The DC Police Chief Behind the Inauguration Crackdown Has a Disgraceful History

Peter Newsham was implicated in a mass arrest and abuse scandal more than a decade ago.

Photo Credit: Ryan Harvey

According to a class-action lawsuit, more than 200 people hit with "felony riot" charges following their mass arrest at Friday’s inauguration protest in Washington, D.C. were indiscriminately swept up “without warning and without any dispersal order” and attacked with chemical weapons, flash-bang grenades and batons.

The crackdown, which was overseen by acting Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham, echoes another mass arrest 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.

More than 200 people arrested in Friday’s sweep face felony riot charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The arrestees have had their phones and cameras confiscated as evidence, according to Jeffrey Light, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who filed the class-action lawsuit Friday on behalf those detained. The lawsuit, which was emailed to AlterNet, names Newsham, as well as “John Doe” Metropolitan Police Department and Park Police officers.

“Without warning and without any dispersal order, the police officers kettled all of the plaintiffs,” states the lawsuit, which notes that “members of the media, attorneys, legal observers and medics” were among those rounded up.

“Defendants John Doe MPD Officers and/or John Doe Park Police Officers deployed a large amount of chemical irritants against the plaintiffs, as well as struck multiple plaintiffs with their batons, and deployed flash-bang grenades,” the lawsuit continues. “The use of chemical irritants against Plaintiffs, the use of the batons against Plaintiffs and the deployment of flash-bang grenades under the circumstances constituted unreasonable and excessive force.”

One video by CrimethInc. shows police attacking a crowd not far from where a group of protesters was being kettled. The footage captures an apparently disabled woman hit with chemical agents while surrounded by riot police before the other protesters can shield her with their bodies. The same video features a toddler in the aftermath of an apparent attack with chemical agents. Some protesters can be heard screaming, “You maced a child!”

“On information and belief, Chief Newsham ordered, caused to be ordered, and/or condoned the illegal mass arrest and use of excessive force,” states the lawsuit, which demands a jury trial.

In his former role as assistant police chief, Newsham oversaw a violent crackdown on a “People’s Strike” protest against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund more than a decade ago.

“On the morning of September 27, 2002, the D.C. Police Department, working with the U.S. Park Police encircled Pershing Park, refused to allow anyone to leave and then arrested and hog-tied peaceful demonstrators, tourists, passers-by, and legal observers. Many were bound wrist-to-ankle on a police gym floor for upwards of 24 hours,” stated the Partnership for Civil Justice, which filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 400 people arrested at the park in 2002. In total, PCJ won 10.7 million in settlements from the city and the federal park police. The class action resulted in policies that ostensibly prohibit “the use of police lines to encircle protesters and demonstrations,” the Partnership for Civil Justice summarized.

Alexis Baden-Mayer was one of those arrested in 2002. During the mass sweep, she was with her father, who was then 69 years old and suffering from a knee injury. “The police line formed around us, and my father and I tried to communicate with the police line, and they wouldn’t address our questions,” Baden-Mayer, a Washington, D.C.-based activist and lawyer, told AlterNet. “We were saying we would like to leave. Cops dressed in riot gear with their masks on wouldn’t speak to us. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, holding billy clubs.”

At a certain point, she said, the police “closed the circle tighter” by moving in on the crowd and tapping their batons on their shields. “They hustled us. Because my dad had a bad knee, he couldn’t move fast. Then they moved us to a gymnasium and handcuffed us wrist to ankle. We were detained there for a total of 36 hours. It was really rough on my father being hog-tied wrist to ankle because of his knee injury.”

The class-action lawsuit filed on Friday notes, “Chief Newsham was previously a defendant in the mass arrest of protesters at Pershing Park in 2002 and claimed that he ordered the roundup."

Notably, Newsham has been the public face of efforts to defend the police crackdown to the press, telling WTOP radio on Sunday that "all the police officers were outstanding in the judgment that they used."

AlterNet spoke with a person arrested at Friday’s protest who was also detained in the Pershing Park protests of 2002. The individual, who requested anonymity because he currently faces charges, said that people endured abuse while encircled Friday, claiming that he saw “at least one, I'm pretty sure two, concussion grenades thrown into the kettle while we were already surrounded.” The individual described degrading conditions during detention, stating: “We were in the kettle for eight hours, and people had to pee and go to the bathroom. So there was a lot of peeing in bottles or on the ground, as well as pooping in bags, while we were in close proximity.”

The anonymous witness said news of the class-action lawsuit broke while people were still kettled, immediately lifting the spirits of those detained. “Of course the state is first going to go after anarchists or whoever they think they can marginalize and split off," the witness said. "It's only letting the security apparatus of Donald Trump grow stronger if we allow them to split off people accused of more combative protest. It is important for everyone who is against Trump to support the people arrested Friday.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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