“This grand jury sent out a message, to every citizen in Rhode Island, that said, ‘If you want to run over a protester, if you want to harm someone who is peaceful, and exercising their first amendment rights, you have every right to do so, and it will be legal and we will not punish you.'”
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced today that the investigation of an incident at the Wyatt Detention Facility on August 14 has concluded and that no criminal charges will be filed. During that incident, a pickup truck driven by Wyatt Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth rushed into a group of peaceful protesters organized by Never Again Action and AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance). Soon after the truck barrelled into protesters about a dozen more Wyatt Correctional Officers waded into protesters with pepper spray. At least four people were sent to the hospital.
The protests were sparked by the revelation that the Wyatt had entered into an agreement with the United States Marshal Service to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees held under President Donald Trump‘s zero-tolerance border policy.
The news that no charges were to be filed was broken by UpriseRI earlier in the day by Twitter and Facebook when this reporter met with the seven or eight people Neronha’s office had invited to a meeting at his Cranston offices. This meeting was reportedly organized under the Attorney General’s Victim Services Unit. At this meeting Neronha explained to victims of the Wyatt Correctional Officers actions that the grand jury was bringing no charges.
Later, Neronha held a press conference at his Providence office to deliver the news publicly, while outside a group of Never Again Action protesters were gathering in protest. He was joined by Colonel Daniel Barzykowski of the Central Falls Police Department and Colonel James Manni of the Rhode Island State Police, and detectives from both departments.
“The grand jury worked hard to carefully sort through all the testimony and evidence that was presented to them,” said Neronha. “From my own experience, I am sure that they had to deal with complicated legal and factual issues, including determining the intent of those whose conduct was within the scope of their investigation and whether that intent rose to the level of criminal misconduct. Often, these are not easy issues for grand jurors or trial jurors to grapple with. I am grateful to them for their public service.
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“A peaceful protest – a right enshrined in our Constitution – devolved into an extremely unfortunate incident that could have been avoided had better systems been in place to ensure public safety. There is much to learn from this incident. It is my hope that we will do so.”
“Do you think this decision makes it easier now for police, correctional officers and private guards to now assault people with impunity?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, Steve,” answered Neronha. “I understand your question. I think what’s critical here for me is that we learn from this experience. And the lesson for me here is this: That we need to have a sufficient law enforcement presence when there is a protest, to protect public safety…”
Others took a different lesson.
“They clearly had an agenda,” Jessica Rosner told me as she was leaving the victims meeting in Cranston. “Feel free to drive your truck into a crowd. If you’re an officer, not a problem.”
Jerry Belair, who was hit by the truck driven by Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth, speaking at the protest after the press conference, said, “This grand jury sent out a message, to every citizen in Rhode Island, that said, ‘If you want to run over a protester, if you want to harm someone who is peaceful, and exercising their first amendment rights, you have every right to do so, and it will be legal and we will not punish you.'”
“Now there’s a precedent, right?” said Jared Goldstein, a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Roger Williams University. Goldstein was in the path of the truck with his teenage children. “If this is how you act towards a peaceful protest, maybe you have a green light to do that. Maybe you have a green light to treat the inmates inside the Wyatt the same or even worse levels of violence that was inflicted upon us.”
“I think it gives them carte blanche to do whatever they want to get us to leave,” said Tammy Brown, who was repeatedly sprayed in the face with pepper spray by a Wyatt Correctional Officer. “So if they want to come out and pepper spray us, even though we’re not violent, they can do it. If they want to run their car into us, they can do it. We’ve just shown them that there’s no consequences for that whatsoever.”
“It just shows that law enforcement is not held to the same standards that we, regular citizens, are, when peacefully protesting,” said Christian Andrade, who was hit in the face with pepper spray by a Wyatt Correctional Officer. “The system is used not to preserve those rights, but to allow people who have violent intentions to harm people to just get away with it.”
“It’s part of the two-tiered justice system that we have in this country,” said Tim DeChristopher, who was hit by the truck outside the Wyatt. “This is a system that reliably puts millions of poor people and people of color in prison every year, and convicts millions of people, but repeatedly fails to ever hold law enforcement accountable for their deadly violence… The prosecutors see themselves as part of the brotherhood of law enforcement, and in this case they clearly saw corrections officers as part of that.”
I asked Neronha about the two-tiered justice system.
“It pains me to hear that, but I understand it,” said Neronha. “I’ve been doing this a long time. When I was a US Attorney that certainly came up around the country in the context of police shootings. I can only say this: I don’t treat anyone differently under the law. I don’t believe that anyone standing behind me does that either. Ultimately it’s my responsibility to make these kinds of decisions.”
Neronha said that, “it was not lost on me that when I walked into that room this morning [to speak with the victims of the violence from Wyatt Correctional Officers] that what I was going to hear was a lot of pain and anger. But it’s important for me to hear that, I welcome that conversation, and I would do it again.”
Neronha would not comment on the grand jury’s deliberations or decisions, but stated his confidence in the grand jury system and in Stephen Dambruch, who prosecuted the case. Several people who testified before the grand jury questioned Dambruch’s intentions, saying that he seemed to be more interested in undermining the victims than in holding the offending correctional officers responsible.
