'We Were All Terrified': Protesters Describe Chaos On Swann Street The D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it is reviewing nearly 150 complaints from June 1, including 50 from protesters on Swann Street.
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NPR logo 'We Were All Terrified': Protesters Describe Chaos On Swann Street

'We Were All Terrified': Protesters Describe Chaos On Swann Street

Police arrest demonstrators on Swann Street on June 1. Courtesy of/Damiana Dendy hide caption

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Courtesy of/Damiana Dendy

Samanta Troper was on her way to get coffee in Dupont Circle on June 1 when she saw a group of people rallying to protest the killing of Tony McDade, a black transgender man fatally shot by a police officer in Florida in May.

Troper, who is transgender, had spent the weekend protesting the killing of George Floyd and did not plan on participating in any demonstrations that Monday. But after seeing the group, she returned to her apartment, grabbed a first aid kit — she administers aid to people during protests — and joined the demonstrators, who planned to march on residential streets while reciting facts about McDade.

Hours later, Troper was among hundreds of protesters boxed in by D.C. police on Swann Street near Dupont Circle, unable to leave and forced to choose between being arrested or seeking refuge in a stranger's home.

By the end of the night, 194 people were arrested on Swann Street, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. Police Chief Peter Newsham said the protesters, who were out past a 7 p.m. curfew, threatened public safety.

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"If there are indicators within a group that we believe may rise or increase in volatility ... then I think it's our responsibility to ensure that that group's behavior is stopped," Newsham said in a press conference last week.

But protesters tell another story. They say they were demonstrating peacefully when police hemmed them in, shoving them and using pepper spray so they could not disperse.

And once they were arrested, protesters say they faced an all-night ordeal that, for some, included spending hours outdoors with zip ties binding their wrists behind their backs.

"We were all terrified," said Troper, who spent the night in a house with dozens of people as police arrested others outside.

Videos and images circulated on Twitter and other social media from what has become known as the "Swann Street siege." Residents who sheltered demonstrators in their homes became viral symbols of goodwill. The police actions, which unfolded hours after federal law enforcement officers used tear gas to clear crowds downtown, have drawn scrutiny. D.C. police are reviewing the use of force from that night. And the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating dozens of complaints about how demonstrators were treated.

DCist / WAMU spoke with more than 15 people who were on Swann Street and reviewed video footage to reconstruct what unfolded during and after the confrontation with police.

How Protesters Got To Swann Street

Swann Street is an unlikely place for a protest. The smaller, residential street in Dupont is lined with old row houses and ginkgo trees, and is less busy than the thoroughfares that surround it.

Demonstrators who ended up on Swann Street started the night in different ways.Some, like Troper, protested the police killing of McDade, near Dupont. One person was walking home from his job at a hotel when he spotted protesters and decided to join. William Martinez, 26, began the night protesting police brutality outside the White House.

Martinez drove from his home in Hyattsville, Md., with his cousin. They were chanting in Lafayette Square when U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops used tear gas to clear a path to St. John's Church, which was partially burned during protests the night before. After a televised speech, President Donald Trump walked across Lafayette Square to reach the church, where he held up the Bible and posed for photos.

"Nobody was throwing anything. Nobody was acting out," said Martinez, a restaurant manager. "It was a peaceful protest until they actually started spraying tear gas."

Protesters and police clash near Lafayette Square on June 1. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

The tear gas sent Martinez running toward 14th Street NW, where he encountered another group of protestors, which he joined. He wasn't sure where the group came from, but other protesters said people running from the White House joined the group that began the night protesting the police killing of McDade.

Over the next few hours, more demonstrators joined and the group swelled to a few hundred.

As they marched toward Malcolm X Park, Delia Dreher, 26, said police deployed a flash bang near 15th and W streets, frightening the demonstrators. Dreher said police set off what may have been a flash bang on 15th and S Street, sending the group hurrying toward Swann Street, where police in helmets, carrying shields and batons, swarmed.

Officers Close In

Police blocked the group on a one-way stretch of Swann Street between 14th and 15th streets NW. They also blocked two alleyways that connect to the street, preventing protesters from leaving.

Police watched the group before stopping them on Swann Street, Newsham said last week. The police chief said officers saw protesters behaving violently. He said protesters threw "projectiles" and set a city police car on fire.

Justin Higgins, a protester, said he saw two people throw water bottles at police. Higgins, a consultant, said he and other protesters immediately confronted the people who threw the bottles and told them to stop.

On Swann Street, protesters said police instigated the confrontation.

"Move back," the officers chanted, as the group was pushed closer together, according to video footage and demonstrators.

"Don't shoot," the protesters shouted in response, arms raised.

The line of police moved forward 10 or 15 steps every few minutes, Higgins said.

"I thought we were going to get beaten," Higgins said. Police "were acting aggressively. They were the ones escalating all of the conflict throughout the night."

Around 9:30 p.m. police officers used shields to shove demonstrators and pepper spray to subdue them, said Sebi Medina-Tayac, a 25-year-old who was protesting.

"Everybody was choking on it," Medina-Tayac said. "It was this really tight, confined environment, so when they pepper sprayed one person, basically everyone gets pepper sprayed."

Protesters ran up stoops, seeking refuge in homes. One resident, Rahul Dubey, sheltered dozens of people overnight. Other residents kept their front doors shut. Dubey said he heard loud bangs and felt pepper spray in his eyes as he stood on his stoop, watching the tumult. He flung open the front door of his house for dozens of protesters who spilled inside.

