, reportedly just over 100 detainees.
“We are here to say never again applies to everyone,” Rofeberg said.
Although Wednesday’s protest drew a large number of participants from Rhode Island’s Jewish community, Rofeberg said the group had also been joined by members of the Hispanic community and other supporters of the cause.
Amanda Pompili of Pawtucket took her children, Vito, 12, and Shoshana, 10, to the protest to show their support for those being detained.
“I’m on the song crew and we came to the last protest at Wyatt,” Pompili said.
The parent said she decided to get involved with the Never Again Action movement because “we are seeing an escalation, the detentions, the removal of people with passports, the kids that are being held at the border camps,” she said. “It is all an escalation.”
The recent changes have also included the purging of government agencies, and that is another sign of a stricter government approach, she noted.
“I see the changes around the country and it is terrifying as a Jewish person to see these things progress,” she said. “It looks like escalation and it’s terrifying.”
From her family’s perspective, Wednesday was a night to “make some noise and put pressure on people, and to not be complicit in the agenda of this administration,” Pompili said.
Another participant in the march to Wyatt and a speaker during its starting program, Heiny Maldonado, said she was impressed by the turnout of supporters for detainees in the park.
“It’s amazing,” Maldonado, a native of Colombia, said. “It is wonderful to be here because it very important to demonstrate that what is happening is not a good situation,” she said.
Maldonado described what has happened to people on the border and in detention centers such as Wyatt as “very cruel and inhuman.”
As the protesters prepared to head out on to Broad Street on their march to Wyatt at 950 High Street, Silvi Goldstein of Providence took up a sign that read “This Jew Says Never Again.”
“I’m here because it is part of my values,” Goldstein said. “I don’t believe in the concept of camps or detaining people,” she said. Goldstein was particularly concerned about the role of Wyatt in holding those picked by ICE and also the possibility that children under the age of 18 might be in custody there.
Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who ran the protest with Tal Friedan, another lead organizer from Never Again Action, said the group planned to give Wyatt officials a letter they would be carrying to the detention center that sought greater transparency on what was occurring inside with its detainees.
It was not even known exactly how many ICE detainees were being held at Wyatt, Regunberg said before the march began.
“There has been no transparency for Wyatt, and that is pretty much what the community is asking for,” Regunberg said.
Friedan told the crowd the protest would move to “shut the deportation machine” operated by ICE down, “because when we say never again, we mean it.”
“We’re shutting down the Wyatt because it is here in our backyard but the crisis is much bigger. The Wyatt collaborates with Bristol and Plymouth County sheriffs over the border in Massachusetts who have signed agreements to act as ICE collaborators, Shame, shame,” he said. “What the U.S. Government is doing at the border and in immigrant communities all around the country is nothing short of a mass atrocity.”
The organizer, wearing a prayer shawl from his family, said Never Again was working with organizations in the Hispanic community to fight ICE and deportations “because we know that when a government targets one group of people it’s only a matter of time before everyone’s freedom is under attack.
“This is not an immigration policy, this is a dehumanization policy,” Friedan told the crowd.
“We have seen this groundwork laid before and we were taught never ever to let anything like the Holocaust happen again. We refuse to wait and see,” Friedan said.
“We know from our own history what happens when a government targets, dehumanizes and strips an entire people of their civil and human rights, rounds them up and takes them to a concentration camp. Never again is now,” he said.
Another of the protest’s speakers, Catarina Lorenzo of the Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance, told the marchers that more than 100 people seeking asylum are currently being detained at Wyatt.
“They are setting very high bonds, $25,000 to $45,000, more than families can afford,” she said while maintaining the practice was another tool used by ICE to separate families and “extract resources from members of the communities that are targeted by these practices everyday.”
From Jenks Park, the protesters set out on the sidewalks of Broad Street at about 6:30 p.m. while making their way with chants such as “Hey, ho, racist ICE has to go,” and singing songs written by the organizers with the lyrics “We’ve got ancestors at our backs, We’ve got generations going forward, We’ve got land and spirit in our bodies. Never Again, Para Nadie.”
The Central Falls Police Department had cruisers on the road monitoring the march and also had officers stopping traffic when the protesters needed to cross the road to get on to Blackstone Street before arriving at Wyatt at High Street. One of the officers said he expected no trouble from the protesters.