Jared Goldstein predicted Neronha’s behavior. “Later today the Attorney General will issue a statement in which he’ll say they presented all the facts, they did a serious investigation. But the truth is, anybody who sat through that grand jury knows, that the prosecutor came in with an agenda, and that agenda was to let these guys off…
“I’m not surprised by what the grand jury did. This is how the prosecutors presented the case.”
“We were not evaluating the conduct of the protesters,” said Neronha. “There are instances where witnesses may read into the questions things that may not be there.”
“The attorney General something that to me was really chilling,” said Ellen Bar-Zemer, a 73 year-old woman pepper sprayed in the face by a Wyatt Correctional Officer. “Someone asked a question about the responsibility that the Wyatt had. And [Neronha] said that was not anything that the state had any influence over. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘What? Do we have a private goon army in the State of Rhode Island?'”
At the protest outside the Attorney General’s Providence office Never Again Action organizer Tal Frieden read a statement from AMOR:
“As a group that is often engaged in direct action, the Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance (AMOR) is concerned by the announcement from Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha that the grand jury decided against indicting any of the Wyatt Detention Center Correctional Officers that physically harmed nonviolent protesters on August 14. This decision sets up a dangerous precedent around the kinds of actions law enforcement officers of any kind can take against protesters, community members not engaged in protest, and people detained at the Wyatt Detention Center. All community members should be concerned that a semi-public facility accepts these actions as standard procedure for their employees. We continue to hold solidarity with the people affected and the violence they experienced on August 14, and continue the struggle to shut down the Wyatt Detention Center, to release people detained there back to their families, and to transform it into something that provides a positive social impact for the City of Central Falls.”
Tal Frieden also read a statement from Never Again Action:
“We are greatly disappointed that Mr Woodworth will not be held accountable for his irresponsible, dangerous, and violent actions against peaceful protesters on August 14, nor will the officers who recklessly deployed pepper spray into the crowd that night. Yet, we are not surprised. Witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including those who were hit by the truck, reported that prosecutors focused only on the supposed ‘danger’ of unarmed protesters in an effort to justify Woodworth’s and his colleagues’ self-evidently indefensible actions. This strategy, employed by Attorney General Neronha’s prosecutors, is used repeatedly by investigators across the country probing police violence against citizens.
“This illuminates what communities of color have always known to be true. What Neronha announced, in effect, is that in the state of Rhode Island, there is no equal protection of the law. Immigrants can be imprisoned for no crime but seeking a better life for their families. People of color can be arrested for the most minor nonviolent drug crimes. But law enforcement—even privatized law enforcement—has no accountability for violently assaulting peaceful demonstrators.
“If these officers, acting in their official capacity, acted with such violence toward protesters, we can only imagine how they treat the immigrants and asylum-seekers in their charge on a regular basis. Mr Woodworth should be in jail but, more importantly, the Wyatt should be shut down, the state should ban all collaboration with ICE, and ICE detainees at the Wyatt should be freed.
“We condemn Neronha and his prosecutors for their handling of this case, and we once again call on Governor Raimondo, the General Assembly, and the Mayor and City Council of Central Falls to do everything in their power to shut this dangerous and immoral facility down, and to prevent its sale to a completely unaccountable out-of-state private prison company.”
Central Falls Mayor James Diossa released the following statement:
“I want to thank Attorney General Neronha and Colonel [James] Manni for their assistance in this investigation, but I am obviously disappointed with the results of the grand jury process. When I reached out to them after the incident and asked for their assistance, their response was immediate and positive, and I appreciate their collaboration with the Central Falls Police Department and their commitment to executing a thorough investigation. The investigators on this case spent countless hours conducting interviews and gathering evidence and I am grateful for their dedication and diligence.
“With the Wyatt being located in our city and the City receiving no financial benefit, Central Falls is in a challenging position. Ongoing mediation in Federal Court prevents me from providing much detail, but I will continue to work with city and state leaders to find ways to minimize the negative impacts of this facility on the life of our community.”
Colonel Barzykowski, Chief of the Central Falls Police Department also released a statement:
“We will continue to use our resources to protect those who exercise their right to assemble and speak freely in our streets. Public safety is paramount, and we will maintain order. We will continue to collaborate with our public safety partners and communicate with other involved parties to ensure safety at future gatherings.
“Our department received a tremendous amount of encouragement from the community following this incident. I am grateful for their trust and the opportunity to serve this great city.”
Colonel Barzykowski and Colonel Manni also answered some questions at the press conference:
A statement from Will Speck, co-chair of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America:
Jerry Belair, leaving the Attorney General’s Victim’s meeting:
Here’s the rest of the video from today:
Additional video from Attorney General Peter Neronha’s Press Conference:
Question: One of the protesters you spoke to this morning told me that you said the protesters didn’t do anything wrong. On hearing the news today she asked, ‘If we didn’t do anything wrong, why were we subjected to violence?” How would you answer that.
Question: Unlike a trial jury a grand jury doesn’t operate in a bubble. So likely they know that the central figure in this, the correctional officer Thomas Woodworth, resigned from the Wyatt. How much of a role do you think that played in the outcome?
Question: Do you believe as a prosecutor that criminal conduct took place?
Question: This morning, did you apologize to the people you spoke to about the outcome of this case?
Question: You mentioned the expectations you have for law enforcement. Are there going to be any expectations those correctional officers going forward about how they should handle these situations?
Additional video from the protest outside the Attorney General’s Providence office:
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