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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Accounts of police, protest behavior at Aug. 24 rally differ

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2011 at 11:37 AM

[Editor's note: Our print edition this week includes a dispatch on an Aug. 24 rally held to oppose acts of violence against LGBT residents. As Lauren Daley's piece notes, activists have expressed misgivings that a series of arrests at the rally have, at least in subsequent media coverage, obscured the reasons it was held in the first place. That said, the arrests themselves have raised questions about police/community relations. In this post, Daley looks more deeply into the accounts of police behavior that night.]

The Citizens Police Review Board is investigating the conduct of police officers after they arrested five people during a protest last week.

"We have an open inquiry on it," says CPRB executive director Beth Pittinger. "There are some allegations of efforts to intimidate the crowd … the use of canines with the crowd. … There are still questions about [how the police] control crowds that are gathered peacefully."

About 100 people gathered in front of the Bloomfield Drug Store on Liberty Avenue on Aug. 24 to rally for LGBT rights. Lauren Jurysta a 23-year-old Bloomfield resident, says she was confronted the night before.

Jurysta says she and Cheryl Sedlock were walking down Liberty Avenue from Armand's hand-in-hand, when a group of three men in white t-shirts and baggy jeans exited the Pleasure Bar. As both groups were crossing Liberty Avenue, Jurysta says one of the men began to harass them, calling them "fucking dyke bitches" and other slurs. Jurysta says she fired back with her own comments, and the two met on the other side of the street when the man pulled a gun out of his pants and pointed it at her face. The two continued their fight until their companions pulled them away from each other.

Jurysta has filed a police report.

Mobilizing via text message and Facebook, members of the city's LGBT community turned out for the impromptu protest. "It was an immediate response to the gather the community in support and solidarity, and for the community to learn what happened," Jurysta says. "We've got a tight-knit community that won't put up with this bullshit."

But the protest was met by another community: law enforcement. City officers showed up, according to police reports, after a report of protestors blocking traffic.

"A Zone 5 Supervisor explained the procedures to the group for conducting an orderly protest and provided the option to move to Friendship Park where they could peacefully rally," says a press release from the police bureau on the event. "They were permitted to march but they had to keep moving and could not block the sidewalk."

But "The crowd got very disorderly," says police spokeswoman Diane Richard. "That's why officers had to step in."

In a video of the Aug. 24 rally, one protestor is seen asking repeatedly why someone is being arrested. The officer in turn says "keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving. You are now under arrest" and cuffs the protestor.

Police charged five from the protest: Adam Staniszewski, Ryan Lee Williams, Stephan Goodman, Chelsea Toone and David Japenga. All were charged with obstructing highways and failure to disperse; Williams and Japenga were additionally cited with resisting arrest.

According to criminal complaints charging the five, police wrote that they were dispatched to the group blocking traffic. After repeated warnings, police say that the majority of the group moved to Friendship Park and the remainder "left a path on the sidewalk for pedestrians to pass." Zone 5 Lt. Jason Lando "ordered all police units to monitor the two groups and not to intervene as long as they were moving towards the park and not blocking the streets. K-9 units were in the area but did not deploy their dogs so as not to incite the crowd."

As the group left Friendship Park and began walking toward Children's Hospital, police reported, the sidewalks were completely obstructed. As more police arrived, "a group of 10-15 individuals dressed all in black, with black bookbags and black flags, marching in the street on Friendship. Traffic was unable to pass and the demonstrators were loud and unruly."

Five were then taken into custody.

"These were the demonstrators that were either blocking the street and/or playing an active roll [sic] in inciting the rest of the group by their loud and vulgar language," officer David Derbish wrote in the criminal complaints.

Thomas Waters, a local gay blogger says police started off "pleasant" and tried to help the protest go on peacefully. He says some protestors were calling the officers "homophobic pigs." But tensions escalated, according to Waters, as the protest moved along toward Friendship Park. "I watched one boy get pulled off the sidewalk and slammed against a car ... Everyone said, 'He didn't do anything.' The situation was very tense and out of control."

Police, he says, even confronted him for videorecording the event, forbidding him to photograph them then demanding to see his driver's license.

Other protestors say police were the ones agitating the crowd; one had an angry canine, says Ryan Williams, and others made comments to protestors, like telling one woman her child would go into protective services. "They were pointing and laughing at us," says Jessie Holmquist, who attended the rally. "They told us to march and that's what we did, then they arrested us." Holmquist also points out that at an anti-LGBT violence rally last year, police didn't even show up.

"I've been in protest situations where it's the most peaceful situation and the cops come in and make disgusting comments," says Williams. "How can you expect those people to protect you?"

Williams says police arrested people "seemingly at random," but also seemed to target some. Indeed, in the police report and subsequent media reports it's been noted that Japenga, who smashed $15,000 worth of windows during the G-20, was among those rounded up by police. Police event pointed that out in the charging documents for all five protestors, writing that "it should be noted" Japenga was the protestor responsible for the G-20 damage.

In a statement to City Paper, Japenga said he came out to support Jurysta, a friend of his.

"I saw the negative results of what happened at the G20 protest and I choose to get involved with this rally because I wanted to voice my opposition to homophobia and support of assault survivors in an atmosphere that was free of the criminal activity that marked the G20 protest."

Japenga has since reported for custody based on a probation violation – he's currently serving a five-year probation for the G-20 charges. He and the other four arrestees – since dubbed "The Friendship Five" face a preliminary hearing on Wednesday.

Staniszewski says that he doesn't believe the arrests overshadowed the cause for the rally: violence against the LGBT community. In fact, he says, it just put it on public display. "If anything a lot of people have experienced police intimidation and harassment in the past," he says. "This is par for the course."

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