WASHINGTON — The 194 protesters arrested the night of June 1 on a Northwest D.C. street are still waiting for the D.C. Attorney General’s Office to decide whether they will be prosecuted.
They were arrested during a controversial police tactic known as “kettling.” That’s when police seal off streets and alleyways – surrounding protesters before a mass arrest. WUSA9 reporters on on Swann Street at the time arrests happened. Our cameras were among dozens that captured the events, from start to finish.
Some of those cameras were pointed out from inside Rahul Dubey’s Swann Street row house – where more than 70 protesters took shelter during the night to avoid arrest.
"I didn't know if it was the right choice but it was pretty much the only choice. At that point. I was just scared of, you know, getting hit by the police or tear gassed and pepper sprayed, and I saw Rahul with his door open waving people in," said local musician Meka.
"I would have been in jail and literally would have been a criminal if it wasn't for him," said local clothing entrepreneur Jorge Fuentes.
"It's a moment that we will always be, you know, bonded in our memories together," said health care employee Melissa Covington
"The moment that I was on the stoop was a liberating moment for me, because I didn't see color for the first time. I saw color when I walked in the house, but in that panic mode, I didn't see color," Dubey remembered.
Putting the lid on the kettle
On Monday, June 1, protesters were notified by emergency alerts to their cell phones they’d have until 7 p.m. to protest. That’s when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s curfew would come into effect. Several hundred protesters were shocked when U.S. Park Police and officers from several other federal agencies pushed through and began firing tear gas around 6:30 near Lafayette Square Park.
Forced to leave the White House area, the largest group of protesters tried first to march toward the Capitol Building, but were blocked by police. Protesters faced low-flying National Guard helicopters in Chinatown before heading towards Dupont Circle.
One of the protesters, Kyle Murphy, began to notice that D.C. Police appeared to be corralling protesters northward.
Dubey, who lives in a rowhouse on 15th and Swann Street NW, began to notice an increased police presence before 9PM. "I went for a quick walk and 10 minutes later I came back and there were 90 officers and officials and Metro Police on the corner of Swann and 15th for no apparent reason," he said.
Dubey says he witnessed DC Police deploy on both ends of Swann Street. Dubey, and others, told WUSA9 they witnessed MPD closing off residential streets – guiding the protest towards one destination. A WUSA9 crew was there at 8:58 p.m. when the protesters met a line of police that compelled them to turn onto Swann Street.
The “lid was put onto the kettle.” By 9:08 p.m., there was no way out.
"A couple people had asked me how they could get out. I'm like, 'Doesn't get out. I mean, look at the street. it's barricaded in. It's a fortress,' which I couldn't understand why they were bringing people on to Swann Street. It made no sense," Dubey said.
Jorge Fuentes was one of those protesters kettled onto Swann Street.
"[I was] just trying to survive. Honestly, I'm feeling a lot of fear and adrenaline, trying to get my friends out of there. Feeling guilty for putting them in that situation, and honestly just being treated like a criminal," Fuentes said.
"I kind of get into like a little bit of a helpless stage, because that's really what I was out here. Just face-to-face with the police, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go," recalled Meka, a young local musician who also found himself trapped behind police lines. "So I came up and I asked an officer, 'You know what we were supposed to do?' Because they wouldn't let us out. They wouldn't tell us what we going on. And he pretty much just gave me the cold shoulder and didn't even look me in the eyes, didn't answer any of my questions"
'A bottleneck of people'
At 9:32 PM, there was police pepper spray, there was pushing and shoving, there was running, and resistance. There was chaos on Swann Street when MPD began making mass arrests.
"I hear a boom, and I look up. And I look down at Melissa. And I open the door and I say, 'Get in!' Dubey said. “It was a bottleneck of people. Pepper spray. Crunching sounds. Screams. I’ve never… I can’t get it out of my head.”. And I've never heard that high pitch before."
Rahul Dubey took 74 protesters into his home. 194 protesters did not make it inside. By 10:00 PM, MPD began mass arrests for curfew violations
"When I walked in that house, I saw pepper spray in my living room permeating through the entire house, milk flying, baking soda flying and a 6'9", 280-pound Black man in the fetal position, rocking back and forth crying," Dubey said.
The pride of MPD
Kettling is a police tactic familiar to MPD. From 2002 – when the DC Council found “wrongful arrests” during MPD's confrontation with anti-globalization protests at Pershing Park – to lawsuits alleging kettling in 2017 during Inauguration Day protests, it's a tactic the department has employed on numerous occasions.
When asked why mass arrests were necessary, MPD Chief Peter Newsham explained: “We were monitoring a group that was exhibiting behaviors that was consistent with the behavior that preceded very violent events in our city the prior two nights. Some of that behavior was the throwing of different projectiles and also the burning of a Metropolitan Police Department Police vehicle."
But WUSA9's news crew and other witnesses did not report seeing any acts of violence or vandalism coming from that particular group of hundreds of protesters in the minutes before they were kettled into Swann Street. Neither MPD nor the police union replied to us for comment, so we went to an expert in the field of riot control: Ret. Army Major Mike Lyons.
Lyons is a military analyst at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's a combat veteran, and has extensively studied the way formations are used in those scenarios.
Lyons says it’s not reasonable to expect police forces to be as precise as the military in isolating a few agitators in a crowd of peaceful protesters.
"You described a situation that's similar to what the U.S. military had to do overseas in their operations to try to almost cherry pick people; not knowing who the real combatants were," Lyons said. "Here, I don’t know if that’s reasonable or not. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable expectation to think our police can do that."
During a news conference in early June, Newsham said he had no regrets about the tactics his officers used – and also what he described as restraint on their part in not forcing their way into Dubey's home.
"For the police to not enter that home and exacerbate that situation, I think, is something that in the end of the day, we will look back on and be proud of our agency for doing," Newsham said.
Dubey says he wasn't impressed by Newsham's words.
"I heard the comment that you made, Chief Newsham, that you were very, very proud of your men and your officers for showing restraint for not entering that house," Dubey told WUSA9. "Well, that house is my house. You have no right ever to enter my house. So don't give yourself praise or your officers praise for doing something you should never ever even dream of doing."
What did it all mean?
When it comes to law enforcement, the D.C. Attorney General’s Office says it's still deciding which, if any, of the 194 Swann Street protester arrests to prosecute. Neither they nor MPD would say whether any of those potential prosecutions could be for anything more serious than a curfew violation. Arraignment dates are delayed until October due to the pandemic. Police Chief Newsham said MPD’s actions on Dubey’s home, seeking shelter from arrest that night, this is what it meant in their own words:
"A lot of personal experience for me, just discrimination and oppression, is what really brought me out here. For the first time in my life, I felt like we could actually make a change, because there were so many people united," said Fuentes, the clothing entrepreneur.
"Coming back to 15th and Swann makes me feel happy now. I built a relationship with Rahul and some of the other protesters. I thought it was gonna be a bad experience coming back. I thought I was gonna have some type of PTSD. But I think there was more positives that came out of that night than negatives," said musician Meka.
"I was here with my 20-year-old daughter. And so, you know, making sure that she knows that no matter what's going on, that you have to continue to fight for what you believe in, be vocal about it," added Covington, the health care employee.
Dubey still visits with some of those he sheltered that day, and receives words of support from around the world.
"There's been nights where I haven't been able to sleep and I come down and I read a card, and I can't tell you how much that is uplifting and I know it sounds cosmetic, but I've never met any of these people," Dubey said. "But the tears that you bring to my eyes and the hope that you fill my heart with has gotten me through these last eight weeks, and I can't thank enough people for that."