"People were coughing. It was like that for an hour, they were pepper spraying in through the window," Dubey said.

Newsham pushed back on some of the account Dubey gave reporters. "I don't have evidence to corroborate allegations that anyone was decimated or beaten," Newsham said.

Reed Doherty and Emily Mann were cooking farro and sourdough bread in their basement apartment when they saw the commotion on the street. They invited Tracey Redd, a longtime community activist and organizer, into their home. Redd told WAMU he had joked with friends earlier in the evening about the possibility of being corralled by police and having to seek shelter in someone's house.

"Me and my friends jokingly were just like, 'Oh, I guess we find the house with the Black Lives Matter sign and put them to the test,'" he said.

Doherty and Mann said police were closing in on the protesters from all sides. Mann said protesters raised their arms, showing they were peaceful, and were met "with a lot of force."

"At one point, the protesters were on their knees, asking the cops if they could go home," she said.

According to Newsham, protesters were kicking doors on Swann Street. Officers thought homes might be burglarized — some stores were looted earlier in the week — so they used pepper spray. The department's internal affairs department, which investigates use of force, will investigate the use of pepper spray, Newsham said.

Dubey said he tried to talk to police twice once demonstrators were in his home, but was threatened with arrest. Police asked protesters to leave the home, telling them they would not face arrest, but "we weren't budging," Dubey said.

"It was an hour and a half of pure mayhem," Dubey said.

Rahul Dubey, outside his house on Swann Street, after saying goodbye to protestors. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Overnight, protesters occupied all four levels of Dubey's house. Some called journalists and lawyers. Neighbors delivered pizza.

"When I arrived on the scene, it looked like a hostage crisis," said Arjun S. Sethi, a lawyer and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. "Young kids who were peaceful, who were quiet, were being arrested and handcuffed."

A protester contacted one of Sethi's acquaintances, who alerted Sethi to the situation. Sethi said he drove to the home and identified himself to police. Over a fence in Dubey's backyard, Sethi advised protesters to stay inside the house until 6 a.m. — the end of curfew — to avoid arrest.

The Arrests Begin

Outside Dubey's house, more demonstrators were trapped in an area spanning about five houses on either side of the street for hours, Dreher said.

"People were crying," she said. "People were pleading with police to please let us go."

Police asked demonstrators to surrender, and arrested people in groups of 10, separated by gender. Police said no one resisted arrest.

Many people in the group were young adults who worried the confrontation with police would affect their employment status, said Anisha Shetty, a protester arrested on Swann Street.

"What was most tragic to me was just hearing some of them plead and get anxious and really, really fearful," the 33-year-old said. "Your stomach just kind of turns when you see this force just marching at you."

Protesters were handcuffed with zip ties behind their backs and escorted by police to a processing line at the intersection of 15th and Swann Streets, where they were searched, Dreher said. Protesters were individually photographed next to a whiteboard that listed their name, date of birth and physical traits.

They were loaded into police vans or buses and transported eight miles to the Maurice T. Turner Metropolitan Police Academy in Southwest D.C.

A Long Night Under Arrest

Medina-Tayac sat and laid on the asphalt in the parking lot of the sprawling police academy compound for six hours, he said.

Police asked protesters for their name and date of birth several times, shuffling them to different parts of the parking lot each time, he said. He added that police did not offer him food or water until after sunrise, when he was moved to a cramped room inside.

"This was egregious," Medina-Tayac said. "It was a blatant violation of human rights and just even human dignity and decency."

According to D.C. police regulations, people who are arrested during mass demonstrations should be "safeguarded and adequately cared for, and shall be expeditiously processed for court or release." A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department said in an email that police followed regulations for mass arrests and that "arrestees are held as long as it takes to process."

The D.C. police spokesperson, Alaina Gertz, said people who were arrested were "kept in a large room with areas designated for social distancing." She said police provided face masks, hand sanitizer and facilities for handwashing.

Several protesters disputed those claims.

Armand Cuevas, a high school teacher, said he spent more than four hours outside, with temperatures in the 50s, until he was moved inside and released from handcuffs.

Dozens of men who were arrested were crowded into a room with blue padding on the floor, Cuevas said, where it was impossible to follow social distancing guidelines that have been widely observed since COVID-19 reached the country.

Signs outside Rahul Dubey's house after a night of protest. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Cuevas said people were curled on the floor. Police escorted protesters to portable toilets but did not provide hand sanitizer or masks for people who did not have them, he said.

"There was no way it should take eight hours for them to process a curfew violation," he said. "There's no way we should be in such conditions with handcuffs for several hours, and have no sense of time, no way to contact anyone."

In another room, several dozen women sat a couple feet apart, Dreher said. Nearly every person in the room asked for water, she said, but police provided just three cups of water for the group.

The D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is reviewing nearly 50 complaints from protesters on Swann Street. Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of D.C., said the arrests unnecessarily exposed people to the possibility of contracting COVID-19.

"They could have ordered the crowd to disperse, reminded them of the curfew and sent them home," Hopkins said. "You have a bunch of people who were taken to a facility, who were kept in zip ties for hours on end. It just seems so counterintuitive and a waste."

After waiting a few hours in the room, Dreher said she and four others were escorted outside of the room, to another area in the building where police officers waited. She was lined up against a wall, she said, and told — for the first time — she was arrested for violating curfew.

She was handed a citation and given a date in October to appear in court. Outside, a police officer drove Dreher to the gate of the police academy, directing her down a hill, where volunteers offered to drive protesters home.

Elliot C. Williams and Jacob Fenston contributed reporting.

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