By Baynard Woods
New evidence obtained by Democracy in Crisis and the Real News Network show that officers within the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington D.C. deployed weapons on at least 191 occasions on Inauguration Day.
According to the document, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, MPD officers threw 74 Sting-Ball grenades during protests and riots that day. Six 40mm Stinger rubber bullets, five foam batons, and and one 40mm Exact impacts—all supposedly non-lethal weapons—were fired by police. MPD police officers sprayed pepper spray more than 100 times on a single day.
MPD deployed the weapons during massive protests of Donald Trump’s inauguration. At some point around 10:00 a.m. on the morning of the inauguration some protesters began breaking windows of major corporations on 13th Street NW between Logan Circle and Franklin Square. The protesters who engaged in vandalism were dressed in all black as part of a so-called “black bloc.” In the statement of notice for an expert witness set to appear in the first trial related to the case, which begins on Nov. 20, the prosecutors argue that the “‘black bloc’ tactic involves participants dressing in all black clothing and concealing their faces with masks, bandanas, and other clothing items. This tactic makes it difficult for law enforcement to identify the individual perpetrators of violence or destruction within the larger group.”
Shortly after the police encountered the group, they began to deploy weapons, spraying large amounts of pepper spray (I was covering the event and was hit with spray). Platoon 32, for instance, emptied four large MK46 canisters and seven smaller canisters of the irritant.
After police used a controversial technique of “kettling” a large group of people into a surrounded position from which they could not move, they continued to spray the prisoners, as police bodycam video makes clear. A suit filed against the MPD, its then-acting Commissioner Peter Newsham, and numerous individual officers claims that “pepper spray and tear gas were so thick that at times they created a haze over the kettle and all the individuals detained there.” The same police body cam video shows a plume of smoke arise above the detainees. This smoke was not contained in the MPD’s weapons deployment report.
This same platoon, 32, threw 10 Sting-Ball grenades, which are described by the manufacturer as “explosive ‘rubber-ball’ style grenades that upon initiation eject rubber balls into a radius surrounding the device. Sting-Balls are primarily used for crowd control in indoor and outdoor situations.”
These were all thrown as other groups of protesters arrived to protest the indiscriminate detention of the kettled protesters.
These tactics are not new and are used to “intimidate people, chill dissent, and ultimately try and stifle what is going to happen on the streets in a particular event,” Kris Hermes, the Mass Defense Coordinator at the National Lawyers’ Guild, who is also working with Defend J20 Resistance, told the Real News’ Paul Jay of similar tactics used in mass protests. “A lot of times it involves severe violence against people who are simply out in the streets to express themselves.”
In a video obtained by Democracy in Crisis, officers can be seen tossing the grenades into a crowd that included journalists and protesters—and only a few people dressed as if they may have been part of a black bloc protest.
In the slowed-down video above, an officer is seen tossing the grenade which explodes against a person—who was not wearing black—knocking them down. Either the same grenade bouncing up, or another who trajectory is unclear, explodes against the head of another man.
These weapons are considered “non-lethal,” but in situations such as crowd control—for which they are marketed—lethal force would not be acceptable and so they are not a replacement of nonlethal weapons, but rather of other, perhaps safer techniques.
“The common understanding of CCWs [crowd-control weapons] is that they are non-lethal and preferable to the use of more injurious means of dispersing a crowd,” a 2016 report by International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reads. “However, this report has shown that these weapons can often result in significant injuries, disability, and even death.”
According to a 2011 study on specifically dealing with Sting-Balls, “unlike other less lethal weapons that target ‘safe’ zones of the body, the trajectory of the Sting-Ball fragments cannot be controlled by the user and could potentially strike unintended portions of the target’s body. This creates a concern for eye safety and soft tissue damage, and the potential that the projectiles may become lethal.”
The INCLO/ PHR report concludes that “firing stun grenades directly into crowds or toward individuals should be prohibited, and violators should be held accountable.”
There was no warning given before these weapons were discharged indiscriminately into a crowd. The ACLU suit against MPD claims that “Neither Defendant Officers Doe 1-60, nor any other MPD officers or officials, ordered anyone to disperse, halt, or turn back, before Does 1-60 deployed their weapons.”
In his Long Island speech to police officers in late July, Trump seemed to refer to the use of military weaponry against the inauguration protesters.
“You know, when you wanted to take over and you used military equipment — and they were saying you couldn’t do it — you know what I said? That was my first day: You can do it. In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast we have none left. You guys know — you really knew how to get that. But that’s my honor. And I tell you what — it’s being put to good use.”
A month after that speech, his administration announced that it would lift an Obama-era ban on the use of heavy military equipment by police—but the so-called non-lethal weapons used by police on during the Disrupt J20 protests have never been strictly regulated.
The ACLU suit lists several other weapons not contained within the document, including Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD).
The MPD originally overruled the FOIA request filed by Democracy in Crisis, claiming that the “release of the requested documents would inform persons involved of facts that could permit them to fashion their statements or testimony in order to escape culpability for wrongful actions.”
This secrecy has extended to the courtroom. In June, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case filed for a protective order that would prohibit anyone from revealing discovery material, either in the press or to a lawyer who may bring civil suit.
The judge initially approved the order but there is a hearing over a defense motion in opposition to this order on October 10.
The Mayor’s office overruled the decision on appeal, arguing that “it is difficult to comprehend how the information, regarding equipment alone, would interfere with enforcement proceedings. We find that MPD has not sufficiently described the potential interference to enforcement proceedings to allow withholding of the responsive records.”
In February, the mayor’s office issued a report, saying that the MPD had violated their own crowd control policies that day. Last week, the city’s budget contained a $150,000 expenditure for an investigation into police action that day.
Nearly 200 people are facing felony charges related to the riots that day, with trials beginning next month and continuing through 2018.
Additional reporting by Mary Finn