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I have reported on mass protests where police attacked protesters, but I’ve always tended to acceptand have even repeated in some articlesstatements by police that protesters provoked this violence. The crowd must have gotten out of control, I would think. Someone threw rocks, threw punches, or did something to instigate these assaults. The police would not attack people for no reason.
Covering the April 12 anti-war march, I experienced a clash with police from a new perspective: at the end of the club. It made me realize I’d made a mistake. As a reporter, I’d mistakenly placed the burden of proof on the protesters, rather than the police. And later, as I saw coverage of the protest where I was beaten, I was seeing other journalists doing the same.
After the protest, a local news broadcast showed footage of an officer beating a protester being held on the ground by other officers. So D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey assigned the officer to “desk duty.” He told the Washington Post, “I’m not just going to hang this guy out to dry just because someone made an allegation.”
Media reports on the attacks have toed this line. When journalists state that “protesters and police clashed,” and “protesters scuffled with police,” it leads the public to believe that the protesters brought it upon themselves. If unofficial sources (protesters) say they were beaten, they are making allegations. If official sources (police) say it was an “appropriate response,” we often treat it as fact.
I attended the march as a freelance journalist, and I was beaten by baton-wielding police while I was wearing my congressional press pass. These attacks were not just “allegations.”
Here’s what happened near the intersection of 9th and G Streets NW that day:
Thousands of people had just left Pershing Park, where they had listened to speakers, shared picnic lunches, and gaped at hundreds of police officers (many wearing body armor or straddling horses). The march crawled north on 9th Street, past the FBI and Justice Department buildings, where protesters used loudspeakers to condemn police crackdowns on political activists. Marchers stood nearly shoulder to shoulder, stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk.
I heard sirens and saw police on motorcycles buzz the west side of the crowd. A police motorcycle hit one protester, throwing him in the air. A scuffle ensued, about 40 feet in front of me, and I couldn’t see what was going on. The crowd stopped, and then people started screaming and running back toward me. Some had their eyes clamped shut, with clear liquideither tears or pepper spraydripping down their faces. Teenagers with red crosses taped on their jackets told these people to sit down and have their eyes flushed out with water. My nostrils burned.
The crowd moved faster, some people running, shoving each other. I wanted to interview people who had been pepper-sprayed, but I knew I had to move. I tried to quickly navigate my bike through the streaming mass to the eastern sidewalk. I had heard about last year’s mass arrests of World Bank-IMF protesters in Pershing Parkand about the lawsuits now pendingand thought this might be a repeat.
But police say they have re-evaluated their policy on such arrests. And true to their word, they didn’t go into this crowd arresting innocent people. Instead, they beat them.
The first blow came across my back. I was wearing a messenger bag, and the spiral notebooks, bottled water, and tape recorder inside softened the blow. I turned to see a handful of officers wielding batons. The officer who struck me yelled, “Clear the streets!”
I stumbled with my bike and was pushed with the others toward the eastern side of the street. We were caught between two lines of cops swinging batons. They wouldn’t let us pass.
I lost my bike as the crowd pushed me against an officer. I pressed up against his starched shirt, so close I could have kissed him. I told him, “I’m not assaulting you. I’m not trying to touch you. I’m being trampledplease help.”
He looked me in the eyes, almost as if he were sorry, and said, “I know.”
I fell from the pressure of panicked people trying to flee. Others collapsed on top of me. I couldn’t breathe, and I yelled for help. An officer behind me pulled at my neck and throat, tearing my shirt, yelling, “Get up.” I couldn’t, I told him.
Police with batons blocked more people from falling on the pile, and we slowly unfolded our tangled bodies. I managed to stand and take a few steps, until a police officer struck me twice with his baton, held horizontally in both hands. He hit my chest and right arm so hard my head whipped forward. I flew back onto the mass of flailing people. “Clear the street,” he yelled. “Back up.”
I stood again and went for my bike. The same officer who had hit me moments before now intentionally stomped on the rear portion of the bike as he yelled, “Move!”
I surveyed the damage to my bikeand to my body. I rotated my arms: They burned, but nothing seemed broken. I touched my face: no blood. I tried pushing my road bike, but it would not move. The front rim-a racing rim built to withstand abusewas folded like a taco. The rear derailleur, where the officer had stomped, dangled in pieces from the frame. The shifters, rear wheel, and fork all looked iffy.
I asked officers for badge numbers, and they pretended they didn’t hear me. Some turned their backs. Even those who I knew had not been directly involved remained silent; they acted like a gang, covering for each other. One turned around, pushed me with his baton, and yelled, “Get the hell out of here!”
I did. I put my bike on my shoulder and started walking the 13 blocks home. I squeezed through a line of police motorcycles blocking an intersection. One officer yelled and ran after me, telling me I had to stay in the street, with the permitted march. I showed him my bike and torn shirt, and started telling him what happened. He turned and walked away. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Greg Houston.