There were additional announcements from the organizers about the effort to deliver the letter to Wyatt’s warden or guard officer in charge. Regunberg said the letter had been accepted by a Wyatt guard and that the protesters would wait about ten minutes for a response.
At that point, if none came, Regunberg said the protesters would move to shut Wyatt down by blocking its driveway entrances with protesters, as had been done at the earlier protest in July when 18 people were arrested. All of those charges were later dismissed.
A waiting game of sorts ensued after the protesters did move to block the entrances to Wyatt and 32 members of the group agreed to be arrested if necessary to carry out the shutdown.
After the entrances were blocked, Central Falls police cruisers shepherding the crowd continued to make patrols through the area, but no move to make arrests occurred. As the protest continued without action by the police on Wednesday, it appeared the protesters might not be arrested.
The organizers relocated those willing to be arrested and charged to the two entrances of a parking lot used by Wyatt employees across the street, and still no action by the police resulted. An employee of Wyatt entered their vehicle in the parking lot around 9 p.m. and was blocked from leaving the lot by the protesters lined across the exit and stopped there.
Central Falls police eventually came to talk with the employee in their car and the organizers, and then left without making any arrests. Although some in the crowd speculated that more police would be arriving when a State Police vehicle drove through the area, the officers inside spoke to one of the organizers and also left without making any move to arrest those blocking the parking lot entrances.
The scene changed dramatically just before 10 when a black pickup truck approached the parking lot entrance closest to Wyatt’s training facility building, and then pushed forward into the line of seated demonstrators.
Video footage showed the pickup truck stopping briefly as the protesters got up, and some moving to the front of the vehicle before it again pushed forward, knocking some down and then stopping.
Gerry Belair of Warren had been among those blocking the pickup truck and reported at the scene “at least six or seven of us were knocked over.
“I know that there were four on my side of the truck, me and three others, that went down to the ground. And then there were others, and then a bunch of people just came in the front of the vehicle and just stopped him, they were banging on the windows and banging and he kept pushing forward and then stopped,” Belair said.
Belair said he suffered an injury to his leg and his back and saw “one lady that didn’t get up quickly.”
Belair said he had been trying to get out of the way, “it was a bit crazy,” and he didn’t see if anyone was seriously hurt.
“But people were knocked pretty hard, probably five or six people at least. Or at least 3 or 4 where I was,” he said. Belair said he planned to have his injuries checked later and expected to be giving a report to the Central Falls Police who arrived to investigate the injuries after the incident.
After Woodworth stopped the pickup truck, he was reported to have made a cellphone call while seated in the vehicle as members of the crowd yelled out his name and called for his arrest. The chaotic scene unraveled further as a contingent of Wyatt guards arrived at the pickup and began directing people away from the parking lot entrance; as the crowd continued to shout at Woodworth and one man reported he had been assaulted and wanted to speak to a police officer about filing a complaint, a burst of pepper spray was sent into the crowd on the opposite side of the pick-up. Organizers had been attempting to disperse the crowd on their own when the spray was released.
People began to leave the lot at that point, with some going to the ground with the effects of the pepper spray.
Dr. Micheal Fine, the former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and a member of the protest group, went to the victims’ aid but was initially blocked from doing so by a guard who asked him for his identification and then voiced surprise that he was a past state director and doctor.
Fine later said he would be giving the police a statement but described seeing “somebody in a truck looking like he was going to drive through a line of sitting participants. And then the truck getting surrounded.”
Fine said a couple of people were hit and had difficulty getting up and were hurt but apparently not badly injured.
Fine said he saw people surround the truck and pound the vehicle until the other guards arrived at the scene and released the pepper spray.
“The people who were pepper sprayed, there were 10 or 11 of them, most of them got immediate irrigation of their eyes and did OK. A couple of them had to go to the hospital,” he said.
Fine said he believes one or two people went to the hospital due to being hit by the car. He too suffered some effects of the pepper spray but did not require treatment. Fine said he went to the protest because his grandparents had been immigrants themselves.
Central Falls Police arrived at the parking lot after the protesters were struck and began an investigation of the incident. A crime scene tape was placed across the entrance to the lot after those injured had been transported away by rescues from Central Falls, Pawtucket, Cumberland and Lincoln. By 11 p.m. most of the protesters had departed and the Wyatt area was quiet save for the flashing lights of the rescues and fire apparatus still on scene.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter at JNad75